By John B. Chilton
In A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853) [source], Harriert Beecher Stowe begins,
At different times, doubt has been expressed -whether the representations of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” are a fair representation of slavery as it at present exists…. The writer acknowledges that the book is a very inadequate representation of slavery; and it is so, necessarily, for this reason,— that slavery, in some of its workings, is too dreadful for the purposes of art. A work which should represent it strictly as it is would be a work which could not be read. And all works which ever mean to give pleasure must draw a veil somewhere, or they cannot succeed.
A Key is Stowe’s account of the dreadful facts of slavery.
Chapter 9 asks, “Is the system of religion which is taught the slave the gospel?” In it she quotes extensively from the sermon to slaves by the Rt. Rev. William Meade. Meade served as Bishop of Virginia and died in office in 1862. The following is Stowe’s commentary on Meade. (See also Frederick Douglass’ commentary on Meade’s sermon. Stowe and Douglass found Meade very useful in their abolition campaigns.)
Concerning the absolute authority of the master, take the following extract from Bishop Mead’s sermon. (Brooke’s Slavery, pp. 30. 31, 32.)
Having thus shown you the chief duties you owe to your great Master in heaven, I now come to lay before you the duties you owe to your masters and mistresses here upon earth; and for this you have one general rule that you ought always to carry in your minds, and that is, to do all service for them as if you did it for God himself. Poor creatures! you little consider, when you are idle and neglectful of your masters’ business, when you steal and waste and hurt any of their substance, when you are saucy and impudent, when you are telling them lies and deceiving them; or when you prove stubborn and sullen, and will not do the work you are set about without stripes and vexation; you do not consider, I say, that what faults you are guilty of towards your masters and mistresses are faults done against God himself, who hath set your masters and mistresses over you in his own stead, and expects that you will do for them just as you would do for Him. And, pray, do not think that I want to deceive you when I tell you that your masters and mistresses are God’s overseers; and that, if you are faulty towards them, God himself will punish you severely for it in the next world, unless you repent of it, and strive to make amends by your faithfulness and diligence for the time to come; for God himself hath declared the same.
Now, from this general rule, — namely, that you are to do all service for your masters and mistresses as if you did it for God himself, — there arise several other rules of duty towards your masters and mistresses, which I shall endeavor to lay out in order before you.
And, in the first place, you are to be obedient and subject to your masters in all things.
And Christian ministers are commanded to “exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things, not answering them again, or gainsaying.” [Titus 2:9.] You see how strictly God requires this of you, that whatever your masters and mistresses order you to do, you must set about it immediately, and faithfully perform it, without any disputing or grumbling, and take care to please them well in all things. And for your encouragement he tells you that he will reward you for it in heaven; because, while you are honestly and faithfully doing your master’s business here, you are serving your Lord and Master in heaven. You see also that you aro not to take any exceptions to the behavior of your masters and mistresses; and that you are to be subject and obedient, not only to such as are good, and gentle, and mild, towards you, but also to such as may be froward, peevish, and hard. For you are not at liberty to choose your own masters; but into whatever hands God hath been pleased to put you, you must do your duty, and God will reward you for it.
. . . .
You are to be faithful and honest to your masters and mistresses, not purloining or wasting their goods or substance, but showing all good fidelity in all things…. Do not your masters, under God, provide for you? And how shall they be able to do this, to feed and to clothe you, unless you take honest care of everything that belongs to them? Remember that God requires this of you; and, if you are not afraid of suffering for it here, you cannot escape the vengeance of Almighty God, who will judge between you and your masters, and make you pay severely in the next world for all the injustice you do them here. And though you could manage so cunningly as to escape the eyes and hands of man, yet think what a dreadful thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God, who is able to cast both soul and body into hell!
You are to serve your masters with cheerfulness, reverence, and humility. You are to do your masters” service with good will, doing it as the will of God from the heart, without any sauciness or answering again. IIow many of you do things quite otherwise, and, instead of going about your work with a good will and a good heart, dispute and grumble, give saucy answers, and behave in a surly manner! There is something so becoming and engaging in a modest, cheerful, good-natured behavior, that a little work done in that manner seems better done, and gives far more satisfaction, than a great deal more, that must be done with fretting, vexation, and the lash always held over you. It also gains the good will and love of those you belong to, and makes your own life pass with more ease and pleasure. Besides, you are to consider that this grumbling and ill-will do not affect your masters and mistresses only. They have ways and means in their hands of forcing you to do your work, whether you are willing or not. But your murmuring and grumbling is against God, who hath placed you in that service, who will punish you severely in the next world for despising his commands.
A very awful query here occurs to the mind. If the poor, ignorant slave, who wastes his master’s temporal goods to answer some of his own present purposes, be exposed to this heavy retribution, what will become of those educated men, who, for their temporal convenience, make and hold in force laws which rob generation after generation of men, not only of their daily earnings, but of all their righte and privileges as immortal beings?
