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Religious Studies, Sketches and Poems

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Religious Studies, Sketches and Poems
Harriet Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Religious Studies Sketches and Poems


No one can read Mrs. Stowe's writings as a whole without perceiving how constant is the appeal to the religious sensibilities. Her greatest book, which took captive the humblest reader and such a genius in literature as George Sand, was in a marked degree a religious book; and again and again, even in playful scenes, there is a quick passage to the religious nature. The explanation is in the simple fact that Mrs. Stowe herself from early girlhood to her latest years was governed by religion, and it is not surprising, therefore, that an entire volume should be gathered from her writings exclusively given over to direct expression of religious feeling and thought.

She would gladly, especially in her later life, have confined herself to writing of this sort, for the realities of faith, especially the presence of the Divine Master, came to have a commanding power over her mind and heart, and to make her almost impatient of much concern about adventures of the ordinary sort. Even the reminiscence of the racy life of the New England of her childhood could not absorb her. "I would much rather," she writes in 1876 to her son Charles, "have written another such a book as Footsteps of the Master, but all, even the religious papers, are gone mad on serials." The book which she was then writing was Poganuc People, and the reader knows what a thread of religious experience runs through that lively narrative.

Footsteps of the Master was published in 1877. In its original form, each section contained interludes of verse, sometimes her own, more frequently hymns and poems from well-known sources. There were also scriptural passages illustrative of the great divisions, and the book was set forth thus as a devotional companion. In reissuing it in this volume, the poems by the author have been preserved in the section given to her Religious Poems; the others and the illustrative scriptural passages have been omitted and Mrs. Stowe's Meditations preserved in their continuous form. The word "To the Reader," prefixed to the volume, is as follows: —

When a city is closely besieged and many of its outworks destroyed, the defenders retreat to the citadel. In our day there is warm fighting about the outworks of Christianity. Many things are battered down that used to be thought indispensable to its defense. It is time to retreat to the citadel; and that citadel is Christ.

The old mediæval symbol shown above[1 - The familiar combination of Rex. Lux, Lex, Dux.] is still more than ever good for our day. Jesus Christ of Nazareth is still our King, our Light, our Law, our Leader. These names comprise all that a human being needs in this transitory, perplexing and dangerous pilgrimage of life.

We are born to suffer. The very conditions of our mortal existence here imply suffering of the most terrible kind as a possibility, a probability, or a certainty. We have affections absorbing our whole being which are hourly menaced by danger and by death – at any moment our sweetest joys may become sources only of bitterest remembrance.

We are born to perplexity. We stand amid the jar and conflict of a thousand natural laws, to us inexplicable, and which every hour threaten us in ourselves or those dearer than ourselves. We stand often in no less perplexity of moral law in ways where the path of duty and right is darkened and beset.

We are born to die. At the end of every possible road of life lies the dark River – the unknown future. If we cling to life, it is only to see it wither gradually in our hands, to see friends dropping from our side, places vacant at our fireside, infirmities and pains gathering about us, and a new generation with their impetuous energies rising around us to say, Why do you wait here? Why are you not gone?

And the Hereafter? What is it? Who will go with us into that future where no friend, however dear, can accompany the soul? What hand of power and love will take ours in the last darkness, when we have let go all others?

The dear old book which we call the Bible gives our answer to all this. It tells us of a Being so one with the great Author of nature and Source of all power that whoso hath seen him hath seen the Creator. It tells us that all things that we behold in our material world were made by him and for him: that it pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell, and that to him all things in heaven and on earth are made subject. It shows him to us from the beginning of time as constantly absorbed in the care and education of this world of ours. He has been the Desire of all nations – predicted, waited for, come at last!

And when he came and lived a mortal life what did he show the divine nature to be? It may all be told in one word: – LOVE. Love, unconquered, unconquerable by human sin and waywardness. Love, sympathetic with the inevitable sorrows of human existence. Love, expressed in every form by which a God could express love. His touch was healing; the very hem of his garment had restoring virtue. He lived and loved as we live and love, only on a higher ideal, – he gave to every human affection a more complete interpretation, a more perfect fullness. And finally, as the highest revelation of Love, he died for us, and in anguish and blood and dying pains still loved, still prayed for us, the ungrateful race of man. He passed through the night of death that he might learn not to fear it, and came forth radiant and immortal to tell us that we shall never die.

