The great battles to end American slavery were fought not only by soldiers at Gettysburg and Antietam but also by activists and artists who wrote the great antislavery texts of the early nineteenth century. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, abolitionists cultivated a dense rhetorical landscape of antislavery newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and slave narratives, according to abolition scholar Ford Risley, using words to gut the “peculiar institution” and imagine national freedom from slavery. However, the language of abolition was neither monolithic nor unified. As historian Stanley Harrold (2001, 3) contends, the antislavery movement of the nineteenth century was “prone to factionalism” along regional, ideological, and methodological lines. While radical abolitionists demanded immediate and full freedom, moderates and conservatives argued for a gradual, economically motivated emancipation that often considered financial compensation for slave owners and encouraged the colonization of free blacks in Africa.

The Bible, as Emerson B. Powery and Rodney S. Sadler Jr. (2016) have argued, was particularly volatile for writers of abolition. The Bible was a persuasive weapon for both slavery and antislavery advocates who appealed to a biblically literate American public with competing scriptural accounts. Abolitionists, for example, excoriated slave owners as the godless “menstealers” the Apostle Paul condemned in his first letter to Timothy (1:9–10) while defenders of slavery lionized Paul’s willingness, just a few books later, to return Onesimus to his master Philemon. Such scriptural shape-shifting elicited vitriolic and competing responses from many antislavery activists. The minister and radical proponent of violent insurrection Henry Highland Garnet, for example, promoted what he understood to be scripture’s inherent liberation message and advocated for the distribution of contraband Bibles throughout the south. Editor of The Liberator and staunch pacifist William Lloyd Garrison, in contrast, rejected the Bible as a text irrevocably tarnished by proslavery interpretation and thus useless to the work of abolition. Frederick Douglass (2003, 100), the great orator, writer, and editor, held evolving views of the Bible (Hutchins 2013) as he distinguished, with waning conviction throughout his career, between what he named the enslaving “Christianity of this land” and the freeing “Christianity of Christ.” As the examples of Garnet, Garrison, and Douglass illustrate, the Bible was a particularly divisive issue within a fractious and often volatile movement. The explosion of abolition fiction in the decade before the Civil War, however, can be seen as a kind of stabilizing force for antislavery writers. Though authors of abolition fiction, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Wilson, and Martin Delany, certainly did not agree on the methods, goals, or scriptural orientation of the movement, they rallied around the rhetorical potential of imaginative writing. Anxious about the dangers of a Bible “of this land,” to borrow Douglass’s language, these writers used fiction to redeem and reimagine the biblical text.

Fiction was a risky endeavor for antislavery writers. Defenders of slavery routinely charged abolitionists with exaggerated, deceptive, and false claims about slavery’s horrors, so antislavery activists traditionally cultivated what they deemed legitimate, reality-based prose genres, namely editorial journalism and autobiographical slave narratives. Even within these genres, writers and editors repeatedly insisted on their truthful depiction of slavery. To that end, Garrison (2003, 7) famously introduced Douglass’s Narrative with a statement of truth intended to assure a skeptical public especially suspicious of the credibility of black writers like Douglass that the Narrative was guided by “facts” and not “imagination.” The landscape of antislavery writing tilted toward fiction in 1851 when Harriet Beecher Stowe began to publish Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era. Capitalizing on the boom of slave narratives in the 1840s, driven by writers, such as Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Josiah Henson, and building on a few popular antislavery short stories, Stowe’s sentimental novel was the first major work of antislavery fiction. It became an instant success as American readers devoured the story of noble Tom, heroic Eliza, and saintly Eva first in weekly installments and then as a complete book advertised well before the final serial installment. Never before had the American public read an abolitionist text so widely. Soon other abolitionist writers, even those who disagreed vehemently with Stowe’s particular antislavery beliefs, were turning to fiction as well.

