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- The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe - 6/82 -
you will probably not hear from me under two months."
Before two months had passed came vague rumors of a terrible shipwreck on the coast of Ireland. Then the tidings that the Albion was lost. Then came a letter from Mr. Pond, at Kinsale, Ireland, dated May 2, 1822:--
"You have doubtless heard of the shipwreck of the Albion packet of New York, bound to Liverpool. It was a melancholy shipwreck. It happened about four o'clock on the morning of the 22d of April. Professor Fisher, of Yale College, was one of the passengers. Out of twenty- three cabin passengers, but one reached the shore. He is a Mr. Everhart, of Chester County, Pennsylvania. He informs me that Professor Fisher was injured by things that fetched away in the cabin at the time the ship was knocked down. This was between 8 and 9 o'clock in the evening of the twenty-first. Mr. Fisher, though badly bruised, was calm and resolute, and assisted Captain Williams by taking the injured compass to his berth and repairing it. About five minutes before the vessel struck Captain Williams informed the passengers of their danger, and all went on deck except Professor Fisher, who remained sitting in his berth. Mr. Everhart was the last person who left the cabin, and the last who ever saw Professor Fisher alive."
I should not have spoken of this incident of family history with such minuteness, except for the fact that it is so much a part of Mrs. Stowe's life as to make it impossible to understand either her character or her most important works without it. Without this incident "The Minister's Wooing" never would have been written, for both Mrs. Marvyn's terrible soul struggles and old Candace's direct and effective solution of all religious difficulties find their origin in this stranded, storm-beaten ship on the coast of Ireland, and the terrible mental conflicts through which her sister afterward passed, for she believed Professor Fisher eternally lost. No mind more directly and powerfully influenced Harriet's than that of her sister Catherine, unless it was her brother Edward's, and that which acted with such overwhelming power on the strong, unyielding mind of the older sister must have, in time, a permanent and abiding influence on the mind of the younger.
After Professor Fisher's death his books came into Miss Beecher's possession, and among them was a complete edition of Scott's works. It was an epoch in the family history when Doctor Beecher came down- stairs one day with a copy of "Ivanhoe" in his hand, and said: "I have always said that my children should not read novels, but they must read these."
The two years following the death of Professor Fisher were passed by Miss Catherine Beecher at Franklin, Mass., at the home of Professor Fisher's parents, where she taught his two sisters, studied mathematics with his brother Willard, and listened to Doctor Emmons' fearless and pitiless preaching. Hers was a mind too strong and buoyant to be crushed and prostrated by that which would have driven a weaker and less resolute nature into insanity. Of her it may well be said:--
"She faced the spectres of the mind And laid them, thus she came at length To find a stronger faith her own."
Gifted naturally with a capacity for close metaphysical analysis and a robust fearlessness in following her premises to a logical conclusion, she arrived at results startling and original, if not always of permanent value.
In 1840 she published in the "Biblical Repository" an article on Free Agency, which has been acknowledged by competent critics as the ablest refutation of Edwards on "The Will" which has appeared. An amusing incident connected with this publication may not be out of place here. A certain eminent theological professor of New England, visiting a distinguished German theologian and speaking of this production, said: "The ablest refutation of Edwards on 'The Will' which was ever written is the work of a woman, the daughter of Dr. Lyman Beecher." The worthy Teuton raised both hands in undisguised astonishment. "You have a woman that can write an able refutation of Edwards on 'The Will'? God forgive Christopher Columbus for discovering America!"
Not finding herself able to love a God whom she thought of in her own language as "a perfectly happy being, unmoved by my sorrows or tears, and looking upon me only with dislike and aversion," she determined "to find happiness in living to do good." "It was right to pray and read the Bible, so I prayed and read. It was right to try to save others, so I labored for their salvation. I never had any fear of punishment or hope of reward all these years." She was tormented with doubts. "What has the Son of God done which the meanest and most selfish creature upon earth would not have done? After making such a wretched race and placing them in such disastrous circumstances, somehow, without any sorrow or trouble, Jesus Christ had a human nature that suffered and died. If something else besides ourselves will do all the suffering, who would not save millions of wretched beings and receive all the honor and gratitude without any of the trouble? Sometimes when such thoughts passed through my mind, I felt that it was all pride, rebellion, and sin."
