HumanitiesWeb.org - The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (Chapter VII: Miss Ophelia.) by Harriet Beecher Stowe
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The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Chapter VII: Miss Ophelia.

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Miss Ophelia stands as the representative of a numerous class of the very best of Northern people; to whom perhaps, if our Lord should again address his churches a letter, as he did those of old time, he would use the same words as then: "I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil; and thou hast tried them which are apostles and are not, and hast found them liars; and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured and hast not fainted. Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love."

There are in this class of people, activity, zeal, unflinching conscientiousness, clear intellectual discriminations between truth and error, and great logical and doctrinal correctness; but there is a want of that spirit of love, without which, in the eye of Christ, the most perfect character is as deficient as a wax flower --wanting in life and perfume.

Yet this blessed principle is not dead in their hearts, but only sleepeth; and so great is the real and genuine goodness, that when the true magnet of divine love is applied, they always answer to its touch.

So when the gentle Eva, who is an impersonation in childish form of the love of Christ, solves at once, by a blessed instinct, the problem which Ophelia has long been unable to solve by dint of utmost hammering and vehement effort, she at once, with a good and honest heart, perceives and acknowledges her mistake, and is willing to learn even of a little child.

Miss Ophelia, again, represents one great sin, of which, unconsciously, American Christians have allowed themselves to be guilty. Unconsciously it must be, for nowhere is conscience so predominant as among this class, and nowhere is there a more honest strife to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.

One of the first and most declared objects of the gospel has been to break down all those irrational barriers and prejudices which separate the human brotherhood into diverse and contending clans. Paul says, "In Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free." The Jews at that time were separated from the Gentiles by an insuperable wall of prejudice. They could not eat and drink together, nor pray together. But the apostles most earnestly laboured to show them the sin of this prejudice. St. Paul says to the Ephesians, speaking of this former division, "He is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us.

It is very easy to see that, although slavery has been abolished in the New England States, it has left behind it the most baneful feature of the system--that which makes American worse than Roman slavery--the prejudice of caste and colour. In the New England States the negro has been treated as belonging to an inferior race of beings; forced to sit apart by himself in the place of worship; his children excluded from the schools; himself excluded from the railroad-car and the omnibus, and the peculiarities of his race made the subject of bitter contempt and ridicule.

This course of conduct has been justified by saying that they are a degraded race. But how came they degraded? Take any class of men, and shut them from the means of education, deprive them of hope and self-respect, close to them all avenues of honourable ambition, and you will make just such a race of them as the negroes have been among us.

So singular and so melancholy is the dominion of prejudice over the human mind, that professors of Christianity in our New England States have often, with very serious self-denial to themselves, sent the gospel to heathen as dark-complexioned as the Africans, when in their very neighbourhood were persons of dark complexion, who, on that account, were forbidden to send their children to the schools and discouraged from entering the churches. The effect of this has been directly to degrade and depress the race; and then this very degradation and depression has been pleaded as the reason for continuing this course.

Not long since the writer called upon a benevolent lady, and during the course of the call the conversation turned upon the incidents of a fire which had occurred the night before in the neighbourhood. A deserted house had been burned to the ground. The lady said it was supposed it had been set on fire. "What could be any one's motive for setting it on fire?" said the writer.

"Well," replied the lady, "it was supposed that a coloured family was about to move into it, and it was thought that the neighbourhood wouldn't consent to that. So it was supposed that was the reason."

This was said with an air of innocence and much unconcern.

The writer inquired, "Was it a family of bad character?"

"No, not particularly, that I know of," said the lady; "but then they are negroes, you know."

Now, this lady is a very pious lady. She probably would deny herself to send the gospel to the heathen; and if she had ever thought of considering this family a heathen family, would have felt the deepest interest in their welfare, because on the subject of duty to the heathen she had been frequently instructed from the pulpit, and had all her religious and conscientious sensibilities awake. Probably she had never listened from the pulpit to a sermon which should exhibit the great truth, that "in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free."

Supposing our Lord was now on earth, as he was once, what course is it probable that he would pursue with regard to this unchristian prejudice of colour?

There was a class of men in those days as much despised by the Jews as the negroes are by us; and it was a complaint made of Christ that he was a friend of publicans and sinners. And if Christ should enter, on some communion season, into a place of worship, and see the coloured man sitting afar off by himself, would it not be just in his spirit to go there and sit with him, rather than to take the seats of his richer and more prosperous brethren?

It is, however, but just to our Northern Christians to say that this sin has been committed ignorantly and in unbelief, and that within a few years signs of a much better spirit have begun to manifest themselves. In some places, recently, the doors of school-houses have been thrown open to the children, and many a good Miss Ophelia has opened her eyes in astonishment to find that, while she has been devouring the Missionary Herald, and going without butter on her bread and sugar in her tea to send the gospel to the Sandwich Islands, there is a very thriving colony of heathen in her own neighbourhood at home; and, true to her own good and honest heart, she has resolved not to give up her prayers and efforts for the heathen abroad, but to add thereunto labours for the heathen at home.

Our safety and hope in this matter is this: that there are multitudes in all our churches who do most truly and sincerely love Christ above all things, and who, just so soon as a little reflection shall have made them sensible of their duty in this respect, will most earnestly perform it.

