The Bible and the Transformation of a Nation

During the middle of the Second World War, C.S. Lewis wrote a short essay for the Spectator on “Equality”. In it he said, “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”

His views came straight from the biblical understanding of humanity and personhood. During this critical hour his was a voice for freedom, dignity and transformation in a world in desperate need of all three.

The line from the Bible through to Lewis is a golden thread which has resulted in millions of personal transformations, and more than a few national and global changes. Here I wish to explore one example of national transformation. I refer to the momentous events leading up to and centring on the American Civil War (1861-1865). The main issue of course was slavery, and the role that both Scripture and literature played in all this is highly illuminating.

While numerous authors and works of literature can be mentioned here, certainly pride of place goes to writer and lay theologian Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her solidly biblical worldview was formed early on. Her father was Lyman Beecher, a Presbyterian minister, who later became the president of Lane Theological Seminary. Her abolitionist passion was thoroughly grounded in Scripture.

Her seminal work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was first serialised in 1851, and turned into a book the following year. Its influence on that horrible conflict can barely be overestimated. One critic said it was “perhaps the most influential novel ever published … a verbal earthquake, an ink-and paper tidal wave.”

Sales were phenomenal, with an incredible 3000 copies purchased on the first day, 10,000 the first week, and 300,000 during the first year. A million copies were sold before the outbreak of the Civil War. With biblical references laced throughout the book, Stowe said that the “object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust as to defeat and do away the good effects of all that can be attempted for them, by their best friends, under it.”

She finished her preface with these words: “While politicians contend, and men are swerved this way and that by conflicting tides of interest and passion, the great cause of human liberty is in the hands of one, of whom it is said:

‘He shall not fail nor be discouraged,
Till he have set judgment in the earth.’
‘He shall deliver the needy when he crieth
The poor, and him that hath no helper.’
‘He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence
And precious shall their blood be in his sight’.

This unattributed quote is an amalgamation of Isaiah 42:4 and Psalm 72:12, 14. These texts refer of course to the coming Messiah who would restore justice and set the captives free. Her entire work is filled with such biblical sentiment.

She finishes her “Concluding Remarks” – and her book – this way: “Christians! every time that you pray that the kingdom of Christ may come, can you forget that prophecy associates, in dread fellowship, the day of vengeance with the year of his redeemed?

“A day of grace is yet held out to us. Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian church has a heavy account to answer. Not by combining together, to protect injustice and cruelty, and making a common capital of sin, is this Union to be saved, – but by repentance, justice and mercy; for, not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks in the ocean, than that stronger law, by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God!”

While by no means the greatest piece of literature (it is often criticised for presenting a sentimental and melodramatic picture of the actual events), this one work was without peer in its influence and transforming power. As historian Sydney Ahlstrom wrote, “She was by no means the first to enlist fiction for the antislavery cause. But no other storyteller matched her intuitions of the essential issue or knew so well how to touch the country’s conscience.”

Historians Marshall and Manuel comment on the profound impact of this work: “Before long there were 30 road companies touring the country with stage presentations. … Nor was it solely an American event; when it was introduced into Great Britain, it sold 1.2 million copies in the first year. All told, it was translated into 25 foreign languages.

“In Russia, there were reports of Russians so moved by it that they freed their serfs. And Leo Tolstoy, soon to write War and Peace, would rank it with Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities as high moral art. The famous German poet Heinrich Heine, ill in Paris, said it led him back to the Bible and faith.

“The Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer … wrote [to Stowe], ‘It was the work I had long wished for, that I long anticipated, that I wished while in America to be able to write … and God be praised, it has come!’”

One way or another, all the main players in the American conflict were profoundly touched by it, chief of whom was Abraham Lincoln. Massachusetts anti-slavery campaigner Charles Sumner argued that without her book, Lincoln would never have been elected as president. And Lincoln famously said of Stowe upon meeting her, “the little woman who made the book that made this great war”.

Much can be said about the spiritual influences on his life in light of the slavery issue. The impact of Scripture in general, and Stowe’s novel in particular, are too closely intertwined to be readily divided. But a bit more can be mentioned concerning these influences on his life and work.

Even before he could read he regularly heard the Bible cited by his mother, who died when he was just nine. Through his youth he frequently memorised many passages of Scripture. A gift of a new Oxford Bible during the time of his engagement breakup with Mary Todd in 1841 proved to be a turning point in his spiritual development.

He famously stated concerning the Bible: “In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for this Book we could not know right from wrong.” While in the White House, agonising over the course of the nation, he regularly and earnestly prayed and read the Bible.

Indeed, Lincoln frequently referred to God and quoted from Scripture – both before and during his role as president, especially when he spoke on the issue of slavery. For example, he memorably told the Republican Party in 1858, quoting from the words of Jesus, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free.”

