Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Remembering Harriet Beecher Stowe: The 19th-Century Debate about the Human Worth of Some U.S. Citizens

It's interesting to think of the current debates about including gay and lesbian persons against the historical backdrop of the similar debate about slavery in the 19th century.  Just as the debate about whether or not to welcome gay and lesbian human beings to the human community and churches now roils society at large as well as churches, the debate about slavery set brother against brother and sister against sister in the 19th century.

And this historical precedent is in my thoughts today as the bicentennial of the birth of American author Harriet Beecher Stowe arrives.  This event is being remembered today with articles in newspapers and on blog sites throughout the U.S.  One of the best of these I've read thus far is Gerelyn Hollingsworth's article at National Catholic Reporter, which links to many valuable online resources for those who want to learn more about Stowe and her culture-changing novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Beecher Stowe, the little lady who started the great war, as Lincoln famously commented on meeting her.  

I've been involved in recent weeks in a back-and-forth email discussion with a friend of mine who's an American church historian.  That is, Janet's academic speciality is American church history.  Her ecclesial and academic career has been interesting, in that it it allows her to see across various boundary lines, since she is an ordained Presbyterian minister who spent much of her life teaching and doing administrative work in a United Methodist seminary.  Because she has inhabited several worlds, she knows more than one world rather well.

One of our recent email topics of discussion has been the fascinating charge we both find in many Presbyterian (and Lutheran) records of the 19th century, that errant brothers and sisters had become Methodistical in their approach to religious issues.  And so they were to be placed beyond the Presbyterian or Lutheran pale.  What lies behind that charge, we've been wondering?

There's, of course, the well-known phenomenon, commented on by classic American church historians including William Warren Sweet, that the Methodists poached adherents from groups like the Presbyterians, because the Methodists had, with their itinerant ministerial system that did not require education on the part of an ordained minister, a far more mobile ministry than groups like the Presbyterians did.  Methodists could more easily follow folks onto the frontier than could religious groups that demanded education before one was ordained.

And there's the revialism at which the Methodists excelled.  But, as Janet points out, perhaps the single factor that aroused the most suspicion of all of many Methodist ministers in the first half of the 19th century in the U.S. was the fear that Methodism had cast its lot with abolitionism.  And, though the abolitionist side eventually won the day, we tend to forget how fiercely abolitionists were stigmatized in our nation up to the Civil War, how few in number were those brave enough to speak openly--anywhere in the country--on behalf of abolishing slavery.  And what a high price those who spoke out often paid.

Janet's insights about what lies behind the charge that various religious figures had become "Methodistical" in the first part of the 19th century make me think about precisely how the debate re: slavery manifested itself right within family circles in that period--just as the debate about welcoming and including gay brothers and sisters cleaves families today.  I've discovered fascinating hints of such intrafamilial turmoil in some of my own family research--research about some of my families with strong Methodist roots--that make me wonder if, in fact, the primary reason some family members went their separate ways was that they differed with other family members about the issue of slavery.

A case in point: a "lost" brother of my three-times great-grandfather Dennis Lindsey.  Many of us working on the history of this particular Lindsey family had no inkling that Dennis had brothers other than two brothers who are named along with him as sons of Mark Lindsey and Mary Jane Dinsmore of Lawrence Co., Alabama, in biographies written about Mark and in Mark's estate documents.  All of these records appear to imply that Mark had only sons Dennis, Fielding Wesley, and David Dinsmore Lindsey.

And so imagine my surprise to discover, several years ago, an estate document detached from other documents of Mark's estate in the archives of Lawrence Co., which indicates that there were, as well, a son William Burke Lindsey and a daughter Nancy, who married William Morris, a Methodist minister.  How to account for the fact that those two additional children had gotten expunged from family records, had been "lost" in histories of this Lindsey family?

A clue: in August 1854, as he was traveling through Tishomingo Co., Mississippi, where Burke Lindsey had settled, a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Samuel A. Agnew, stopped with his traveling companion Mr. Robinson to spend the night with Burke Lindsey and his wife Carolina Puckett.  Agnew had been directed to the Lindseys' house by people along the road who said that this house was "the best place to stop in the county" for an overnight stay.

