A New Historicist Reading of Religion and Slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin      

Abstract

This essay will explore the life of slave masters and quakers under a new historicist approach and how slavery shaped the entire United States. This paper focuses on quakers and slave masters. The Quakers  noted the hypocrisy from the southern “Bible Belt masters and despite hardships, were able to show God’s love to African Americans on their journey to freedom and even a slave hunter. The Quakers were unbiased and genuinely wanted the best for all parties which meant to abolish slavery.  The theme of slavery and religion contradicting with one another is very evident throughout the entire novel which plays into the ideology of new historicism by proving how the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is very adequate in representation to its time period.

Keywords: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, new historicism, the bible belt, religion, slavery

Author Harriet Beecher Stowe helped ignite a flame of slave revolt by writing what is considered to be her most famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in response to the Fugitive Slave Act. This novel very adequately and very appropriately fits into the mold of new historicism in many ways. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a very societal relevant fictional novel for the time period in which it was published that proves itself to be influential. Slavery is coined as being “the condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching in the right of ownership are exercised, including where such a condition results from a debt or contract made by the person (What is Slavery). Though she had never visited the South, Stowe felt prepared to write a novel that would bring awareness and expose the reality of slavery, knowing that her work would be rejected by many typically those who were part of the South and agreed with slavery. The ironic component of slavery that is exposed throughout this novel however, is how religion in the “Bible Belt contradicted with slavery to outsiders, but was seemingly completely normal to Southerners. This essay will explore the life of slave masters and quakers under a new historicist approach and how slavery shaped the entire United States.

In order to wholly grasp the contradicting existence of slavery in a heavy religion region, one should have an absorption of the novel. The novel is initially set in Kentucky in 1852, on Mr. Arthur Shelby’s plantation, where Mas’r Shelby is planning to sell Uncle Tom and the adoloscent son of Eliza Harris and George Harris, who are on the run to Canada for freedom. Aunt Chloe, Uncle Tom’s wife, overhears the plan and tragedy set in at the plantation. Eliza and Harry flee from the plantation. The St.Claire family of New Orleans purchased Uncle Tom. Eva St. Claire sparks a friendship with Uncle Tom. The Mas’r plans to set Tom free to keep his promise to Eva, but he encounters a horrible incident, and loses his life. All of the St. Calire slaves are then sent to the auction block where Mr. Simone Legree purchases Tom. Mas’r Legree, an extremely mean slave owner, literally beats Tom to death. As for Eliza and Harry Harris, they find shelter each night in the homes of nearby Quakers. Eliza and George reunite with husband and father George Harris in the home of one such Quaker and escape to Canada, granting them freedom (Stowe).

This essay examines two divergent groups of people: plantation families and Quakers through a new historicist lens as the cornerstone of the novel. The plantation families generally patently approve slavery and the customs that are apart of slavery. Adversely, the Quakers take issue with any form of slavery, and make it their goal to help African Americans reach freedom. The location of slavery makes the act very contradictory as it is known as being the “bible belt. The Urban Dictionary online defines the “bible belt as “an area of the southern United States with a large protestant (i.e. Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ) church attending population. Most of these people remain ignorant of their own beliefs, do not follow the laws they preach, and relentlessly attempt to convert those who do not follow their sect (Itsjustluck). This definition is confirmed by the mere fact that the majority, if not all, members of the bible belt partook in slavery. During the 1800’s religion was arguably customary which is evidence that the individuals were not internally religious, they were externally religious because it was expected of them. Their souls were not in the religion that they practiced or else they would not have been participating in such inhumane behavior. This hypothesis is backed by the 1850 census which states that Mississippi had 1,016 churches, Alabama had 1,375 churches, Georgia had 1,868 churches, Tennessee had 2,027 churches, and Kentucky had 1,845 churches (Social Explorer). In Janet Duitsman Cornelius article “When I can Read My Title Clear” Cornelius explains that William Bosman told an African legend on behalf of the white population to brainwash African American slaves (Cornelius 12). The story’s message argued that caucasian individuals were placed on Earth to have power over African Americans. This legend was designed and told in order to account for the behavior of white southerners as well as to make them feel better about their treatment of others. Because religion was very prominent in the South, it was easy to excuse their actions by claiming it to be God’s divinity.

The Quakers played a significant role in the abolition of slavery as they continued to a reliable place of peace and restoration, aiding enslaved African Americans on their journey to freedom. The Quaker system of beliefs was introduced by William Penn. Other leaders such as Anthony Benezet and John Woolman urged masters to release their slaves. Quakers labored for the abolition of slavery and furnished essentials such as food, shelter, and comfort for escaped slaves who were trying to cross over into the North. The Quakers easily noticed the hypocrisy from the slave masters who depicted an image of religion and faith. (Juang 116). Throughout the novel, Quakers aid George and Eliza Harris along with their son, Harry more than once. After Eliza hears of the plan for her young son to be sold, the mother and son esc. Members of the Quaker group welcomed Eliza and Harry into their homes time after time and supplied them with survival necessities. It is evident that the Quakers paid close attention and cared for their runaway guests. Fearful that she would never see her husband again due to his own journey to freedom,  Eliza and George were soon enough reunited, and they soon embarked on the journey towards freedom together. Slave hunter Tom Locker was on the path of capturing the run away family, but he got wounded trying to do so. A nearby Quaker nurse noticed Tom Locker, who was a slave hunter, was injured. Although she did not agree with what Tom Locker was doing in hunting runaway slaves, she tended to him and got him back to good health. This scenario alone is adequate proof that the Quakers practiced pure, holistic beliefs of Christianity. Due to the the nurse’s loving actions, Tom Loker unreservedly altered his perspective on slavery for the better. He cautioned the Harrises that it was in their best interest to move quickly during their journey to avoid being captured by slave hunters. Taking Tom Loker’s advice, Eliza cut her hair off like a boy, and dressed Harry as a girl in order to better disguise themselves for the duration of the journey. The Quakers successfully left their mark on African Americans as well as individuals who were pro-slavery. For example, not only did Tom Locker change his perspective, but he changed his actions and vowed to help the slaves instead of hurt him that he had done previously. Although Eliza had been treated so poorly by the so-called religious slave masters, she continued to have faith in God. One sees transparent evidence of this whenever she says to her husband, “‘Don’t fear,’ said Eliza hopefully. ‘The good Lord would not have brought us so far if He didn’t mean to save us. I seem to feel Him with us, George’ (Stowe). This dialogue demonstrates that slaves did not permit their oppression to affect their strong beliefs in God. In a slave’s diary of the north and south, one reads ‘”Thank God!’ they say, ‘We are freed from that tyranny at last.’ Readers could sufficiently gather that this is the joyful, free sensation that the Harris family gained after intersecting into Canada (Russell 54).