By a refinement of infinite mercy, the law of our lives is written not in hard statutes but in the life of this tender and sympathetic friend. Christ is our law. We learn courage, patience, fortitude, forgiving love from him. The lesson impossible in statute is made easy by sympathy. But lest the very brightness of the ideal fill us with despair we have his promise, "Lo, I am with you alway to the end of the world! I will not leave you comfortless. I will come to you." Jesus, as an inseparable soul-friend – a consoler, a teacher, an enlightener – dwells on earth now in a higher sense than when he walked the hills of Palestine.

"Forever more beside us on our way,
The unseen Christ doth move,
That we may lean upon his arm and say,
'Dost thou, dear Lord, approve?'"

To that great multitude whom no man can number, who are living the hidden life of faith, these studies into the life of our Master are dedicated. They have been arranged in the order of the seasons of the Christian year, with the hope of aiding the efforts of those who wish at these sacred seasons to bring our Lord more clearly to mind.

We hear much of modern skepticism. There is, perhaps, no more in the world now than there has always been, only its forms are changed. Its answer lies not in argument, but in the lives of Christ's followers. It was Christians who lived like Christ that won the first battle for Christianity, and it must be Christians who live like Christ that shall win the last. The life of faith in the Son of God, when fully lived out, always has been and always will be a victorious argument.

But to live this our faith must be firm. We cannot meet a skeptical world with weak faith. If we would draw our friend out of a swift-rushing current, our own feet must not stand on slippery places. We must seek faith in looking to Him who has the giving of it. We must keep Him before our minds, and come so near Him in daily prayer that we can say: "That which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled, of the Word of Life, declare we unto you."

And even to those who have no conscious belief in Christ, his name can never be a matter of indifference. Whether they believe it or not, Christ stands to them in a peculiar relation that no other being holds. He is their best Friend, the Shepherd that is seeking them, the generous Saviour and Giver that is longing to save them from all that they fear and to give exceeding abundantly beyond all they can ask or think.

The other Studies and the Religious Sketches which follow are drawn from the early Mayflower and intimate how instinctively in the beginning of her career as a writer Mrs. Stowe turned her mind in this direction. Her poems appeared at irregular intervals and were gathered into a volume by themselves in 1867. The collection then issued is here slightly enlarged by the inclusion of one or two estrays.





"The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world."

Our Lord asserts nothing more frequently than that he came to this world, not as other men come, but as a voluntary exile from a higher and purer life. He said in public, speaking to the Jews, "I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him that sent me." When the Jews tauntingly said to him, "Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?" he answered, "Before Abraham was, I AM." In fact, while he walked as a brother among men, there were constant and mysterious flashes from the life of a higher sphere. Jesus moved about in our life as a sympathetic foreigner who ever and anon in moments of high excitement breaks out into his native language. So Christ at times rose into the language of heaven, and spoke for a moment, unconsciously as it were, in the style of a higher world.

He did not say, "Before Abraham was, I was," but "I AM," using the same form which in the Old Testament is used by Jehovah when he declares his name to Moses, "I AM that I am." So, too, when conversing with Nicodemus, our Lord asserts that he is the only person competent to bear testimony to heavenly things, because he came from heaven.

He says, "No man hath ascended into heaven but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven." This last is one of those changes into the language of a higher world which so often awed and perplexed those who talked with Jesus. It would seem that he had the power by moments to breathe aside the veil which separates from the higher state, and to be in heaven. Such a moment was this, when he was declaring to an honest-minded, thoughtful inquirer the higher truths of the spiritual life, and asserting his right to know about heavenly things, because he came down from heaven – yea, because for the moment he was in heaven.

But in the last hours of his life, when he felt the scenes of his humiliations and sufferings approaching, he declared this truth, so often shadowed and intimated, with explicit plainness. He said, "I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world. Again, I leave the world, and go to the Father." This was stating the truth as plainly as human words can do it, and the disciples at last understood him fully. "Lo! now speakest thou plainly, and speakest no proverb." And in that affecting prayer that followed our Lord breathes the language of an exile longing to return to the home of his love: "And now, O Father! glorify me with thine own self – with the glory that I had with thee before the world was."

