UNCLE TOM’S CABIN REVISITED
©2002 By Rev. Robert Kelley
It is hard to believe twelve years have gone by since the Lord first led me to write Uncle Tom's Cabin Revisited and after reading it again, to find it still packs a sobering and challenging punch for black males especially that cannot believe non-violent submission to persecutors in the victorious image of Christ is valued by God above retaliation; that it is strength on display rather than weakness. When I was writing this article, I was still developing all of the instruction that would become my book, The Strong Man Of God: Back To Basics first released in 2011. Subsequently, my definition of what a strong man of God is in this article is general. The more specific definition now is: He is a man that lives to please God and do His will. Don't forget to read Uncle Tom's Cabin or get the film version I reference in the article if needed to get the most out of this article.
Rev. Robert Kelley, February 16, 2014
In the Winter of 2002 the Lord led me to rent a recent film version of the book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and first published in 1852. The 1987 film featured acclaimed actors Samuel L. Jackson, Phylicia Rashad and Avery Brooks in the role of “Uncle Tom.” Brooks’ powerful portrayal of a humble yet amazingly strong Christian slave in pre-civil war America caught me totally by surprise. I was so surprised in fact, I rented the earliest film version of the book I could find to see if “Uncle Tom” was similarly portrayed in it.
It was obvious the makers of the 1927 silent film version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin played to the prejudice of their white audience by causing the title character to more resemble the popular happy, head scratching black Sambo than a man of strength. Still, the Christian underpinnings of his steadfastness under trial peeked through. Now, deeply curious as to which “Uncle Tom” was that of the original 600 plus page book, I checked it out from the library and began reading it intensely.
I first paid attention to the phrase, “Uncle Tom” as a teenager in the late 1960’s. In those days, the last thing anyone would have called me was an “Uncle Tom.” In anger and mouthy youthfulness, I was the one calling any one of my black elders “Uncle Tom” that didn’t seem to be in step with the revolutionary rhetoric of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and others of the times. I understood that I was calling them puppets of “the white man” and sell outs to their race (among other negative things) by so labeling them.
Since becoming a Christian in 1977 and called of God to teach and preach His uncompromising Word in 1979, I have been labeled an “Uncle Tom” on several occasions and not just by youth. I have earned this label by declaring “the whole counsel of God” from the Bible which at many points differs from culturally popular black politics and thinking about God. It seems to be black with a biblical view on things is to be like those whites who share the same view and thus, an “Uncle Tom.”
While most of the white and black Christian men who know me could readily testify that I am far from being an “Uncle Tom” after the classic negative definition, my prayer is that God will help me to become more like the character in the book from which the phrase is derived! As I joyfully discovered in seeing Avery Brooks’ interpretation and reading the book’s depiction of “Uncle Tom,” he epitomizes the strong man in the image of Christ I believe the Lord wants all men who believe in Him to become. No doubt this is the reason Satan has worked to mis-represent the character’s persona and cause the phrase “Uncle Tom” to become something despised.
I must pause at this juncture and define what a strong man is. He is a man who has been converted and follows Jesus Christ as Lord of his life. There are four major attributes that characterize a strong man’s life in the image of Christ. First, strong men accept the roles God assigns. Every strong man is a disciple of Christ and son of God; most become husbands and fathers while the rest are called to lifelong singleness and celibacy. Second, strong men obey God to the death. Third, they rely on God for everything. Lastly, strong men trust God for vindication.
Historically, there have been and are now weak black males who are troubled, fearful or driven by selfish motives that fit the profile of what Satan has perverted the phrase “Uncle Tom” to mean. However, my contention is this black male is not the same one presented by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her book. The satanic scandal to say otherwise, has distorted an insightful work of literature and denied at least my generation, the benefit of having a strong man of God properly held up as a heroic figure and male role model to emulate.
Someone will say, “The book and characters are fictional.” Yes, but that did not stop Satan from targeting it! If the avowed enemy of God thought enough of this literary classic to work to destroy the good especially the main character “Uncle Tom” might inspire, then it is worth our serious consideration regardless of the fact it is a work of fiction. Besides, the author states many of her characters including “Uncle Tom,” were “sketches drawn from life.” 1 “Uncle Tom,” she notes, “had more than one development, to her personal knowledge.” 2
Harriet Beecher Stowe was born June 14, 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut. Both her father and brother and eventually her husband, Calvin Stowe, were all preachers. “She grew up with a strong sense of wanting to improve humanity.” 3 She attended and later taught at the Hartford Female Seminary. Upon her family’s move to Cincinnati, Ohio, she continued to teach in a school established by her sister. During this period she began to write short stories. She married Mr. Stowe in 1836.