Throughout the text, the important role religion is very evident in the lives of enslaved African Americans. For example, Uncle Tom sustains rest in the comfort of God as well as uses the Eva as a religious channel in his life. After Tom hit rock bottom, Eva’s faith motivated him to sustain in his faith. While white southerners portrayed the ideas of being the most religious community in America,  one could adequately assume that the enslaved African Americans of depicted more religious and faith based values than those who were “bible beaters.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the hypothesis of slavery and religion as a contradicting theme with one another is visibly prominent. Nearing the end of the novel, readers could gather that Harriet Beecher Stowe intentionally integrates the text below,

“Are not these dread words for a nation bearing in her bosom so mighty an injustice? Christians! every time that you pray that the kingdom of Christ may come, can you forget that prophecy associates, in dread fellowship, the day of vengeance with the year of his redeemed? A day of grace is yet held out to us. Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian church has a heavy account to answer. Not by combining together, to protect injustice and cruelty, and making a common capital of sin, is this Union to be saved, but by repentance, justice and mercy; for, not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks in the ocean, than that stronger law, by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God (Stowe 1187-1188).

Religion played a rather complex role in the years foregoing the Civil War. Beliefs, behaviors, and values simply meant different things to different people who used religion to justify a plethora of actions. Quakers applied religion to show that the belief of God’s love caused them to support the abolition movement, on equally the business side as well as the safety and health side. Contrary to the Quakers, plantation families used biblical writing out of context to account for the practice of slavery and to deem it being religiously and biblically approved.  Furthermore, they misled slaves by making the theory up that it was God’s purpose for whites to maintain power over African Americans in order to place control over them.  Like wise, religion to blacks meant something completely contrasting. Many African Americans adopted a faith-based set of beliefs in order to get them through the tough days of being enslaved. Often time, slave owners did not allow this, possibly because they did not want their slaves to find out that it was not God’s intention for them to be ruled by caucasians. This forced slaves to gather in secret churches which is great proof of God’s power and grace. Religion and aspirations of a greater life after death supplied them the will to live and more, something that was essentially and completely theirs that absolutely could not be taken away no matter what. Whether justifying slavery, justifying breaking the law, or simply giving hope, religion played a major, and undeniable, role in slavery.

References

  1. Cornelius, Janet Duitsman. ‘When I Can Read My Title Clear’ : Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South. University of South Carolina Press, 1991. EBSCOhost, umiss.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=50878&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Web. Web. 19 November 2018.
  2. Harriet Beecher Stowe. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin. iBooks. https://itun.es/us/l8Szx.l Web. Web. 19 November 2018.
  3. “Bible+belt.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., 22 Mar. 2004. Web. Web. 19 November 2018.
  4. Juang, Richard M. Quakers: Africa and the Americas : Culture, Politics, and History : A Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia. Vol. III. N.p.: n.p., 2008. 116. Print.
  5. Russell , William H. My Diary North and South. New York : Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1863. Print.
  6. “What is slavery?” Anti Slavery Australia – Working to Abolish Slavery. N.p., n.d. Web. Web. 19 November 2018.
  7. 1850 Census. Religion, 1850. Prepared by Social Explorer. permalink URL. Web. 19 November 2018.

Reflection

After reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I soon realized that this book could easily be written through the lens of new historicism. First and foremost, I learned about the history of my “home” the bible-belt. Being from the deep South, slavery is something that I feel is kind of brushed under the rug in the public education system arguably because we are too embarrassed to recognize what our ancestors done in the past. Reading this novel opened my eyes to the harsh conditions that slaves went through day in and day out. Women were objectified, men were beaten and battered, and children suffered greatly. The African American population was ridiculed by white slave owners in the bible-belt however, these actions contradicted the beliefs of the bible-belt, or so they should have. It took people out side of the bible-belt to show the enslaved African Americans God’s love and mercy. This is where the new historicism came into play for me. Because I was so intrigued by not only the topic but also the contradiction of the actions of the white people, I was eager to write down my thoughts and research to find out just how true Harriet Beecher  Stowe’s novel is. Unsurprisingly, I found that Stowe’s novel was written quite adequately and well and that it fits the new historicism mold well. Reading this novel and conducting research on it was however quite painful considering that I had been sheltered from the reality of what slavery was like. Not only did I learn about my heritage and my home throughout this, I learned how to connect it to a theory and got to see the two merge together before my own eyes. This essay was very fun for me to write in all honesty and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to dive deeper into the subject. My writing process was easy as I annotated sources and wrote the paper at the same time which helped me be able to integrate new historicism research.

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