ENLS 290: Gettysburg Address in Context
Prof. Alfred Siewers
Christianity Realization of African-Americans in Abolitionist Literature
Among the many abolitionist writings, speeches, and novels, we may notice that the stances that characters or protagonists take about Christianity vary. To the African-American figures portrayed in novels, or those mentioned as a whole in speeches and writings, Christianity constitutes an essential part of their spiritual life. It is thus important for an individual to examine the realization of Christianity in abolitionist literature, both those with the African-American figure as protagonist, and those with a focus on the liberation of slaves in that period.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, features a detailed description of the mindset of old Uncle Tom on his deathbed. Even though as a slave he was heavily mistreated, he abided to Christianity at the final hours of his life. He chose to forgive those who persecuted him that led to his demise, and his last words were “[W]ho shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Stowe 354) It may seem that Uncle Tom died feeling the presence of God around him and was infused with the strength of God to forgive all sins – the deed that Jesus himself performed at the end of his life. However, this incentive cannot be fully justified due to the status of Uncle Tom being a slave for so long. We may recall the one thousand years of Europe in the dark ages as a parallel – religion, despite our common acknowledgement of being a source of hope for human beings, can also be manipulated in a way that serves the reigning class, as it once did in the construction and fortification of the feudalistic regime.
It is now a generally agreed observation that feudalism gradually lost its power to the rising of capitalism following the development of the Renaissance; during the long history of Christianity, it has certainly embraced new meanings and understandings different to what it was first made for: modern Christians still believe that God always love you: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16). The period in which the American Civil War took place, not too far away from the modern times, should also have the meaning of religion similar to modern beliefs than to classical times. The fact that Tom was put in a circumstance where he abides to the orders of his masters does not expel the possibility that he is still a loyal believer of God; instead, it may be to the individual reader’s understanding whether his belief was genuine or unfortunately a product of his prolonged enslavement.
Unlike the possible attitudes one may take about the character of Uncle Tom, we see the utter determination and confidence expressed by Frederick Douglass on slavery in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass believes that “[t]here are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery”(Douglass 46), while he also advocates the importance that Christianity played in the process. In the final paragraph where he compares the movement of various parts of the world, he quotes the sentence, “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God” (Douglass 46), as a parallel as well as a foreshadowing for the eventual emancipation of slavery in the United States. It is in God’s strength that he believes, and he appears to be standing side by side with the enslaved, quoting William Lloyd Garrison’s phrases “When from their galling chains set free,/ Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,/ And wear the yoke of tyranny/ Like brutes no more.” (Douglass 46) Douglass, being a great writer and a great abolitionist, suggests that it is only through the belief in God’s strength and reaching out to fight against slavery, a world of freedom could come. It is thus worth noting that Christianity stands out to be the central force that puts everyone on the American land together to form a nation.
The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s most famous speech, could be viewed as an ultimate goal that Lincoln and his government were pursuing. A commemoration for the casualties in the Battle of Gettysburg, it also included a blueprint of a government under God’s guidance. Though with no literal mention of African-American and the emancipation of their slavery, Lincoln maintains that the “dead shall not have died in vain”, and “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom”. Lincoln states that the nation will be one of freedom, and that everyone will be equal. He abolished the way that African-Americans used to be treated, and eventually freed them from slavery. Christianity, again as the central issue here, never gets itself fully explained, but it is adopted as a firm belief that it is under God’s will that the nation stands and works as a whole. African-Americans, like any other races, are united under Christianity.
The various abolitionist writings and novels mentioned above range themselves from narrating the miserable life of a typical African-American slave, to advocating for the attempts at undermining slavery, to the ultimate goal of equality and the following of God’s guidance as a nation. The pitiful “Christian realization” sought by poor Uncle Tom is reasonable but easily doubted, while Christianity was at the core of the advocating of the downfall of slavery as well as the pursuit of a new government under God.
- Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin.Dover, 2005.
- The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.
- Douglass, Frederick, and James Daley. Great Speeches by Frederick Douglass. Green ed. ed., Mineola, N.Y., Dover Publications, 2013.