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The Agony of Salvation and a Theology of Love
on July 24, 2004
The Minister's Wooing is the first of Harriet Beecher Stowe's three great novels of New England religion, that weave scenes and folklore of New England life with the debates and religious agonies that led her from her father's Edwardsian revivalist Calvinism to evangelical Episcopalianism. Of the three, The Minister's Wooing is the most satisfying as a story, although Oldtown Folks and Poganuc People give a fuller panorama of old New England life. (David Hackett Fischer used them extensively in his social history of the American colonies, Albion's Seed.) Mrs. Stowe improved her style greatly after Uncle Tom's Cabin which, while powerful as a moral indictment of slavery, is rather poorly written in many passages.
In her New England novels, Mrs. Stowe looks back on her childhood world in Puritan New England, justifying both her desertion of some of its most tightly-held tenets and the high honor she continued to pay to its legacy. To claim that she satirizes Calvinism is a grotesque misreading, sadly typical of most introductions to her novels which desire to place her as a forbearer of secular feminism and social radicalism, rather than let her be what in fact she was, an evangelical, a Republican, and an ardent advocate of the Christianization of American society.
The Minister's Wooing is set around 1798-1800 in Newport, Rhode Island, at a time just after the American Revolution. Real historical characters in the novel include Samuel Hopkins and Aaron Burr, Jr., leading pupil and grandson, respectively, of the great theologian Jonathan Edwards. While the author freely changes events in these characters' lives (Hopkins, for example, had been a foe of slavery and the slave-trade since 1776, long before the novel's time), her interpretation of these characters, both of whom she had met growing up, is insightful.
Mrs. Stowe contrasts the culturally spare and logocentric world of early New England with the visual opulence which she inhabited in genteel America of the mid-nineteenth century. How to relate the insular New England Christianity of her childhood to the Christianity of Raphael, and the great cathedrals of Europe she visited as an adult? This theme is introduced both in her narrative voice (St. Augustine's Enchiridion of Faith, Love, and Hope is cited without name at the novel's turning point) and in the character of Mme de Frontignac, a French aristocratic woman in an unhappy marriage. She introduces the New England matrons to the feminine beauty of France yet finds balm for her wounds in the severe virtues of Protestant New England. Clothe the chaste Protestant New England spirit in a elegant French Catholic gentility, Mrs. Stowe seems to be saying.
The theological groundwork is made more explicit in Oldtown Folks, but briefly, Mrs. Stowe believed that Jonathan Edwards, with his impossibly high standards for Christian life and his revivalist focus on a dramatic conversion experience, knocked the motherly old Puritan consensus exemplified by Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana off kilter and created almost unbearable tensions in many New Englanders. Who can be saved? What was the use of anything in a world where only an infinitesimal number could escape hell? How can we bear the thought of loving God who seems to condemn so many of our own flesh and blood to eternal damnation? Wrestling with these questions paradoxically gave the Yankees energy as they burst their cocoon, trading in China, fighting the Revolution, and allying with France. Some, like Aaron Burr, Jr., responded by embracing the skepticism of the philosophes. Others like James Marvyn's mother slowly expire, tormented by antinomies they can't resolve and unable to find the Gospel of Christ's love in the mazes of predestination. Some, like the deliciously nasty Simeon Brown, use the logical intricacies of Calvinist theology to cover up their utterly unconverted heart.
Mrs. Stowe's own answer is given in part by the exemplary character of Mary Scudder (whose role is taken by Harry Percival in Oldtown Folks), and in part by the Gospel wisdom of the black slave Candace. Mrs. Stowe's answer seems contradictory: in Mary Scudder she says children raised in a truly Christian society (as New England was and America must be) are born not depraved but naturally Christian and saved. In Candace, however, she points to the harder but more believable good news that Christ died for and loves even real sinners. Tragically Mrs. Stowe, like New England theologians generally, ingnored Holy Baptism as God's objective Gospel sign showing His good will toward the little children. Thus she ironically sought comfort and assurance through the image of Mary Scudder in the same impossible ideal of purely holy living that in Jonathan Edwards' hands had begun the madness.
Finally, Mrs. Stowe recasts the theological question of grace and nature into a meditation on the relation between familial (romantic, filial, and parental) love and love of God. Despite her sympathies with Catholicism, Mrs. Stowe firmly sets aside the monastic ideal that sees family love as in competition with love of God. Instead she sees the former as the true stepping stone to the latter. God planted in our hearts this bond of love to our families, even for those who we fear are rejecting Him, because it is this human love that leads us to Him. For Mrs. Stowe, the Christian home is truly God's school of character; desecration of that school is veritable blasphemy.
If all this sounds rather too thoughtful and theological, this is, as Mrs. Stowe states, the problem with old New England. It was born and conceived in theology and a novel true to that ethos must itself be thoughtful and theological. There is humor here, sudden plot turns, pathos, shrewd observation of character, and lovely description of North American nature, but the heart of the novel is a theology of love, divine and human.