So she struggles on, sometimes floundering deep in the mire of doubt, and then lifted for the moment above it by her naturally buoyant spirits, and general tendency to look on the bright side of things. In this condition of mind, she came to Hartford in the winter of 1824, and began a school with eight scholars, and it was in the practical experience of teaching that she found a final solution of all her difficulties. She continues:--
"After two or three years I commenced giving instruction in mental philosophy, and at the same time began a regular course of lectures and instructions from the Bible, and was much occupied with plans for governing my school, and in devising means to lead my pupils to become obedient, amiable, and pious. By degrees I finally arrived at the following principles in the government of my school:--
"First. It is indispensable that my scholars should feel that I am sincerely and deeply interested in their best happiness, and the more I can convince them of this, the more ready will be their obedience.
"Second. The preservation of authority and order depends upon the certainty that unpleasant consequences to themselves will inevitably be the result of doing wrong.
"Third. It is equally necessary, to preserve my own influence and their affection, that they should feel that punishment is the natural result of wrong-doing in such a way that they shall regard themselves, instead of me, as the cause of their punishment.
"Fourth. It is indispensable that my scholars should see that my requisitions are reasonable. In the majority of cases this can be shown, and in this way such confidence will be the result that they will trust to my judgment and knowledge, in cases where no explanation can be given.
"Fifth. The more I can make my scholars feel that I am actuated by a spirit of self-denying benevolence, the more confidence they will feel in me, and the more they will be inclined to submit to self-denying duties for the good of others.
"After a while I began to compare my experience with the government of God. I finally got through the whole subject, and drew out the results, and found that all my difficulties were solved and all my darkness dispelled."
Her solution in brief is nothing more than that view of the divine nature which was for so many years preached by her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, and set forth in the writings of her sister Harriet,--the conception of a being of infinite love, patience, and kindness who suffers with man. The sufferings of Christ on the cross were not the sufferings of his human nature merely, but the sufferings of the divine nature in Him. In Christ we see the only revelation of God, and that is the revelation of one that suffers. This is the fundamental idea in "The Minister's Wooing," and it is the idea of God in which the storm-tossed soul of the older sister at last found rest. All this was directly opposed to that fundamental principle of theologians that God, being the infinitely perfect Being, cannot suffer, because suffering indicates imperfection. To Miss Beecher's mind the lack of ability to suffer with his suffering creatures was a more serious imperfection. Let the reader turn to the twenty-fourth chapter of "The Minister's Wooing" for a complete presentation of this subject, especially the passage that begins, "Sorrow is divine: sorrow is reigning on the throne of the universe."
In the fall of the year 1824, while her sister Catherine was passing through the soul crisis which we have been describing, Harriet came to the school that she had recently established.
In a letter to her son written in 1886, speaking of this period of her life, Mrs. Stowe says: "Somewhere between my twelfth and thirteenth year I was placed under the care of my elder sister Catherine, in the school that she had just started in Hartford, Connecticut. When I entered the school there were not more than twenty-five scholars in it, but it afterwards numbered its pupils by the hundreds. The school- room was on Main Street, nearly opposite Christ Church, over Sheldon & Colton's harness store, at the sign of the two white horses. I never shall forget the pleasure and surprise which these two white horses produced in my mind when I first saw them. One of the young men who worked in the rear of the harness store had a most beautiful tenor voice, and it was my delight to hear him singing in school hours :--
'When in cold oblivion's shade Beauty, wealth, and power are laid, When, around the sculptured shrine, Moss shall cling and ivy twine, Where immortal spirits reign, There shall we all meet again.'
"As my father's salary was inadequate to the wants of his large family, the expense of my board in Hartford was provided for by a species of exchange. Mr. Isaac D. Bull sent a daughter to Miss Pierce's seminary in Litchfield, and she boarded in my father's family in exchange for my board in her father's family. If my good, refined, neat, particular stepmother could have chosen, she could not have found a family more exactly suited to her desires. The very soul of neatness and order pervaded the whole establishment. Mr. I. D. Bull was a fine, vigorous, white-haired man on the declining slope of life, but full of energy and of kindness. Mr. Samuel Collins, a neighbor who lived next door, used to frequently come in and make most impressive and solemn calls on Miss Mary Anne Bull, who was a brunette and a celebrated beauty of the day. I well remember her long raven curls falling from the comb that held them up on the top of her head. She had a rich soprano voice, and was the leading singer in the Centre Church choir. The two brothers also had fine, manly voices, and the family circle was often enlivened by quartette singing and flute playing. Mr. Bull kept a very large wholesale drug store on Front Street, in which his two sons, Albert and James, were clerks. The
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