HARTFORD, CT, April 26, 2012 – Author Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ellen White, prophet and co-founder of Adventism, played instrumental roles in the context of 19th century American Christianity, particularly during the volatile decade of the 1840s, when institutional churches were divided over the issue of slavery.
That was one of the major themes of the annual Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture in European and American Art, Culture and History, delivered April 23 by Joan D. Hedrick, Charles A. Dana professor of History and winner of the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for her book, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life.
“The most important parallel between Ellen White and Harriet Beecher Stowe is that for both, visions provided both an oppositional plan and a way forward at a time of group and national confusion, respectively,” said Hedrick. “Both Stowe and White excoriated the complicity of organized religion in perpetuating slavery.”
Hedrick described that period in U.S. history as a time of great flux, when a number of women became outspoken seers, speakers and writers. Hedrick’s talk largely focused on the role of White, who is not as well known as Stowe, “in the early, radical period of Adventism” and on Stowe’s “religious experiences in decades leading up to the Civil War.” Stowe is best known for her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti-slave novel published in 1852 and which some believed helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century.
Both White, who is best known as a co-founder of what is now called the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Stowe made their mark through their ability to see, to picture, and to bring others into their vision, according to Hedrick.
White, who was born near Portland, ME, was raised in the shouting Methodist tradition, known for “its exuberant preaching and strong reactions from the congregation, including fits, trances and sometimes visions,” Hedrick said. Ultimately, White and her family were tossed out of the church and became followers of William Miller, who gained fame for his preaching about the second coming of Christ and the end of the world.
At the age of 17, White had a vision that became the basis of her authority and “the rock upon which the denomination” would be founded. She saw the people of God walking along the road to the heavenly city. Subsequent to that, White saw numerous visions, including one revealing the commandment to celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, which became an important marker of Adventist identity.
Together with her husband, James White, Ellen White traveled around New England preaching the message. After her husband died, Ellen White became the force that held Adventists together. “When the church was facing a decision,” said Hedrick. “She would often have a vision.”
Stowe, who shared Adventism’s skepticism of the State, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in response to the passage of a law in 1850 that required northerners to help capture runaway slaves and return them to their masters. Shortly after the passage of that law, Stowe was in church and instead of seeing Christ on the cross, she saw an image of a slave being whipped. In the novel that grew out of this vision, Stowe urged people to practice civil disobedience against what she viewed as a patently unchristian law.
Hedrick surmised that 19th century black religion was a source of inspiration for Stowe and White. “Apocalyptic imagery was common in slave religion as practiced and in camp meetings, where it produced powerful and unsettling effects on the slaves,” she noted.
Both women were critical of the complicity of organized religion in perpetuating slavery. To Stowe, Hedrick said, the silence of the clergy was “a mark of cowardice on the part of those who should be raising prophetic voices.” To White, the complicity of the church “was a sign that the end times were coming.” In a sense, Hedrick explained, the Civil War empowered women to speak due, in part, to the dual issues of slavery and freedom.
At the time, during the radically anti-institutional phase of Adventism, other links could be drawn between Stowe and White. A number of Adventists were influenced by the holiness movement, which Hedrick termed an attempt to return to the simplicity of primitive Christianity. Instead of worshipping in churches, members of certain congregations held meetings in their own homes and in meetings, placing a special emphasis and premium on subjective experience. The holiness movement added “sanctification,” a state of complete holiness achieved by an immediate experience of the divine, Hedrick said.
For Stowe, the holiness movement “lit the emotional fuse that allowed her to combine the intensity of subjective spiritual experience with the imperative to act in the world,” said Hedrick. “It was arguably her contact with holiness meetings that unlocked her own emotional expressiveness and visionary imagination, and suggested the method through which Uncle Tom’s Cabin would provoke a powerful emotional response.”
Interestingly, White was not a fan of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, said Hedrick, believing that fiction was the devil’s work and that, at the very least, it confused seekers of truth by mixing fact and fiction. However, Hedrick noted that White recognized in Stowe “commonalities of subjective religious experience and objective struggles to have women’s voices heard.”
In conclusion, Hedrick said, neither White nor Stowe directly challenged the cult of true womanhood, “but by taking to heart the injunction to be pious, they both prophesied to the nation and peoples of the world. In the liminal space between time and eternity, slavery and freedom, women’s sphere and men’s, they found influential ways to speak ‘the present truth’.”
The Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture in European and American Art, Culture and History is an outgrowth of a fund established in 1996 in her memory by friends, family and her husband, Joseph F. Wassong, Jr., ’59. The annual lecture features members of Trinity’s faculty and guest scholars in alternating years. The lecturers are from various academic disciplines, and their topics range from antiquity to the present day.
View more photos from this event.