In his First Inaugural Address he said “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.”

When Lincoln left Springfield for Washington in 1861 he was handed a flag which encouraged him greatly. On it were embroidered the words of Joshua 1 in which God promised to be with Joshua as he was with Moses, so he need not fear, but be strong in the Lord.

During the height of the War, a guest in the White House could not sleep, so he went for a walk, only to come upon Lincoln on his knees crying out in prayer: “Oh, Thou God that heard Solomon in the night when he prayed for wisdom, hear me. I cannot lead this people. I cannot guide the affairs of this nation without Thy help. I am poor and weak and sinful. O God, thou didst hear Solomon when he cried for wisdom, hear me and save this nation.”

Then there is the famous story of a clergyman who assured Lincoln that God was on the North’s side. Lincoln replied, “I know that the Lord is always on the side of right.  But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”

On March 4, 1865 Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address, just a few months before the War’s end. Billy Graham once said of it that “it sounds like a sermon on the will of God in the life of a nation. Its citations of Scripture are so frequent that the second inaugural address must factually be regarded as the most official religious document in American history.”

A few well-known quotes are in order: “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came. …

“Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. … The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh’. …

“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

A concluding story dramatically demonstrates the power of The Book as it electrified Stowe’s book, and what finally came of this whole conflict.

A Sunday service was held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia soon after the war had ended. Holy Communion was about to be administered when a well dressed black man approached the communion table. This caused no small stir, since it was the norm at that time for whites to receive communion first, then blacks. But a few moments later an elderly white man approached the communion table, kneeling next to the black man, sharing communion with him.

This gesture brought calm to the commotion, and soon the other members of the congregation began lining up behind these two men. The elderly white man was the famous Southern general, Robert E. Lee. Historian Jay Winik said this after mentioning this incident: “Lee has said that he has rejoiced that slavery is dead. But this action indicates that those were not idle words meant to placate a Northern audience. Here among his people, he leads wordlessly through example. … In the end, America would defy the cruel chain of history besetting nations torn apart by Civil War.”

The Bible’s grand mega-story of liberation and transformation has resulted in thousands of lesser – but still vitally important – stories. The fight against slavery was just one such story, and the role of Stowe and her novel is a remarkable and providential part of this.

[2000 words]

7 Replies to “The Bible and the Transformation of a Nation”

  1. Aah Bill, I’m loving this. I’ve mentioned before my passion to see the arts in all its forms transforming our societal mindset. This is such a classic example of that – a person using their gift for God’s glory in the end and in doing so serve their fellow man – beautiful.
    Servaas Hofmeyr

  2. Was it Robert E Lee or was it Lord Roberts or Kitchener who said that at the Communion Table we are “all equal here”.
    Wayne Pelling

  3. Thanks Bill, for so faithfully always writing about truth that is founded on truth… Just want you to know I just so appreciate and consume it all… I was wondering have you read Loren Cunningham’s book called “The Book that Transforms Nations.” If you haven’t already read it, I am sure you would so enjoy it! Also, our prayers are with you in and for your current family time in the USA.
    Susie Hartog

  4. Dear Bill, An amazing account of the impact of one book on the nation of USA apart from other peoples. Heart-warming.
    John Sung from China studied Physics in USA preparig for the chair of Physics at Peking (Beijing now). He reaped nuerous honours in his study.
    Then John Sung read God’s Word and was gripped with the living message, which his father had faithfully preached. Gripped by the Word, studying most of the day and night, John Sung was falsely admitted to a mental hospital, where he immersed himself in the intense application of the bible. He was subsequently freed. God had prepared him for a lifetime of bible teaching.
    Preserving one medal for his father, he discarded the remaining trophies overboard.
    In china John sung began to preach, never accepting the high honour of Physicsd Professor. wherever he taught the Word of God, men and women bowed to the authority of the Word of God. Today, 130 millions throng the house churches in the nation of Communist hina, and many regard the foundation as laid by Hudson Taylor of UK and John Sung of China.
    Pray for our nation’s Bible teachers.
    Harrold Steward

  5. When the Bible & with it the Law of Christ goes, a nation destroys itself over time.
    Some take longer than others, but it is inevitable.
    The destructive process moves forward like a mountain on the move, sometimes slow, sometimes faster, but pushing & breaking the morality of man in every area it touches.
    Priorities change in view of accommodating the destructive power of the sometimes unnoticed move of the mountain inching imperceptably forward, sometime resting in its place to gather strength for the next move.
    As priorities change, man becomes fluid:
    He discards absolutes in favour of whims & ideology.
    The picture turns radical:
    Ideology becomes a god, crushing all before it, if necessary.
    And the people suffer.
    Such is the situation today, in America, in South Africa, in Africa, in Europe.

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