When she was born in Connecticut in 1811, her father was a brilliant, outspoken pastor who struggled to make ends meet. By 1833, her father had become the president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, and she moved to Ohio with her family.
That same year, a cholera epidemic struck their city. She sought refuge from the outbreak with family friends in nearby Washington, Kentucky. It was her first visit to a slave state. Her own town had seen its share of racial troubles, sparked by mobs of Irish immigrants who sought to force free blacks to leave the city.
But this trip into Kentucky was her first personal glimpse of the full reality of slavery on its home turf. While she was there, she attended a slave auction. She was shaken to her core at the manner in which slave families were ripped apart forever.
Back in Cincinnati, she soon married Calvin, a professor at her father’s seminary. She later described him as being “rich in Greek & Hebrew, Latin & Arabic, & alas! Rich in nothing else.”
Her new husband was ardently opposed to slavery, and the couple soon opened their home to runaway slaves as a stop on the Underground Railroad. After several years of married life in Ohio, her husband Calvin accepted a position at his alma mater, and the family moved to Brunswick, Maine.
Not long after their arrival in Maine, a runaway slave arrived at their home. The recently passed Fugitive Slave Law carried stiff penalties even for northern families that harbored runaway slaves. She and her family defied the law. They sheltered the runaway, assisting him in his flight to freedom in Canada.
She had already been a published author for years; she had won her first writing acclaim at the age of seven, winning an essay contest at school. She had published a number of newspaper articles. She had written children’s books, and books on homemaking. If those accomplishments seemed quaint, her next publication would rock the entire nation.
“My heart breaks for the cruelty and injustice our nation inflicts upon the slaves. I am tormented by the thought of the slave mothers whose babes are torn from them. I pray to God to let me do a little to cause my cry for them to be heard.”
She did more than a little. “She” was Harriet Beecher Stowe, and on March 20, 1852 her publisher released Uncle Tom’s Cabin. According to PBS, it sold 10,000 copies the first week; 50,000 in first two months. The printers ran three paper mills to supply three printing presses, which ran 24 hours a day. They still couldn’t keep up with the demand. It was adapted into a popular stage play. Its stunningly realistic portrayal of slavery shook America’s collective conscience.
Ten years later, during the Civil War, Harriet was invited to the White House to meet President Lincoln. Her son remembered that Lincoln greeted Harriet with, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” It would be hard to overestimate the importance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in prewar America.
Maybe you already knew most of that. Here’s what you may not have already known:
Back in the summer of 1849, the year before Harriet and her family moved to Maine, Cincinnati was struck by another cholera outbreak, which claimed the life of her 18-month-old son Samuel Charles.
Remembering those slave mothers crying for their lost children, Harriet worked out her own grief by writing. Out of her grief came what is arguably the most influential American novel ever written. Uncle Tom’s Cabin flowed from the confluence of several streams:
Harriet was moved by the suffering of others. She saw individuals living under the awfulness of slavery, but she didn’t just see it – she felt it. Even before she had children of her own, she saw mothers whose children were ripped away from them. She saw slaves not as property or lesser people, but as individuals who were fundamentally identical to her.
Harriet saw her own suffering mirrored in the lives of others. Cholera took her son when he was not yet two years old. She saw her own acute grief mirrored in grief of mothers in the slave auction houses. Cholera separated her from her beloved son; slavery separated mothers from their children every day across the south.
Harriet did not just feel – she acted. From her youth, she was a manifestly gifted writer. She brought the full power of her pen to bear on what she perceived to be the great moral struggle of her day.
Through her own soul-wrenching grief, she brought forth society-changing literature.
I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. When we apply that to a tragedy, here’s what we may accidentally be doing: we take a person who’s struggling to recover from an excruciating loss, and we then saddle them with the responsibility of not only finding their way forward after the tragedy, but also with the unnecessary burden of now doing something amazing, transcendent and altruistic.
For the most part, well intentioned, amateur grief counselors would be better off sharing less advice and more casseroles.
You’re not Harriet. Your grief doesn’t necessarily place upon you the added burden of undertaking great crusade. I don’t believe God orchestrates concussive blows of loss in your life in order to benefit the greater good. I don’t believe that God took young Samuel Charles Stowe from Harriet in order to ultimately bring about Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Harriet may have felt that the loss of her son was divinely ordained to change the course of American history. Even if she did feel that way, it wouldn’t give me the right to preach it as absolute truth.
Harriet’s losing of her son compelled her to change the nation. Maybe your loss propels you to aspire to lead a movement. Maybe in the wake of your tragedy, simply getting out of bed is a triumph. Maybe your pain equips you to comfort others who are suffering similarly. It is redemptive.
Harriet lived in a society in which people devalued one another and refused to acknowledge they were all created in the image of God. It bothered her. She did something about it.
I will never believe that God is the author of evil and suffering. I do believe that God can bring good from the awful. I believe, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, that Christ laid down the principle that unmerited suffering is redemptive. And I believe that our suffering can be used for the greater good, regardless of whether that good ultimately changes an entire society, or helps a solitary person who will later walk in our shoes.