As a devout reader of scripture, Stowe filled her novel with biblical utterances, which shaped the logic, ethics, and aesthetics of her abolitionist vision, but she also feared the very real threat of manmade exegesis. Stowe (2010, 168) voices this anxiety more than once in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, most vociferously in the words of the ambivalent slave owner Augustine St. Claire: “Suppose that something should bring down the price of cotton once and forever, and make the whole slave property a drug in the market, don’t you think we should soon have another version of the Scripture doctrine? What a flood of light would pour into the church, all at once, and how immediately it would be discovered that everything in the Bible and reason went the other way?” With this in mind, Stowe’s biblical utterances must be read not only as faithful repetitions of her beloved sacred language but also a reinvention of the tarnished sacred text. Stowe knew, according to Anne-Janine Morey (1987, 744, 748), that “by itself, the Bible may be helpless to resist dissection” by morally bankrupt advocates of slavery, so she crafted a kind of apocryphal “literary vision” to “complement” and indeed redeem “the ancient text.”

Stowe uses the direct reader appeal of nineteenth-century sentimental fiction not only to elicit a best reading of the novel but also of scripture. She instructs readers in a visionary biblical hermeneutic modeled explicitly through Tom’s own reading of scripture. Tom is introduced early in the novel as “a sort of patriarch in religious matters” and “a sort of minister” on the Kentucky plantation where he has spent his life (Stowe 2010, 27). Stowe’s repetition of the phrase “a sort” suggests her reluctance to identify Tom with powerful figures of institutionalized religion. Instead, she characterizes Tom as an anti-institutional biblical voice whose “sincere style” distinguishes him from the contrived biblical practices of “better educated persons” (Stowe 2010, 27). Like Stowe herself, Tom’s speech is “enriched with the language of scripture, which seemed so entirely to have wrought itself into his being, as to have become a part of himself, and to drop from his lips unconsciously” (Stowe 2010, 27). Tom’s voice and the biblical voice intertwine as one, but at this early point, his reading practices are withheld and even denied as Tom’s wife Chloe solicits the child master George to read from Revelations. Such moments understandably lead Michael Bennet (2005, 128) to condemn Tom’s biblical language: “Stowe [uses] Tom like a ventriloquist’s dummy… Tom literally has nothing to say that is not a parroting of Christian doctrine.” While fair to an extent, such a response under-reads Tom’s character as both a direct and creative reader of the Bible.

Away from Master George and the Kentucky plantation, Tom’s creative biblical reading begins to open his character. In a pivotal moment, just when Tom is separated from his wife and children and abruptly sold to the despicable trader Haley, Stowe seats the two in a wagon, slave and temporary master “side by side” as men but distinct as readers (2010, 105). Haley is “not a remarkably fluent reader,” a critique of his apathetic stuttering as he sounds out a newspaper advertisement announcing the sale of “Hagar, aged 60; John, aged 30; Ben, aged 21; Saul, aged 25; Albert, aged 14” (Stowe 2010, 106). Tom, in contrast, imagines “an ancient volume” opened to a well-known passage in Hebrews 13: “We have here no continuing city, but we seek one to come; wherefore God himself is not ashamed to be called our God; for he hath prepared for us a city” (Stowe 2010, 106). While Haley holds physically to the corrupt newspaper page advertising the sale of humans, Tom imagines a sacred text and introduces himself as a creative biblical reader moved to “courage, energy, and enthusiasm” both by scripture and his own imaginative capacity to “wonder” empathetically—as Haley cannot—about the “doomed men” in the advertisement (Stowe 2010, 106).

A few pages and many miles later on a Mississippi riverboat headed to the slave markets at New Orleans, Tom sits with book in hand, reading for himself the biblical language that has filled his voice and imagination. “Pointing to each word, and pronouncing each half aloud,” Tom reads from John 14: “Let – not – your – heart – be – troubled. In – my – Father’s – house – are – many – mansions. I – go – to – prepare – a – place – for – you” (Stowe 2010, 131). On its own, this verse seems a crippling deferral, a future promise for a withheld freedom, but neither Tom nor readers are bound to the biblical text. Rather, when Stowe finally lets readers gaze at the pages of Tom’s Bible, they see not only the ancient writing but Tom’s writing as well. The Bible

"had been embellished with certain way-marks and guide-boards of Tom’s own invention… he would designate, by bold, strong marks and dashes, with pen and ink, the passages which more particularly gratified his ear or affected his heart. His Bible was thus marked through, from one end to the other, with a variety of styles and designations, so he could in a moment seize upon his favorite passages, without the labor of spelling out what lay between them; —and while it lay there before him, every passage breathing of some old home scene, and recalling some past enjoyment, his Bible seemed to him all of this life that remained, as well as the promise of a future one(Stowe 2010, 132)…."