The Rev. Mr. Glennie. in one of his sermons, as quoted by Mr. Bowditch, p. 137, assures his hearers that none of them will be able to say, in the day of judgment, “I had no way of hearing about my God and Saviour.”
Bishop Meade, as quoted by Brooke, pp. 34, 35, thus expatiates to slaves on the advantages of their condition. One would really think, from reading this account, that every one ought to make haste and get himself sold into slavery, as the nearest road to heaven.
Take care that you do not fret or murmur, grumble or repine at your condition; for this will not only make.your life uneasy, but will greatly offend Almighty God. Consider that it is not yourselves, it is not the people that you belong to, it is not the men that have brought you to it, but it is the will of God, who hath by his providence made you servants, because, no doubt, he knew that condition would be best for you in this world, and help you the better towards heaven, if you would but do your duty in it. So that any discontent at your not being free, or rich, or great, as you see some others, is quarrelling with your heavenly Master, and finding fault with God himself, who hath made you what you are, and hath promised you as large a share in the kingdom of heaven as the greatest man alive, if you will but behave yourself aright, and do the business he hath set you about in this world honestly and cheerfully. Riches and power have proved the ruin of many an unhappy soul, by drawing away the heart and affections from God, and fixing them on mean and sinful enjoyments; so that, when God, who knows our hearts better than we know them ourselves, sees that they would be hurtful to us, and therefore keeps them from us, it is the greatest mercy and kindness he could show us.
You may perhaps fancy that, if you had riches and freedom, you could do your duty to God and man with greater pleasure than you can now. But, pray, consider that, if you can but save your souls, through the mercy of God, you will have spent your time to the best of purposes in this world; and he that at last can get to heaven has performed a noble journey, let the road be ever so rugged and difficult. Besides, you really have a great advantage over most white people, who have not only the care of their daily labor upon their hands, but the care of looking forward and providing necessaries for to-morrow and next day, and of clothing and bringing up their children, and of getting food and raiment for as many of you as belong to their families, which often puts them to great difficulties, and distracts their minds so as to break their rest, and take off their thoughts from the affairs of another world. Whereas, you are quite eased from all these cares, and have nothing but your daily labor to look after and, when that is done, take your needful rest. Neither is it necessary for you to think of laying up anything against old age, as white people are obliged to do; for the laws of the country have provided that you shall not be turned off when you are past labor, but shall be maintained, while you live, by those you belong to, whether you are able to work or not.
Bishop Meade further consoles slaves thus for certain incidents of their lot, for which they may think they have more reason to find fault than for most others. The reader must admit that he takes a very philosophical view of the subject.
There is only one circumstance which may appear grievous, that I shall now take notice of, and that is correction.
Now, when correction is given you, you either deserve it, or you do not deserve it. But, whether you really deserve it or not, it is your duly, and Almighty God requires, that you bear it patiently. You may perhaps think that this is hard doctrine; but if you consider it right, you must needs think otherwise of it. Suppose, then, that you deserve correction; you cannot but say that it is just and right you should meet with it. Suppose you do not, or at least you do not deserve so much, or so severe a correction, for the fault you have committed; you perhaps have escaped a great many more, and at last paid for all. Or, suppose you are quite innocent of what is laid to your charge, and suffer wrongfully in that particular thing; is it not possible you may have done some other bad thing which was never discovered, and that Almighty God, who saw you doing it, would not let you escape without punishment, one time or another? And ought you not, in such a case, to give glory to him, and be thankful that he would rather punish you in this life for your wickedness, than destroy your souls for it in the next life! But, suppose even this was not the case (a case hardly to be imagined), and that you have by no means, known or unknown, deserved the correction you suffered; there is this great comfort in it, that, if you bear it patiently, and leave your cause in the hands of God, he will reward you for it in heaven, and the punishment you suffer unjustly here shall turn to your exeeeding great glory hereafter.
That Bishop Meade has no high opinion of the present comforts of a life of slavery, may be fairly inferred from the following remarks which he makes to slaves:
Your own poor circumstances in this life ought to put you particularly upon this, and taking care of your souls; for you cannot have the pleasures and enjoyments of this life like rich free people, who have estates and money to lay out as they think fit. If others will run the hazard of their souls, they have a chance of getting wealth and power, of heaping up riches, and enjoying all the ease, luxury and pleasure, their hearts should long after. But you can have none of these things; so that, if you sell your souls, for the sake of what poor matters you can get in this world, you have made a very foolish bargain indeed.
