The Stowe Pew

This morning, I sat in the pew where Harriet Beecher Stowe had the vision of how the title character in Uncle Tom's Cabin would die. While I was visiting with an area colleague, I learned a little about this historic church where she serves. And I sat in this pew where a famous author was inspired. And wouldn't you be inspired by that chancel? We laughed at how atypical it is for a Congregational church, but it sure is pretty. The glare in the picture is distracting, but you get the idea.

You can imagine Ms. Stowe sitting off to the left there after the worship service. She was attending the communion service that was after the morning worship service. Instead of serving communion for all during the morning worship service, the communion service in New England was reserved for afterward because communion was reserved only for the members. As much as this bothers me, I have to wonder what happened in that communion service where Ms. Stowe sat in that pew and had this vision.

Wikipedia tells me that the Second Slave Fugitive Act of 1850 had just passed. Ms. Stowe was inspired by the story of Josiah Henson, an African-American who lived and worked on a 3,700–acre tobacco plantation in North Bethesda, Maryland owned by Isaac Riley. He sought freedom in Canada and helped others make the same journey. I wonder if all of these thoughts were already in Ms. Stowe's mind when she heard the words of invitation to be welcomed at Christ's table.

After the communion service, Ms. Stowe went home to write the last chapter of the book. I have never read the book, and don't know how the story begins or ends. Luckily, the full text of the book is available online. The last few paragraphs of the last chapter read like this:

"My good friends," said George, as soon as he could get a silence, "there'll be no need for you to leave me. The place wants as many hands to work it as it did before. We need the same about the house that we did before. But, you are now free men and free women. I shall pay you wages for your work, such as we shall agree on. The advantage is, that in case of my getting in debt, or dying,—things that might happen,—you cannot now be taken up and sold. I expect to carry on the estate, and to teach you what, perhaps, it will take you some time to learn,—how to use the rights I give you as free men and women. I expect you to be good, and willing to learn; and I trust in God that I shall be faithful, and willing to teach. And now, my friends, look up, and thank God for the blessing of freedom."

An aged, partriarchal negro, who had grown gray and blind on the estate, now rose, and, lifting his trembling hand said, "Let us give thanks unto the Lord!" As all kneeled by one consent, a more touching and hearty Te Deum never ascended to heaven, though borne on the peal of organ, bell and cannon, than came from that honest old heart.

On rising, another struck up a Methodist hymn, of which the burden was,

"The year of Jubilee is come,—
Return, ye ransomed sinners, home."

"One thing more," said George, as he stopped the congratulations of the throng; "you all remember our good old Uncle Tom?"

George here gave a short narration of the scene of his death, and of his loving farewell to all on the place, and added,

"It was on his grave, my friends, that I resolved, before God, that I would never own another slave, while it was possible to free him; that nobody, through me, should ever run the risk of being parted from home and friends, and dying on a lonely plantation, as he died. So, when you rejoice in your freedom, think that you owe it to that good old soul, and pay it back in kindness to his wife and children. Think of your freedom, every time you see UNCLE TOM'S CABIN; and let it be a memorial to put you all in mind to follow in his steps, and be honest and faithful and Christian as he was."

Even though her stereotypes of the "happy darky," "mammy" and other horrible portrayals of African American people as human beings infuritates me (as it does others), I hear her prophetic words for 1850. I hear Ms. Stowe struggling for justice and wonder what she heard in the words of institution. I wonder what she saw in the broken bread. I wonder how the cup of salvation tasted upon her tongue. I wonder what happened in that sacred space that day. And I wonder if she heard the words of Galatians 3.28:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

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