Harriet Beecher Stowe's Theological Transition

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Theological Transition

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Theological Transition, as Presented in the New England Novel, Oldtown Folks
When one hears the name Harriet Beecher Stowe, the inevitable association is made with her most well-known novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. But, in addition to Uncle Tom's Cabin, she published several novels, personal recollections, shorter works, specifically religious writings, and stories for children, which were compiled and published in sixteen volumes as The Writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1896). Mrs. Stowe published four books known collectively as her New England novels: The Minister's Wooing (1859), The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), Oldtown Folks (1869), and Poganuc People (1878). The novels were published over a nineteen-year period and provide a perspective through Stowe's characters of her own change in thinking regarding theology. Some of the recurring topics in the series include: Calvinism in general, Arminianism, regeneration and salvation, the Puritan Sabbath, original sin, and the Episcopal Church.  The page references used in the following citations to Oldtown Folks refer to volumes 10 and 11 of Stowe's Writings.  But before entering Stowe's New England painted with the brush of her memories in Oldtown Folks, some biographical information will be helpful.

Harriet Elizabeth Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, June 14, 1811. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a Congregational and Presbyterian minister trained in the New England theology at Yale during the presidency of Timothy Dwight. Her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was ordained in the New School Presbytery of Cincinnati in 1838, after having been refused ordination by the Old School. Harriet's mother, Roxana Foote Beecher, was raised an Episcopalian. Roxana died in 1816 when Harriet was only four years old. In 1817, Lyman married his second wife, Harriet Porter. Harriet Porter raised young Harriet Stowe until the latter was thirteen years old, at which point she went to live at her sister Catherine's school, Hartford Female Seminary. Two aspects of Harriet's curriculum at Hartford that were unusual for an antebellum woman to study were Latin and William Paley's The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785). In 1832, Lyman and the family, including unmarried Catherine and Harriet, moved to Cincinnati so he could become director of Lane Theological Seminary. In August of 1834 Eliza Tyler Stowe, a friend of Harriet and the wife of Calvin Stowe, died of Cholera. Harriet married Calvin Stowe just a few years after the death of Eliza. Between 1836 and 1850, Harriet and Calvin had seven children. Her first book, The Mayflower (1843), was a collection of biographical sketches of Pilgrim descendants. In 1850, Harriet and Calvin moved to Maine so he could teach at Bowdoin College. Calvin died in 1886; Harriet died on July 1, 1896.

Stowe's novel Oldtown Folks is the story of life in the small town of Oldtown, Massachusetts.  The main character is Horace Holyoke, who also serves as the narrator of the story. Two orphaned children, Harry and Tina, expand the cast of characters; they lost their mother to death and their father deserted them. The brother and sister were separated from each other when they were adopted. Harry lived with a local alcoholic and his wife; Tina was taken in by a mean woman named Miss Asphyxia. Tina and Harry ran away from their abusive environments. Tina was adopted by Miss Mehitable Rossiter, and Harry was adopted by Horace Holyoke's mother, Suzy. The story continues in both Oldtown and a village called Cloudland. Oldtown is described as a, "severe Puritanical village" (10:373). Horace's grandmother is described as a, "disciple of the sharpest and severest Calvinism" (10:428). The character of Rev. Moses Stern is present to represent the stern and hard nature of the strictest Calvinism. In contrast to Oldtown's Dr. Stern, Stowe presents the kinder, gentler, Rev. Mr. Avery in Cloudland. Avery's theology was permeated with cheerfulness and hope. Another villain appears named Ellery Davenport, who is described as a grandson of Jonathan Edwards. Orphan Tina falls in love with Ellery and they are married. Early in the marriage Tina found out that Ellery had been living with another woman out-of-wedlock earlier in his life. Tina and Ellery move to England. After about ten years of turbulent marriage, Ellery dies in a duel and Tina is freed from her bad marriage.

Oldtown Folks presents a paradigmatic expression of small town New England and its diverse citizens. Stowe wrote about what she knew best, which was the life and times in which she grew up and lived. Stowe's character, Miss Mehitable Rossiter, exemplified in her life what Stowe believed was the continued anguish of heart and soul induced by Calvinism. Miss Mehitable's concern regarding salvation extended to her family members as she struggled with her sister Emily's unbelief (10:247-250). In Stowe's own life she faced increasing turmoil and anguish as she attempted to reconcile some of the events of her life with what she had learned to be Calvinism. Miss Mehitable's struggle with salvation reflects Stowe's own doubts and conflicts as she moved farther and farther from what she perceived to be "Old Calvinism," to what she considered to be a less oppressive "New Calvinism," and then on to the Episcopal Church and Arminianism.

