Book Review: “Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life” By Nancy Koester (Eerdmans, 2014) -- By: Brendan Payne
Book Review: “Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life” By Nancy Koester (Eerdmans, 2014)
Brendan J. Payne is a History PhD candidate at Baylor University. He earned his BA from Wheaton College in 2008 and his MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 2012. He is happily married to Catherine, a brilliant feminist. His field of study is religion and social reform in United States history.
When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe during the United States Civil War, he reportedly quipped, “So you’re the little woman who started this big war.” In Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life, Nancy Koester presents a biography of the famed author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that bounds with delight from page to page. The book is easily accessible to a popular audience and moves chronologically through her life and the lives of those closest to her, yet is thoroughly researched and offers rich sources for the interested academic. While the book is driven by events more than a thesis, it is a thoroughly spiritual biography focused upon Harriet’s faith, as one would expect from a book in the Library of Religious Biography series. Though Harriet’s relationship to Jesus changed over time, it always shaped her, her writings, and her advocacy for social reform in profound ways.
More than simply following Harriet (as the author prefers to call her), Koester weaves her story into the stories of her hugely influential Beecher family and her social milieu, and so touches upon the social and spiritual state of many average Americans of that time. The story begins with a glimpse of Harriet’s parents, Roxana Foote Beecher and the indefatigable pastor Lyman Beecher. Harriet quickly emerges as a precocious writer—even at age nine—steeped in her father’s Congregationalist theology. Like her siblings, she yearns for conversion and peace with God. Moving from Litchfield, Connecticut, to Boston, and then to Cincinnati, Harriet continues wrestling with God as she becomes an adult, an uneasiness that continues into her marriage with Calvin Stowe. Ultimately, though, she finds increasing peace when she decides to quit striving and rely upon God’s grace. Her initial anxiety at being a woman involved in public advocacy gradually fades, beginning with an anonymous letter to the editor against a race riot mob and culminating in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, her 1852 protest novel woven together from stories she had heard throughout her life. Her novel rekindled the consciences of Northerners against the evil of slavery and made her an international celebrity meeting with figures such as Charles Dickens and the queen of England. Yet she also faced the all-too-human difficulties of quarrels with and concern for her extended family and of spiritual struggles—including her rejection of Calvinism, dabbling in spirit...
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