A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 7, 2011
Hebrews 4:12 GNT; Selection from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Perhaps you are aware that this year is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, that tragic period in American history that tore our country apart. The event that is generally looked upon as being the start of that war was the firing upon Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861, as Confederates sought to take the fort. But many people are of the opinion that the causes of the Civil War were many and varied. And I don’t intend to enumerate all the possible causes because I am not a Civil War expert. Some of our United Church members know far more about the Civil War, its causes, and so on than I do.
However, of primary interest to me is a statement that President Abraham Lincoln is said to have made regarding one of the reasons why the war came about. It had to do with something as simple as a book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And it had to do with a person who had become, by the time Lincoln made his statement, one of the most famous authors in the nation. Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been published in 1852. Lincoln met the book’s author ten years later, in 1862, a year after the war had begun. And this is what Lincoln is supposed to have said: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that caused the big war.” The author was, of course, Harriet Beecher Stowe, of America’s famous Beecher Family. Harriet’s father was Lyman Beecher, one of the most respected and influential ministers in America. And she was the sister of Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most popular preachers America has ever produced.
Some years ago, when Mary Lou and I happened to be in Hartford, Connecticut, for a national meeting of the Congregational Churches, we took an afternoon to tour the Hartford home of Harriet Beecher Stowe. It is what I would describe as a large, but simple, Victorian farmhouse. As I walked through that house where Harriet lived and wrote, I got goosebumps. I sort of felt like I was walking through hallowed ground. For in addition to being a successful author, she also was the country’s most famous abolitionist.
Regarding her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I must digress for just a minute to tell you about my paternal grandmother. My grandmother was born in 1896 and grew up poor and in difficult times. I don’t think she made it past the 3rd or 4th grade. So as far as literature was concerned, she had not read a whole lot in her lifetime. Oh, she could read. She read the Bible religiously and she read the daily newspaper and her weekly Sunday school lesson. But I can only remember her talking about two books that she had read as a girl. One was Uncle Remus’s Tales of Brer Rabbit, and the other book was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Grandmother would talk about what a good book Uncle Tom’s Cabin was and tell me how I should read it someday. Of course, I had no idea what the book was about. So I never did. That is, until 1995, when I was 40 years old. It is one of those books that impacts your life and stays with you.
When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was released in 1852, it sold 10,000 copies in one week. By the end of the first year, it had sold over 300,000 copies. It established Harriet Beecher Stowe as a literary and intellectual giant. Stowe’s novel moved readers to weep for the American slaves, as she described the merciless beatings and man’s inhumanity to man; the way bloodhounds chased runaway slaves; the selling of children on the auction block as their parents looked on; and the break-up of families like divvying out a litter of pups.
But here is the point that calls for attention and is at the heart of my sermon today: the power of the written word. “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that caused the big war,” Lincoln said to Stowe. Now, obviously the causes that led to the Civil War were varied and complex, as already stated. However, who can really estimate the importance of the selling of 300,000 copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (an anti-slavery work) and the emotions and anger and demand for change it brought about in the American people? And the impact it had on the abolition of slavery?
That is what good novels do. They bring important issues to light and sometimes stir emotions and arouse anger that leads people to rise up and demand change. Or seek to make a difference in the lives of the oppressed, hurting, or downtrodden.
While working on this sermon, I was reminded of what Anita Henderlight said about why she got involved in the Africa ELI project, which sponsors the Girls’ School of Sudan. Anita’s passion was stirred because while browsing in a bookstore one day, she by chance picked up a book about the lost boys of Sudan; the young men who were driven from their homes in Sudan because of the revolution that was taking place there. Her compassion for the people of Sudan led her to get involved in making a difference, and she now serves as the Executive Director of this life-changing organization. It all came about because she picked up a novel in a bookstore. That’s the potential that the written word has—power to change the world.
The biblical writer knew this life-changing potential of the written word. His reference was, of course, to the Holy Scriptures, which he saw as being “the word of God.” Such words, he declared, were alive and active, sharp like a sword that has the power to cut to the human heart to convict, move, transform, and lead to positive change. That is what a good book can do. The words of a good book become alive and active and have the potential of affecting the human heart, convicting and moving the reader to make positive changes in his or her own life and also to go forth and make a difference in the world. Such is what the lost boys of Sudan novel did for Anita Henderlight. And such is what Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for thousands of pre-Civil War Americans.
Many of us could stand and shout out the title of a book, the words of which profoundly moved and changed us and made us want to do something to bring about change in the world. Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath. Someone shared with me that for them it was Ishmael. Another said To Kill a Mockingbird. Still another said Little Women, as it made her want to be a better person.
Now, few of us will write a life-changing novel. One or two of you might. But not many of us can do that. But the principle regarding the power of the written word still holds true. There can be positive power in the words that each one of us writes. A passionate letter to the editor of the local newspaper expressing our concern over some important issue. A letter to our elected representatives in which we plead for a wrong in society to be corrected. A hand-written and carefully-worded card or letter to someone who is ill, troubled, or in need of a word of encouragement. Even a carefully-worded email or text message to someone at the right time can be quite powerful and make a world of difference in his or her life.
The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center has a wonderful website (www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org ). At the top of that website it is written: “Her words changed the world. What will you do?” Just as words that we read have the potential of changing our lives, so can the words that we write have the potential of improving the lives of others. Let us never under estimate the power of the written word. May it be so. Amen.