And Agnew indicates that, indeed, the hospitality he experienced at Burke Lindsey's house--hospitality for which Lindsey refused to accept any recompense--was warm.  He enjoyed a good meal preceded by a blessing (though Agnew suspected that Lindsey had drink taken), fine cigars afterward, and then retired to his bedroom to find the first copy he had ever seen of "the celebrated work of Mrs Harriet Beecher Stowe viz Uncle Tom's Cabin."  This was followed by breakfast the following morning and fond thoughts that Mr. Lindsey and his wife were the salt of the earth, until Agnew and Robinson arrived home, spoke to neighbors about the couple, and found that it was widely believed that Burke Lindsey and Carolina Puckett were not married, but that Carolina was the lawful wife of Lindsey's former business partner Alexander M. Brooks.

And so what on earth is going on with this narrative?  The detail about Alexander M. Brooks and his wife Carolina has a grain of truth to it, in that this couple had, indeed, been married and Brooks had been Lindsey's business partner in Alabama.  He had, however, moved to Texas in 1839, leaving his wife and debts behind, and Carolina had filed for and had been granted a divorce on grounds of desertion in 1843.  And it's entirely possible that Brooks's decision to abscond may have had something to do with an affair between his wife and his business partner Burke Lindsey.  Of that, I have no proof, only the insinuations offered by Rev. Agnew--rather churlish insinuations, it strikes me, for a man of the cloth to make after he has just enjoyed the freely given and lavish hospitality of the couple about whom he is making such ugly insinuations.

There's also this twist: Alexander M. Brooks was the son of a Methodist minister who happens to be my ancestor as well--Rev. Thomas Brooks, whose daughter Jane married Dennis Lindsey, Burke Lindsey's brother.  And though Alexander M. Brooks was named for a pioneer Methodist--Alexander Mackey--in the part of Kentucky in which the Brooks family lived when it moved from Virginia to Kentucky in 1797, prior to moving to Alabama, and though Thomas Brooks was himself evidently opposed to slavery, both Alexander and his sister Jane (along with her husband Dennis Lindsey) owned a sizable number of slaves.  Thomas Brooks, the father, by contrast, inherited a single slave from the estate of his father-in-law Thomas Whitlock in Kentucky in 1830, and immediately manumitted her.

One family, different responses to slavery.  One Methodist family, radically different responses to slavery.  These details make me wonder the following: if a Methodist family in Mississippi in 1854 owned a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the only copy a traveling Presbyterian minister had ever seen anywhere, it seems likely to me that this family had serious reservations about slavery.  It seems likely to me that this family took the side of abolition.

And so it's entirely possible that the attempt to expunge two siblings--Burke Lindsey and his sister Nancy Morris--from the Lindsey family tree had something to do with the stance that they took towards slavery at a point when this issue was all-consuming for many people in the South, and was dividing brother from brother and sister from sister.  Neither Burke nor his sister Nancy owned slaves, as far as I can determine.  All their other siblings and their father did own slaves, and depended on slave labor to enrich themselves as the cotton kingdom expanded into north Alabama and north Mississippi in the first decades of the 19th century.

One Methodist family with a strong commitment to Methodism on every side of the family, but different responses to the question of slavery's moral assessment and to abolition: it seems possible to me that the two "lost" children of this family have been deliberately misplaced in family histories because they questioned the commitment of other members of their devoutly Methodist family to slavery.

The way in which the gay issue divides us today--the way in which the issue of whether to welcome or exclude gay and lesbian family members cuts right through families and faith communities today: this is nothing new.  On the anniversary of the birth of Harriet Beecher Stowe, it's worth remembering that a similar debate took place in the U.S. in the first half of the 19th century, with similar family- and church-dividing results.

And with the eventual conclusion of most families and churches, and of the culture at large, that treating some members of the human community as less than human because they happen to be born with characteristics not shared by a powerful majority is morally ignoble.  Is morally indefensible.

No comments: