The Religious Ideas of Harriet Beecher Stowe: Her Gospel of Womanhood, by Gayle Kimball
(New York: Mellen, 1982): 206
Reviewed by Jim Nutter
Saviors in Skirts: A Review of Gayle Kimball's Doctoral Dissertation
The Religious Ideas of Harriet Beecher Stowe: Her Gospel of Womanhood (1982), written by Gayle Kimball, is actually one volume of an eight-volume series entitled "Studies in Women and Religion." Besides Stowe, two other major American female writers are included in this collection--Ben Kimpel's Emily Dickinson as Philosopher and Lorine Getz's Flannery O'Connor: Her Life, Library, and Book Reviews. Considering the focus of the series--Women and Religion, Gayle Kimball seems to be the perfect candidate to author the Stowe volume: her Ph.D. is in Religious Studies, and she developed and directed the Women's Studies Program at CSU-Chico.
Kimball begins by acknowledging that her subtitle--Gospel of Womanhood--is actually a phrase coined by Stowe herself. The subtitle implies that women are saviors, a concept that Stowe embraced throughout her long life--as a daughter, a wife, a mother, and a female writer. In other words, according to Kimball, Stowe reverses the Puritan concept of the man being the spiritual head of the home and prescribes that as the woman's role in Victorian society. By usurping what was considered the male's spiritual authority, Stowe "turned the Calvinist Puritanism upside down" (47). However, from Stowe's perspective, to change the world, a woman must do so through the home and the pen, not the pulpit or political arena, which were thought to be "spheres" only for men.
Kimball devotes much of the first two chapters to describing the spiritual turmoil that Stowe suffered in her adolescence and early married life. Her spiritual turmoil was rooted in her inability to accept the Puritan doctrine of "human depravity" and her subsequent "struggle to be saved" (12). Yet, she sought salvation throughout her life, making her first profession of faith at age 14 and then rededicating herself to God a number of times afterwards.
Stowe's philosophy and her faith naturally overflow into her writing. She views women as saviors in life as well as in fiction. Kimball supports this view by quoting many of Stowe's novels, but especially Oldtown Folks (30 citations) and My Wife and I (16 citations); her next most referred to novels are Dred (12 citations) and Paganuc People (11 citations). The question one may ask is, where is Uncle Tom's Cabin in Kimball's research? Since the focus of her study is on "women as saviors," Uncle Tom provides little support for her thesis. After all, Eva is more of an angel than a savior, but Kimball does admit that "Uncle Tom is portrayed as motherly, submissive, [and] feminine" (17). Thus, most of her research is devoted to Stowe's other novels where her saviors are truly--and biologically--female.
How can women be the saviors of the home? Kimball states that Stowe replaces the New England "Puritan salvation formula" with one of her own that emphasizes love, self-sacrifice, simplicity, and Bible study (63). The two maternal characters in Uncle Tom with these qualities are both dead--the mothers of St. Clare and Simon Legree. Yet these very different slave owners both had mothers who were nurturing Christian influences on their sons, though both largely rejected their mothers' faith, except that St. Clare does have a deathbed conversion experience in the novel, and his last dying word is "Mother."
Perhaps one of the most revealing sections in the book is Kimball's discussion in chapter four of Stowe's eventual alliance with the Episcopal church, and her reasons for leaving behind her Calvinist upbringing. Her daughter married an Episcopal priest, and Harriet herself more closely identified with the Anglican theology which taught the "love of Jesus rather than absolute sovereignty" and emphasized "mercy rather than impartial justice" (113); additionally, in her mind, she felt that Episcopalians were more sympathetic toward the needs of the black community.
The last two chapters--six and seven--deal largely with the female characters in her novels and how their plight corresponds to female oppression in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America, with little, if any, additional discussion of Stowe's "Religious Ideas." Kimball credits Stowe for helping to end slavery, but at the same time she condemns her for contributing to the oppression of females of her generation as well as generations to come: "she did much to help free black slaves but she did much to shackle women to domesticity...[and] impeded the achievement of equal rights for women" (168). Thus, Kimball, at best, has mixed feelings about Stowe's legacy.
What, then, is Kimball's legacy? If the reader wants to gain a deeper insight into the biblical allusions found in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Kimball's text will be of little use for that task; however, if the reader wants to gain a greater understanding of Stowe's spiritual biography and explore how her faith influenced her fiction in general, no volume is more valuable than The Religious Ideas of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Back to Bibliography