It is then most plain on the face of the New Testament that our Lord had a history before he came to this world. He was a living power. He was, as he says, in glory with the Father before the world was. Are there any traces of this mysterious Word, this divine Son, this Revealer of God in the Old Testament? It has been the approved sentiment of sound theologians that in the Old Testament every visible appearance of an Angel or divine Man to whom the name of Jehovah is given is a pre-appearance of the Redeemer, Jesus. It is a most interesting study to pursue this idea through the Old Testament history, as is fully done by President Edwards in his "History of Redemption" and by Dr. Watts in his "True Glory of Christ." In Milton's "Paradise Lost" he represents the Son of God as being "the Lord God who walked in the Garden of Eden" after the trespass of our first parents, and dwells on the tenderness of the idea that it was in the cool of the day, —

"when from wrath more cool
Came the mild Judge and Intercessor both."

This sentiment of the church has arisen from the plain declaration in the first chapter of John, where it is plainly asserted that "no man hath seen God at any time, but the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." The Old Testament records to which our Lord constantly appealed were full of instances in which a being called Jehovah, and spoken of as God, – the Almighty God, – had appeared to men, and the inference is plain that all these were pre-appearances of Christ.

It is an interesting study for the sacred season of Advent to trace those pre-appearances of our Lord and Saviour in the advancing history of our race. A series of readings of this sort would be a fit preparation for the triumphs of Christmas, when he, the long-desired, was at last given visible to man.

We shall follow a few of these early appearances of the Saviour, in the hope that some pious hearts may be led to see those traces of his sacred footsteps, which brighten the rugged ways of the Old Testament history.

In the eighteenth chapter of Genesis we have an account of a long interview of Abraham with a being in human form, whom he addresses as Jehovah, the Judge of all the earth. We hear him plead with him in words like these; —

"Behold now, I have taken on me to speak unto Jehovah, which am but dust and ashes … that be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

What a divine reticence and composure it was, on the part of our Lord, when afterwards he came to earth and the scoffing Jews said to him, "Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?" He did not tell them how their father Abraham had been a suppliant at his feet ages ago, yet he must have thought of it as they thus taunted him.

Again we read in Genesis xxviii., when Jacob left his father's house and lay down, a lonely traveler, in the fields with a stone for his pillow, the pitying Jesus appeared to him: —

"He dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached unto heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending upon it. And behold, Jehovah stood above it, and said, I am Jehovah, God of Abraham, thy father."

As afterwards Jesus, at the well of Samaria, chose to disclose his Messiahship to the vain, light-minded, guilty Samaritan woman, and call her to be a messenger of his good to her townsmen, so now he chose Jacob – of whom the worst we know is that he had yielded to an unworthy plot for deceiving his father – he chose him to be the father of a powerful nation. Afterward our Lord alludes to this vision in one of his first conversations with Nathaniel, as given by St. John: —

"Jesus said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig-tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these, Verily I say unto you, hereafter ye shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man."

This same divine Patron and Presence watches over the friendless Jacob until he becomes rich and powerful, the father of a numerous tribe. He is returning with his whole caravan to his native land. But the consequence of his former sin meets him on the way. Esau, the brother whom he deceived and overreached, is a powerful prince, and comes to meet him with a band of men.

Then Jacob was afraid and distressed, and applies at once to his heavenly Helper. "I am not worthy," he says, "of all the mercy and all the truth which thou hast shown to thy servant, for with my staff I passed over this Jordan and now I am become two bands. Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I fear him, lest he come and smite me and the mother with the children." Such things were common in those days – they were possible and too probable – and what father would not pray as Jacob prayed?

Then follows a passage of singular and thrilling character. A mysterious stranger comes to him, dimly seen in the shadows of the coming dawn. Is it that human Friend – that divine Jehovah? Trembling and hoping he strives to detain him, but the stranger seeks to flee from him. Made desperate by the agony of fear and entreaty, he throws his arms around him and seeks to hold him. The story is told briefly thus: —

"And Jacob was left alone. And there wrestled A MAN with him until the breaking of day. And when he saw that he prevailed not he touched the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint as he wrestled with him. And the man said, Let me go, for the day breaketh; and he said, I will not let thee go except thou bless me. And he said, What is thy name? and he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince thou hast power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob said, I beseech thee tell me thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there."

How like is this mysterious stranger to the One in the New Testament history who after the resurrection joined the two sorrowful disciples on the way to Emmaus. There is the same mystery, the same reserve in giving himself fully to the trembling human beings who clung to him. So when the disciples came to their abode "he made as though he would go farther," and they constrained him and he went in. As he breaks the bread they know him, and immediately he vanishes out of their sight.
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