This information is certainly very explicit and to the point. He continues:
Almighty God hath been pleased to make you slaves here, and to give you nothing but labor and poverty in this world, which you are obliged to submit to, as it is his will that it should be so. And think within yourselves, what a terrible thing it would be, after all your labors and sufferings in this life, to be turned into hell in the next life, and, after wearing out your bodies in service here, to go into a far worse slavery when this is over, and your poor souls be delivered over into the possession of the devil, to become his slaves forever in hell, without any hope of ever getting free from it! If, therefore, you would be God’s freemen in heaven, you must strive to be good, and serve him here on earth. Your bodies, you know, are not your own; they are at the disposal of those you belong to; but your precious souls are still your own, which nothing can take from you, if it be not your own fault. Consider well, then, that if you lose your souls by leading idle, wicked lives here, you have got nothing by it in this world, and you have lost your all in the next. For your idleness and wickedness is generally found out, and your bodies suffer for it here; and, what is far worse, if you do not repent and amend, your unhappy souls will suffer for it hereafter.
Mr. Jones, in that part of the work where he is obviating the objections of masters to the Christian instruction of their slaves, supposes the master to object thus:
You teach them that “God is no respecter of persons;” that “He hath made of one blood, all nations of men;” ” Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself;” “All things Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them;” what use, let me ask, would they make of these sentences from the gospel?
Mr. Jones says:
Let it be replied, that the effect urged in the objection might result from imperfect and injudicious religious instruction; indeed, religious instruction may be communicated with the express design, on the part of the instructor, to produce the effect referred to, instances of which have occurred.
But who will say that neglect of duty and insubordination are the legitimate effects of the gospel, purely and sincerely imparted to servants? Has it not in all ages been viewed as the greatest civilizer of the human race!
How Mr. Jones would interpret the golden rule to the slave, so as to justify the slave-system, we cannot possibly tell. We can, however, give a specimen of the manner in which it has been interpreted in Bishop Meade’s sermons, p. 116. (Brooke’s Slavery, &c, pp. 32, 33.)
“All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them ;” that is, do by all mankind just as you would desire they should do by you, if you were in their place, and they in yours.
Now, to suit this rule to your particular circumstances, suppose you were masters and mistresses and had servants under you: would you not desire that your servants should do their business faithfully and honestly, as well when your back was turned as while you were looking over them? Would you not expect that they should take notice of what you said to them? that they should behave themselves with respect towards you and yours, and be as careful of everything belonging to you as you would be yourselves? You are servants: do, therefore, as you would wish to be done by, and you will be both good servants to your masters, and good servants to God, who requires this of you, and will reward you well for it, if you do it for the sake of conscience, in obedience to his commands.
The reverend teachers of such expositions of scripture do great injustice to the natural sense of their sable catechumens if they suppose them incapable of detecting such very shallow sophistry, and of proving conclusively that “it is a poor rule that won’t work both ways.” Some shrewd old patriarch, of the stamp of those who rose up and went out at the exposition of the Epistle to Philemon, and who show such great acuteness in bringing up objections against the truth of God, such as would be thought peculiar to cultivated minds, might perhaps, if he dared, reply to such an exposition of scripture in this way: ” Suppose you were a slave,—could not have a cent of your own earnings during your whole life, could have no legal right to your wife and children, could never send your children to school, and had, as you have told us, nothing but labor and poverty in this life,— how would you like it? Would you not wish your Christian master to set you free from this condition?” We submit it to every one who is no respecter of persons, whether this interpretation of Sambo’s is not as good as the bishop’s. And if not, why not?
To us, with our feelings and associations, such discourses as these of Bishop Meade appear hard-hearted and unfeeling to the last degree. We should, however, do great injustice to the character of the man, if we supposed that they prove him to have been such. They merely go to show how perfectly use may familiarize amiable and estimable men with a system of oppression, till they shall have lost all consciousness of the wrong which it involves.
That Bishop Meade’s reasonings did not thoroughly convince himself is evident from the fact that, after all his representations of the superior advantages of slavery as a means of religious improvement, he did, at last, emancipate his own slaves. [It is often said Meade emancipated his slaves. He lived with his slave-holding son. It’s not clear how many of his slaves were transferred to the son and how many were emancipated.]
But, in addition to what has been said, this whole system of religious instruction is darkened by one hideous shadow,— What does the Southern church do with her catechumens and communicants read the advertisements of Southern newspapers, and see in every city in the slave-raising states behold the depots, kept constantly full of assorted negroes from the ages of ten to thirty! In every slave-consuming state see the receiving-houses, whither these poor wrecks and remnants of families are constantly borne! Who preaches the gospel to the slave-coffles? Who preaches the gospel in the slave-prisons? If we consider the tremendous extent of this internal trade,— if we read papers with columns of auction advertisements of human beings, changing hands as freely as if they were dollar-bills instead of human creatures,— we shall then realize how utterly all those influences of religious instruction must be nullified by leaving the subjects of them exposed “to all the vicissitudes of property.”
John B. Chilton is an economist with expertise in labor economics, industrial organization and applied game theory. He most recently served as an adjunct at the University of Virginia.