Tom’s Bible bears signs of his creative reading. The marks and dashes laced into the text “embellish” the biblical language, a word that means to enhance through fictitious addition. The scope of this fictitious “invention” stretches beyond the page itself. As Tom studies the Bible, he sees, without explicitly looking up, “the distant slaves at their toil” along the Mississippi, and in his startlingly sharp imagination, these black bodies become the “familiar faces of comrades,” “wife,” “his boys,” and “the baby” (Stowe 2010, 131). Such creative reading practices distinguish Tom from unimaginative biblical readers mired in “a thousand questions of authenticity of manuscript, and correctness of translation” (Stowe 2010, 132). In the words of Kathleen Howard (2014, 464), Stowe’s “mechanics of fictional world making” invite readers to read over Tom’s shoulder and into his imaginative response, making them participants in his creative [b]iblical hermeneutic.

Despite the success of Stowe’s novel, she responded warily to her own fictional accounts of slavery and scripture in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. By 1853 Stowe had published The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a bibliography of people, places, and events she said had inspired her novel. Much of The Key was itself a work of fiction, an invented inventory of sources retroactively tied to the novel. While Stowe retreated, at least in part, from her own creative approach, other antislavery writers began to use fiction to distinguish biblical truth even more from the corrupted text of the land. I offer two striking examples here.

The 1859 autobiographical novel Our Nig, written by spiritualist and medium Harriet E. Wilson, traces the terrorizing use of scripture to enslave the mind of a free black girl in New Hampshire. In the Appendix to the novel, which P. Gabrielle Foreman and Reginald H. Pitts (2005, xxxi) have characterized as “anti-sentimental,” Wilson redeems a biblical voice distinct from the physical text of scripture. Wilson (2005, 75–76) opens her “precious” Bible, reads, immediately closes it, and takes up a pen to write:

When my Redeemer dwelt below,       He chose a lowly lot;He came unto his own, but lo!       His own received him not.Oft was the mountain his abode,       The cold, cold earth his bed;The midnight moon shone softly down       On his unsheltered head.

Inspired by the Bible but also compelled to close it, Wilson adapts and clearly extends the biblical record into her own poetic voice.

The same year, black nationalist Martin Delany began to serialize his insurrectionist novel Blake, a clear counter to Uncle Tom’s Cabin as well as a radical extension of Stowe’s imaginative biblical hermeneutic. Henry Blake, the leader of Delany’s transnational black insurrection, swears to obey “God’s wud” but disavows the manmade and man-read scripture that has advocated for slavery (Delany 1970, 21). He implores the enslaved community, “You must make your religion subserve your interests, as your oppressors do theirs!… They use the Scriptures to make you submit, by preaching to you the texts of ‘obedience to your masters’ and ‘standing still to see the salvation,’ and we must now begin to understand the Bible so as to make it of interest to us” (Delany 1970, 41). Rather than throwing away the oppressive religion and text, that in Allen Dwight Callahan’s (2006, 23) words had been a “formidable impediment” to liberation, Delany assumes a more virulent fiction than Stowe to craft an apocryphal biblical text. According to Callahan (2006, 47), “Blake’s words echo those of the prophet Jeremiah, who looked forward to a day when the written law of God—the Bible of the ancient Israelites—would be done away with altogether, no longer written in a book but permanently written on the human heart.” Delany’s fiction, in a radical expansion of both Stowe’s and Wilson’s imaginative hermeneutic, forms a Bible liberated entirely from the corrupted text and instead housed in the hearts of a devout and imaginative army of fugitives, insurrectionists, and users of the Word.

Bibliography

  • Bennett, Michael. Democratic Discourses: The Radical Abolition Movement and Antebellum American Literature. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
  • Callahan, Allen Dwight. The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.
  • Delany, Martin. Blake or The Huts of America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970.
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  • Morey, Anne-Janine. “American Myth and Biblical Interpretation in the Fiction of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 55, no. 4 (1987): 741–763.
  • Powery, Emerson B., and Rodney S. Sadler Jr. The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.
  • Risley, Ford. Abolition and the Press: The Moral Struggle against Slavery. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2008.
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Kerry Hasler-Brooks