Advocates for the abolition of American slavery were called “abolitionists.” The future author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was surrounded by their efforts great and small to press the cause in the Cincinnati area. Mrs. Stowe also “witnessed firsthand the misery of slaves living just across the Ohio River in Kentucky.” 4 Perhaps this--combined with her Christian motivated desire to improve humanity--influenced her concern for the black slaves she observed. It was however, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that inspired her to begin to write passionately about their plight.5
After the Stowe family moved to Brunswick, Maine, Mrs. Stowe began writing a novel to reveal slavery’s evils. Her efforts were first serialized in an abolitionist paper, the National Era between June 5, 1851 and April 1, 1852. Uncle Tom’s Cabin the book was published March 20, 1852. 6 With the publication of her book (which became an international sensation), Mrs. Stowe had joined a growing number of white Christian voices that sought to affect the conscience of pre-civil war America--the church included--on the issue of slavery.
Though at times, Mrs. Stowe speaks about the black race in a condescending tone born of race/class advantage in her writing, she clearly has great love and respect for the major individual black characters that comprise her book. The book’s main character “Uncle Tom,” is introduced as “a large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man, of a fully glossy black, and a face whose African features were characterized by an expression of grave and steady good sense, united with much kindness and benevolence.” 7 He was honest and his master’s best hand. He was also a Christian.
“Uncle Tom” (affectionately called that by his master’s son and other children) had become a Christian at a camp-meeting four years prior to the beginning of his story. He leads his family (“Aunt Chloe,” his wife, two young sons and a baby daughter) in and hosts other Christian slaves for prayer meetings in his little cabin on an exceptionally decent Kentucky plantation. He is being taught to read and write by “Young Master George” and reads his Bible well enough to study and highlight it.
As the story opens, “Uncle Tom’s master, “Mr. Shelby,” is forced by debt to sell him and a little boy belonging to a house servant named “Eliza.” Offered the chance to escape with “Eliza” and her child before the buyer comes to claim his property, “Uncle Tom” refuses on principle and to protect others including his family from being sold in his place.
After a very tearful goodbye to his family (a scene the author stresses was far too frequent and inhumane), “Uncle Tom” is taken by the slave trader who intends to sell him again down river in New Orleans. Along the way, he is re-introduced to the harsher side of the American South’s brand of slavery. He soon befriends a little white girl he saves from drowning during the steamboat journey. At her insistence, the grateful father buys “Uncle Tom.” Things go well--for a time.
“Uncle Tom’s” new owner, “Augustine St. Clare,” was of Southern aristocracy. However, instead of the haughtiness usually associated with those--such as his wife--of that social class, “St. Clare” is down to earth and fair minded. He didn’t whip or brutalize his slaves and was embroiled in a continuing inner philosophical debate about the whole issue of slavery. He assigned “Uncle Tom” the tasks of driving his coach and being his young daughter “Evangeline’s” (“Eva”) companion.
“Uncle Tom” spent the better part of his days on the “St. Clare” plantation discussing the Lord and the lofty themes of life with “Eva.” She read the Bible to him and their long talks filled him with much joy. “Eva” was one of those rare young children who had made a genuine and passionate connection to her Creator. The result was a inner goodness, zest for life and insight into the beyond that far exceeded the grasp of all of the adults around her except “Uncle Tom.” While her parents were what we call today “nominal Christians”--“St. Clare” would not even go to church, “Uncle Tom” loved and could richly relate to “Eva” because in the power of his conversion, he was just like her: a little child before Christ!
“Eva” loved everyone and felt deeply for the suffering of brutalized slaves that crossed her path either through family travels or by their visit to her father’s plantation. She empathized greatly with “Uncle Tom’s” single note of unhappiness in the missing of his family back in Kentucky. Both hoped that his former master would buy him back. To this end, “Eva” even sought to help him compose the one letter he sent home to remind “Mr. Shelby” of that fact. “Young Master George’s” response (which included the news “Aunt Chloe” was working to buy him back) encouraged them.
“Uncle Tom’s” world was rocked shortly thereafter when his young charge courageously died of an unknown affliction. “Eva’s” life and death inspired in her father the noble desire to set “Uncle Tom” free. “Uncle Tom” rejoiced mightily at the prospects of freedom and being reunited with his family. But before “St. Clare” could finalize the process, he was stabbed in a cafe trying to stop two men from fighting and died. His wife, “Marie,” refused to honor his intent (expressed to his cousin) to free “Uncle Tom.” She put all of her slaves up for sale. “Uncle Tom” was crushed but continued to steadfastly trust his fate to his Lord.
Within days “Uncle Tom” found himself at a slave warehouse where he and the rest of “St. Clare’s” slaves joined others to be sold. While most gave themselves over fully to the slave system’s phony, enforced “happy slave” spectacle, “Uncle Tom” would not. Like the other slaves, however, he did hope to be purchased by a owner as good as “St. Clare” was.