Stowe's opposition to Calvinism is not only apparent in the positive light she casts on Arminian theology, but in her assessment of the political atmosphere of the day and its relevance to her theological past. Stowe believed that Calvinism found its basis and support in monarchical government and that once the ties to monarchy were broken successfully by the American Revolution, it was inevitable that Calvinism would begin to wane as a theologically acceptable system. So, a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" could not abide belief in the sovereign God. For Stowe, divine sovereignty and the sovereignty of the earthly king went hand in hand.

Stowe presents Arminian theology in a positive light in the character of Parson Lothrop.  Lothrop's early theological background was Calvinism, but as he aged his theology aligned more and more with his congenial personality (10:6). Generally, as Stowe moved personally from Old Calvinism, to the New England theology, to Arminianism and Episcopalianism, her fictional characters show the transition by the newer religious view being shown in the gregarious, kind, and friendly characters, but the older system is represented by the stern and cold characters.  Further, Lothrop's breaking with his Calvinist past is described as associating him with
a numerous class in the third generation of Massachusetts clergy, commonly called Arminian, - men in whom this insensible change had been wrought from the sharply defined and pronounced Calvinism of the early fathers. They were mostly scholarly, quiet men, of calm and philosophic temperament, who, having from infancy walked in all the traditions of a virtuous and pious education, and passed from grade to grade of their progress with irreproachable quiet and decorum, came to regard the spiritual struggles and conflicts, the wrestlings and tears, the fastings and temptations of their ancestors with a secret skepticism, - to dwell on moralities, virtues, and decorums, rather than on those soul-stirring spiritual mysteries which still stood forth unquestioned and uncontradicted in their confessions of faith.  (10:6)
Lothrop had separated from his Calvinist roots. The description is that of a contemplative, wise, and pious minister. Lothrop exhibited righteousness as he thought about the stirring of the soul and did not dwell on moralities, virtues, and decorums. Stowe presents Lothrop as a selfless minister who faithfully visited the members of his church. On one occasion, as he was leaving his home to visit a bereaved member, his wife thought to herself that even though he was not in the Church of England, he "was every way fitted to adorn it had he only been there" (10:11).  Stowe's description of Lothrop as acceptable to the Church of England showed the changes taking place in the religious life of New England and the transition in Stowe's thinking as she moved from Calvinism to what she perceived was the kinder and gentler Arminian soteriology.

Her assessment of the Calvinists of old was not totally negative because Stowe credited them with exemplary pious living. The Calvinists of New England's past were obsessed with the quest for truth. Truth at any cost was the goal of New Englanders, according to Stowe, but truth which was particularly grim, dark, and duty oriented suited them the most. Before Stowe presented her characterization of Horace Holyoke's grandmother she commented that New Englanders
never expected to find truth agreeable. Nothing in their experience of life had ever prepared them to think it would be so. Their investigations were made with the courage of the man who hopes little, but determines to know the worst of his affairs. They wanted no smoke of incense to blind them, and no soft opiates of pictures and music to lull them; for what they were after was truth, and not happiness, and they valued duty far higher than enjoyment. The underlying foundation of life, therefore, in New England, was one of profound, unutterable, and therefore unuttered, melancholy, which regarded human existence itself as a ghastly risk, and, in the case of the vast majority of human beings, an inconceivable misfortune. (10:421)
Stowe has moved considerably from her rejection of Old Calvinism and acceptance of New Calvinism in the first New England novel, The Minister's Wooing, to a rejection of Calvinism which she believed had poisoned New England life. The truth found by Stowe's ancestors, she believed, was a truth devoid of passion and sensitivity.

