« Prev Harriet Beecher Stowe and Her Hymns Next »


Through the fame that her book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” brought her, the name of Harriet Beecher Stowe has become almost a household word on both sides of the Atlantic. But not many, perhaps, are familiar with Mrs. Stowe the hymn-writer. And yet she wrote a number of hymns that are worthy of finding a place in the best of collections. Indeed, for sheer poetic beauty there is probably not a single American lyric that can excel “Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh.”

It was her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, who introduced Mrs. Stowe as a hymn-writer, when he included three of her hymns in the “Plymouth Collection,” which he edited in 1865. One of the three was the hymn mentioned above; the other two were “That mystic word of Thine, O sovereign Lord” and “When winds are raging o’er the upper ocean.”

Like the Wesley family in England, the Beecher family became one of the most famous in religious and literary circles in America. Harriet Beecher was born in Litchfield, Conn., June 14, 1812. Her father was the noted Dr. Lyman Beecher, a distinguished clergyman of his day. Her mother, a very devout Christian, died when Harriet was less than four years of age. Her dying prayer was that her six sons might be called into the ministry. That prayer was answered, and the youngest of them, Henry Ward Beecher, who was only a boy when the mother died, became one of America’s greatest preachers. We do not know what 400 the dying mother’s prayer for her daughter was, but we do know that Harriet Beecher achieved fame such as comes to few women. Even as a child she revealed a spiritual nature of unusual depth. An earnest sermon preached by her father when she was fourteen made such an impression on her youthful heart that she determined to give herself wholly to Christ. She tells of the experience in these words:

“As soon as my father came home and was seated in his study, I went up to him and fell in his arms, saying, ‘Father, I have given myself to Jesus, and He has taken me.’ I never shall forget the expression of his face as he looked down into my earnest childish eyes; it was so sweet, so gentle, and like sunlight breaking out upon a landscape. ‘Is it so?’ he said, holding me silently to his heart, as I felt the hot tears fall on my head. ‘Then has a new flower blossomed in the kingdom this day.’”

In 1832 the father removed to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he became president of Lane Theological Seminary. Here Harriet married Prof. Calvin E. Stowe, a member of the faculty. Many misfortunes and sorrows came into her life, but always she was sustained by her strong faith in God, and she bore them with unusual Christian fortitude. In 1849 her infant boy was snatched from her by the dreadful cholera scourge. Her husband, broken in health, was in an Eastern sanatorium at the time, and all the cares and anxieties of the household fell upon the shoulders of the brave young wife. A letter written to her husband, dated June 29, 1849, gives a graphic description of the plague as it was then raging in Cincinnati. She wrote:

“This week has been unusually fatal. The disease in the city has been malignant and virulent. Hearse drivers have scarce been allowed to unharness their horses, while 401 furniture carts and common vehicles are often employed for the removal of the dead. The sable trains which pass our windows, the frequent indications of crowding haste, and the absence of reverent decency have, in many cases, been most painful.... On Tuesday, one hundred and sixteen deaths from cholera were reported, and that night the air was of that peculiarly oppressive, deathly kind that seems to lie like lead on the brain and soul. As regards your coming home, I am decidedly opposed to it.”

Under date of July 26, she wrote again: “At last it is over and our dear little one is gone from us. He is now among the blessed. My Charley—my beautiful, loving, gladsome baby, so loving, so sweet, so full of life, and hope and strength—now lies shrouded, pale and cold, in the room below.... I write as though there were no sorrow like my sorrow, yet there has been in this city, as in the land of Egypt, scarce a house without its dead. This heart-break, this anguish, has been everywhere, and when it will end God alone knows.”

The succeeding years brought other tragedies to the sorely tried family. In 1857 the eldest son, Henry, pride of his mother’s heart, was drowned at the close of his freshman year at Dartmouth College. Then came the Civil War with its bloody battles. At Gettysburg a third son, Fred, was wounded in the head by a piece of shrapnel. Although it did not prove fatal, his mental faculties were permanently impaired.

Through all these afflictions the marvelous faith of Mrs. Stowe remained firm and unshaken. Many years afterwards, in looking back upon these bitter experiences, she wrote: “I thank God there is one thing running through all of them from the time I was thirteen years old, and 402 that is the intense unwavering sense of Christ’s educating, guiding presence and care.”

It was in the midst of these dark tragedies that Mrs. Stowe wrote a hymn entitled “The Secret.”