It is true that, if they do so, they may be called Abolitionists; but the true Miss Ophelia is not afraid of a hard name in a good cause, and has rather learned to consider "the reproach of Christ a greater treasure than the riches of Egypt."

That there is much already for Christians to do in enlightening the moral sense of the community on this subject, will appear if we consider that even so well-educated and gentlemanly a man as Frederick Douglass was recently obliged to pass the night on the deck of a steamer, when in delicate health, because this senseless prejudice deprived him of a place in the cabin; and that that very laborious and useful minister, Dr. Pennington, of New York, has, during the last season, been often obliged seriously to endanger his health, by walking to his pastoral labours, over his very extended parish, under a burning sun, because he could not be allowed the common privilege of the omnibus, which conveys every class of white men, from the most refined to the lowest and most disgusting.

Let us consider now the number of professors of the religion of Christ in New York; and consider also that, by the very fact of their profession, they consider Dr. Pennington the brother of their Lord, and a member with them of the body of Christ.

Now, these Christians are influential, rich and powerful; they can control public sentiment on any subject that they think of any particular importance; and they profess, by their religion, that "if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it."

It is a serious question, whether such a marked indignity offered to Christ and his ministry, in the person of a coloured brother, without any remonstrance on their parts, will not lead to a general feeling that all that the Bible says about the union of Christians is a mere hollow sound, and means nothing.

Those who are anxious to do something directly to improve the condition of the slave can do it in no way so directly as by elevating the condition of the free coloured people around them, and taking every pains to give them equal rights and privileges.

This unchristian prejudice has doubtless stood in the way of the emancipation of hundreds of slaves. The slaveholder, feeling and acknowledging the evils of slavery, has come to the North, and seen evidences of this unkindly and unchristian state of feeling towards the slave, and has thus reflected within himself:--

"If I keep my slave at the South, he is, it is true, under the dominion of a very severe law; but then he enjoys the advantage of my friendship and assistance, and derives, through his connexion with me and my family, some kind of a position in the community. As my servant, he is allowed a seat in the car, and a place at the table. But if I emancipate and send him North, he will encounter substantially all the disadvantages of slavery, with no master to protect him."

This mode of reasoning has proved an apology to many a man for keeping his slaves in a position which he confesses to be a bad one; and it will be at once perceived that, should the position of the negro be conspicuously reversed in our Northern States, the effect upon the emancipation of the slave would be very great. They, then, who keep up this prejudice may be said to be, in a certain sense, slaveholders.

It is not meant by this that all distinctions of society should be broken over, and that people should be obliged to choose their intimate associates from a class unfitted by education and habits to sympathise with them.

The negro should not be lifted out of his sphere of life because he is a negro; but he should be treated with Christian courtesy in his sphere. In the railroad-car, in the omnibus and steam-boat, all ranks and degrees of white persons move with unquestioned freedom side by side; and Christianity requires that the negro have the same privilege.

That the dirtiest and most uneducated foreigner or American, with breath redolent of whisky, and clothes foul and disordered, should have an unquestioned right to take a seat next to any person in a railroad-car or steam-boat, and that the respectable, decent, and gentlemanly negro, should be excluded simply because he is a negro, cannot be considered otherwise than as an irrational and unchristian thing; and any Christian who allows such things done in his presence without remonstrance and the use of his Christian influence, will certainly be made deeply sensible of his error when he comes at last to direct and personal interview with his Lord.

There is no hope for this matter if the love of Christ is not strong enough, and if it cannot be said, with regard to the two races, "He is our peace who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us."

The time is coming rapidly when the upper classes in society must learn that their education, wealth, and refinement, are not their own; that they have no right to use them for their own selfish benefit; but that they should hold them rather, as Fenelon expresses it, as "a ministry," a stewardship, which they hold in trust for the benefit of their poorer brethren.

In some of the very highest circles in England and America, we begin to see illustrious examples of the commencement of such a condition of things.

One of the merchant princes of Boston, whose funeral has lately been celebrated in our city, afforded in his life a beautiful example of this truth. His wealth was the wealth of thousands. He was the steward of the widow and the orphan. His funds were a savings' bank, wherein were laid up the resources of the poor; and the mourners at his funeral were the scholars of the schools which he had founded, the officers of literary institutions which his munificence had endowed, the widows and orphans whom he had counselled and supported, and the men, in all ranks and conditions of life, who had been made by his benevolence to feel that his wealth was their wealth. May God raise up many men in Boston to enter into the spirit and labours of Amos Lawrence!

This is the true socialism, which comes from the spirit of Christ, and, without breaking down existing orders of society, by love makes the property and possessions of the higher class the property of the lower.

Men are always seeking to begin their reforms with the outward and physical. Christ begins his reforms in the heart. Men would break up all ranks of society, and throw all property into a common stock; but Christ would inspire the higher class with that Divine Spirit by which all the wealth, and means, and advantages of their position are used for the good of the lower.

We see, also, in the highest aristocracy of England instances of the same tendency.

Among her oldest nobility there begin to arise lecturers to mechanics and patrons of ragged-schools; and it is said that even on the throne of England is a woman who weekly instructs her class of Sunday-school scholars from the children in the vicinity of her country residence.

In this way, and not by an outward and physical division of property, shall all things be had in common. And when the white race shall regard their superiority over the coloured one only as a talent intrusted for the advantage of their weaker brother, then will the prejudice of caste melt away in the light of Christianity.
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