One of the characters introduced in Oldtown Folks is the local ner-do-well and jack-of-all-trades, Sam Lawson. As Mrs. Stowe prepares for the introduction of Lawson, she observes that every "New England village, if you only think of it, must have its do-nothing as regularly as it has its school-house or meeting-house" (10:32). Sam was skilled at some trades and even had a blacksmith shop. Sometimes, when Sam felt moved, he would open the shop for business and shoe a horse or two. But, Sam's forte was doing nothing while he talked about something. On one occasion, when asked his opinion of Parson Simpson's sermon, Sam readily presented his opinion as he said:
"Wal," said Sam, leaning over the fire, with his long, bony hands alternately raised to catch the warmth, and then dropped with an utter laxness, when the warmth become too pronounced, "Parson Simpson's a smart man; but, I tell ye, it's kind o' discouragin'.  Why, he said our state and condition by natur' was just like this. We was clear down in a well fifty feet deep, and the sides all round nothin' but glare ice; but we was under immediate obligations to get out, cause we was free, voluntary agents. But nobody ever had got out, and nobody would, unless the Lord reached down and took 'em. And whether he would or not nobody could tell; it was all sovereignty. He said there wa'n't one in a hundred, - not one in a thousand, - not one in ten thousand, - that would be saved. Lordy massy, says I to myself, ef that's so, they're any of 'em welcome to my chance. And so I kin o'ris up and come out, 'cause I'd got a pretty long walk home, and I wanted to go round by South Pond, and inquire about Aunt Sally Morse's toothache." (10:83-84)
Do-nothing Sam says nothing specifically about Calvinism, but it is clear that Calvinism is the subject of discussion because Sam's comments mention the sovereign act of God in salvation.  Charles Foster has written of Calvinism's "rungless ladder" in his book The Rungless Ladder; Sam Lawson expresses the same concept using his well with walls of ice. Do-nothing Sam believed the message of Parson Simpson was absurd, the odds against Sam were tremendous, and he figured he was wasting his time, so he left to go about his business. The theology presented by Sam Lawson represents Stowe's perception of Old Calvinism: one is a sinner, salvation is needed, the grace of Christ is the answer, but the sinner cannot do anything, so he must wait, wait, and wait some more for God to act.

Mr. Avery is characterized by Stowe as an enlightened and modern minister in the village of Cloudland. Horace Holyoke described Avery's preaching as manly preaching involving the full use of one's reasoning abilities. Central to Avery's theology was the free agency of man.  Horace said that every line of his sermons proclaimed, "you are free, and you are able," and as a  result of this truth he emphasized the personal responsibility that each one of his listener's bears (11:59). But despite this emphasis on the free agency of man, Avery still considered himself a Calvinist. Horace notes the difficulties of Avery's position as he commented
Of course, as a Calvinist, he found food for abundant discourse in reconciling this absolute freedom of man with those declarations in the standards of the Church which assert the absolute government of God over all his creatures and all their actions. But the cheerfulness and vigor with which he drove and interpreted and hammered in the most contradictory statements, when they came in the way of his favorite ideas, was really quite inspiring. (11:59)
The issue raised by Stowe's introduction of Avery is whether or not one can be a Calvinist and believe in the total and complete free agency of man. God is either sovereign and acts sovereignly, as Calvinism affirms, or God is not sovereign in salvation and the application of redemption comes through the agency of man. To put it simply, Avery believed himself a professing Calvinist, but a practicing Arminian.


At the time of the writing of Oldtown Folks, Harriet Beecher Stowe's dissatisfaction with Calvinism, whether it was the Old Calvinism of New England Puritanism or the New Calvinism of New England and Yale, had developed to the point where she broke with their teachings. For her, the doctrine of God's sovereignty was a rigid and harsh teaching that could no longer be accepted by citizens of independent America. The common man must no longer accept the monarchical rule of God; there is neither a king in New England nor one in heaven. There is no longer any place for doctrines that lead poor souls to fret and worry over their eternal destiny or that of their loved ones. Calvinism, for Stowe, was no longer pleasing, but Arminianism was looking more and more acceptable to the minds of the common New Englander and in the thinking of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mrs. Stowe was an influential writer in her day, which was clearly shown with Uncle Tom's Cabin. Additionally, her New England novels, having first been published as serials and then as books, would have appealed to many readers. Her presentation of New England Puritanism, Calvinism in general, the New England theology, and Arminianism, influenced the thinking of many of her readers and contributed especially to the depreciation of Calvinism in her time.
Dr. Barry Waugh is a researcher and writer who has written for The Westminster Theological Journal and The Confessional Presbyterian. He is the editor of Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen's Correspondence from World War I (P&R 2012). The subject of his dissertation was the Westminster Confession of Faith.