When winds are raging o’er the upper ocean,

And billows wild contend with angry roar,

’Tis said, far down, beneath the wild commotion,

That peaceful stillness reigneth evermore.

Far, far beneath, the noise of tempests dieth,

And silver waves chime ever peacefully;

And no rude storm, how fierce soe’er it flieth,

Disturbs the Sabbath of that deeper sea.

So to the heart that knows Thy love, O Purest!

There is a temple sacred evermore,

And all the babble of life’s angry voices

Dies in hushed stillness at its sacred door.

Far, far away, the roar of passion dieth,

And loving thoughts rise calm and peacefully;

And no rude storm, how fierce soe’er it flieth,

Disturbs that deeper rest, O Lord, in Thee!

O Rest of rests! O Peace serene, eternal!

Thou ever livest, and Thou changest never;

And in the secret of Thy presence dwelleth

Fulness of joy, forever and forever.

It was the writing of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that brought world-wide fame to this unusual mother. The family had moved from Cincinnati to Brunswick, Maine, where Professor Stowe had accepted a position in the faculty of Bowdoin College. There were six children now and the father’s income was meager. In order to help meet the family expenses, Mrs. Stowe began to write articles for a magazine 403 known as the “National Era.” She labored under difficulties. “If I sit by the open fire in the parlor,” she wrote, “my back freezes, if I sit in my bedroom and try to write my head and my feet are cold.... I can earn four hundred dollars a year by writing, but I don’t want to feel that I must, and when weary with teaching the children, and tending the baby, and buying provisions, and mending dresses, and darning stockings, I sit down and write a piece for some paper.”

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act aroused the deepest feeling among Abolitionists in the North. While living in Cincinnati her family had aided the so-called “underground railway,” by which runaway slaves were helped in their efforts to reach the Canadian boundary. Now Mrs. Stowe’s spirit burned within her. “I wish,” she writes at this period, “some Martin Luther would arise to set this community right.”

It was then she conceived the idea of writing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In the month of February, 1851, while attending communion service in the college church at Brunswick, the scene of the death of Uncle Tom passed before her mind like the unfolding of a vision. When she returned home she immediately wrote down the mental picture she had seen. Then she gathered her children around her and read what she had written. Two of them broke into violent weeping, the first of many thousands who have wept over “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

The first chapter was not completed until the following April, and on June 5 it began to appear in serial form in the “National Era.” She had intended to write a short tale of a few chapters, but as her task progressed the conviction grew on her that she had been intrusted with a holy 404 mission. Afterwards she said: “I could not control the story; it wrote itself.” At another time she remarked: “The Lord himself wrote it, and I was but the humblest of instruments in His hand. To Him alone should be given all the praise.”

Mrs. Stowe received $300 for her serial story! However, scarcely had the last instalment appeared when a Boston publisher made arrangements to print it in book form. Within one year it had passed through 120 editions, and four months after the book was off the press the author had received $10,000 in royalties. Almost in a day Mrs. Stowe had become one of the most famous women in the world, and the specter of poverty had been banished forever. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” exerted a profound influence not only over the American people, but its fame spread to Europe. The year following its publication Jenny Lind came to America. Asked to contribute to a fund Mrs. Stowe was raising for the purpose of purchasing the freedom of a slave family, the “Swedish Nightingale” gladly responded, also writing a letter to Mrs. Stowe in the following prophetic vein: “I have the feeling about ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ that great changes will take place by and by, from the impression people receive from it, and that the writer of that book can fall asleep today or tomorrow with the bright, sweet consciousness of having been a strong means in the Creator’s hand of having accomplished essential good.”

Tributes like this came to Mrs. Stowe from the great and lowly in all parts of the world.

Concerning Jenny Lind’s singing, Mrs. Stowe wrote to her husband from New York: “Well, we have heard Jenny Lind, and the affair was a bewildering dream of sweetness and beauty. Her face and movements are full of poetry 405 and feeling. She has the artless grace of a little child, the poetic effect of a wood-nymph.”

Mrs. Stowe died in 1896 at the ripe age of eighty-four. Not long before her death she wrote to a friend: “I have sometimes had in my sleep strange perceptions of a vivid spiritual life near to and with Christ, and multitudes of holy ones, and the joy of it is like no other joy—it cannot be told in the language of the world.... The inconceivable loveliness of Christ!... I was saying as I awoke:

’Tis joy enough, my All in all,

At Thy dear feet to lie.

Thou wilt not let me lower fall,

And none can higher fly.”

« Prev Harriet Beecher Stowe and Her Hymns Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection