Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novella Uncle Tom’s Cabin was such a smashing success is spawned an industry of imitators and several dozens Southern proslavery rebuttal novels as well. Proslavery criticism was so hateful and continuous, in fact, she moved quickly to produce factual defense of her portrayal of slavery. The result was A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin published in 1853. In it, she did not stop at rebutting proslavery propaganda, but fully exposed and confessed the complicity of northern and general American sins as well.
One of the greatest of these sins was the racism that lay at the root of the slave system, and which would continue long after it, even unto today. During the research for my The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, I crossed some valuable information that did not make it into the final form of the book. Here is one passage that stood out to me for its candor and earnest confession:
It is very easy to see that, although slavery has been abolished in the New England States, it has left behind it the most baneful feature of the system—that which makes American worse than Roman slavery—the prejudice of caste and color. In the New England States the negro has been treated as belonging to an inferior race of beings; forced to sit apart by himself in the place of worship; his children excluded from the schools; himself excluded from the railroad-car and the omnibus, and the peculiarities of his race made the subject of bitter contempt and ridicule.
This course of conduct has been justified by saying that they are a degraded race. But how came they degraded? Take any class of men, and shut them from the means of education, deprive them of hope and self-respect, close to them all avenues of honorable ambition, and you will make just such a race of them as the negroes have been among us.
So singular and so melancholy is the dominion of prejudice over the human mind, that professors of Christianity in our New England States have often, with very serious self-denial to themselves, sent the gospel to heathen as dark-complexioned as the Africans, when in their very neighborhood were persons of dark complexion, who, on that account, were forbidden to send their children to the schools and discouraged from entering the churches. The effect of this has been directly to degrade and depress the race; and then this very degradation and depression has been pleaded as the reason for continuing this course.1
Her solution to the problem was just as simple and blunt as her diagnosis of it:
Those who are anxious to do something directly to improve the condition of the slave can do it in no way so directly as by elevating the condition of the free colored people around them, and taking every pains to give them equal rights and privileges.
The failure to do this simple but socially-forbidden task, she noted, gave occasion to the southerners to blaspheme, so to speak—that is, to prefer their own peculiar system of handling the common prejudice as superior to the hypocrisy of the northerners.
This unchristian prejudice has doubtless stood in the way of the emancipation of hundreds of slaves. The slaveholder, feeling and acknowledging the evils of slavery, has come to the North, and seen evidences of this unkindly and unchristian state of feeling towards the slave, and has thus reflected within himself:
“If I keep my slave at the South, he is, it is true, under the dominion of a very severe law; but then he enjoys the advantage of my friendship and assistance, and derives, through his connection with me and my family, some kind of a position in the community. As my servant, he is allowed a seat in the car, and a place at the table. But if I emancipate and send him North, he will encounter substantially all the disadvantages of slavery, with no master to protect him.”
This mode of reasoning has proved an apology to many a man for keeping his slaves in a position which he confesses to be a bad one; and it will be at once perceived that, should the position of the negro be conspicuously reversed in our Northern States, the effect upon the emancipation of the slave would be very great. They, then, who keep up this prejudice may be said to be, in a certain sense, slave-holders. . . .
The negro should not be lifted out of his sphere of life because he is a negro; but he should be treated with Christian courtesy in his sphere. In the railroad car, in the omnibus and steamboat, all ranks and degrees of white persons move with unquestioned freedom side by side; and Christianity requires that the negro have the same privilege.2
Diagnosing one’s own racism and socially-enforced privilege of something so simple as freedom demands correction from the Christian. Calling out the reality of such disparity and demanding the correction of it, however, too often provoked countercalls of so-called reverse racism or of giving special privileges to people only because they were black.
Aside from the oblivious arrogance of such a comeback, it shows a particularly reactionary form of Christianity—one that is conditioned by the prejudices and sins of its environment and not by the principles of its Lord. Yet Stowe’s plea here is one that cuts to the principle of the matter, and demands repentance and fruit meet for repentance. As such, it provides a sound baseline for similar discussions of race relations yet today.
There will be those who snark still at the fact that Mrs. Stowe may have departed from orthodox Calvinism or perhaps even Christianity on this or that point, as if that were the issue. On social issues, I will work with those who see God’s law clearly and obey it rather than wait for the professing orthodox who don’t. Those who spend more time parsing the minutiae of the Confessions while ignoring the glaring need for love in their own back yards have missed the weightier matters of the law.