“Uncle Tom’s” hope for a good owner was dashed when “Simon Legree”--a man he had earlier seen and who had brought revulsion and horror to him--bought him. “Simon Legree” was the South’s poster boy for wretched slave owners. He prided himself on being able to break any “uppity” slave. And although “Uncle Tom” had done nothing except display the humility of Christ, he early on set his sights on breaking and making him into the kind of slave he desired--wicked and brutish.
“Uncle Tom” found no appreciation for having now come to the lowest possible level of slave existence under the god-like reign of “Simon Legree.” All was lost: his home in Kentucky, his wife and children, good owners etc. His new master took his clothes, personal items, Methodist hymnal and would have taken even Christ from him if that had been possible.
The plantation of “Simon Legree” was a dark and forbidding place; run down and grimy. It was far out from civilization and was run as such. Its owner was a cussing, hard drinking, superstitious former pirate and hardened anti-Christian. His field slaves were only physical bodies designed for intense labor (or pleasure in the case of select females) and then replacement or destruction when broken down. He cared nothing for their souls.
“Uncle Tom’s” face was just as dejected as the other slaves who arrived with him at the “Legree” plantation. They were all introduced to “Legree’s” vicious dogs and black overseers, “Quimbo” and “Sambo.” These were the men “Legree” desired to groom “Uncle Tom” to become like. They showed him and the others to their shabby quarters. Then they gave each a sack of corn to grind up and make cakes for food over an open fire. “Uncle Tom” helped two women who were too weak to fight for a cooking spot and was the last to eat.
“Uncle Tom” could not help such displays of Christian virtue. From his days as a newly converted Christian on the “Shelby” plantation in Kentucky, He had fervently testified about and encouraged everyone--especially fellow slaves--to live by the teachings of his Savior and Lord. Too many of his fellow slaves had only a superficial faith or had given into utter despair. Nearly all of the slaves on “Legree’s” plantation fell into this latter category. “Uncle Tom’s” “look up to Jesus” encouragement and kind deeds did much to raise the spirits of an otherwise demoralized and defeated people.
“Uncle Tom’s” steady faith and good deeds also attracted the hostile attention of “Legree.” He persecuted “Uncle Tom” through blasphemous ranting and physical violence. While “Legree” never could break his faith, his actions did at one point cause “Uncle Tom” to experience the lowest depths of despair he had ever known. But just when it seemed God had totally abandoned him, he had a magnificent vision of the Lord dying for him on the cross. This revived his soul and willingness to suffer death in order to remain true to his Lord.
In fact, “Uncle Tom” would die a martyr’s death. After refusing to betray the confidence of two women who had run away, “Legree” threatened to kill him unless he did. He again refused and offered to give every drop of his blood if it would save his master. “Legree” responded by knocking “Uncle Tom” to the ground and then having “Quimbo” and “Sambo” beat him to within a breath of his life. They whipped him all night long but he bore it leaning on the everlasting arms.
When his tormentors thought he was just about gone, “Uncle Tom” looked upon his master and said, “Ye poor miserable crittur, there ain’t no more ye can do! I forgive ye, with all my soul!” 8 Later, “Quimbo” and “Sambo” were remorseful after hearing “Uncle Tom’s” words of faith and prayers in the midst of their cruelty. He forgave them as he had done his master. While secretly ministering to his wounds, they wanted to know who the invisible Person was that had stood by him all through the night. After telling them about Jesus, he prayed for their salvation and the two weeping men became Christians.
“Uncle Tom” lingered two full days and was found by “Young Master George” who had come looking for him to buy him back. He approached his old friend and tearfully called to him. Delirious in the throes of death, “Uncle Tom” tearfully acknowledged the boy who had become a man in his absence. He told him he was too late, the Lord had bought him and he was on his way home to heaven. He directed him to bid his family to follow him and give his love to all. “...It’s nothing but love,” he said, “O, Master George what a thing ‘tis to be a Christian!” 9 In another moment he joyfully departed for glory with Romans 8:35 on his lips.
The historic slander of the persona of and contemporary furor over the book that depicts “Uncle Tom,” has been purposefully done by Satan--the unseen enemy of black and all men--to blind men to the faith, strength, character and victory of the strong man of God in the image of Jesus Christ! If only the majority of black men who were slaves in the American South could have borne it like “Uncle Tom.” Where would our people be today?
1 Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (New York: The Modern Library, 1996), p.625.
2 Ibid, p.625.
3 Random House, Biographical Note: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (New York: The Modern Library,
5 Ibid, p.v, vi.
6 Ibid, p.vi.
7 Stowe, p.31.
8 Ibid, p.588.
9 Ibid, p.594.