Mary Bird explains the ‘post-evangelical’ perspective on the Bible, in 1852

From Chapter IX of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which Mary Bird exhibits a wanton disregard for the literal text of scripture and therefore must be reclassified as a “post-evangelical.”

The senator smiled, as if he rather liked the idea of considering himself a sacrifice to his country.

“Well,” said his wife, after the business of the teatable was getting rather slack, “and what have they been doing in the Senate?”

Now, it was a very unusual thing for gentle little Mrs. Bird ever to trouble her head with what was going on in the house of the state, very wisely considering that she had enough to do to mind her own. Mr. Bird, therefore, opened his eyes in surprise, and said, “Not very much of importance.”

“Eliza in Mary Bird’s Kitchen,” by Hammatt Billings for the 1853 edition of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

“Well; but is it true that they have been passing a law forbidding people to give meat and drink to those poor colored folks that come along? I heard they were talking of some such law, but I didn’t think any Christian legislature would pass it!”

“Why, Mary, you are getting to be a politician, all at once.”

“No, nonsense! I wouldn’t give a fip for all your politics, generally, but I think this is something downright cruel and unchristian. I hope, my dear, no such law has been passed.”

“There has been a law passed forbidding people to help off the slaves that come over from Kentucky, my dear; so much of that thing has been done by these reckless Abolitionists, that our brethren in Kentucky are very strongly excited, and it seems necessary, and no more than Christian and kind, that something should be done by our state to quiet the excitement.”

“And what is the law? It don’t forbid us to shelter those poor creatures a night, does it, and to give ’em something comfortable to eat, and a few old clothes, and send them quietly about their business?”

“Why, yes, my dear; that would be aiding and abetting, you know.”

… Mrs. Bird rose quickly, with very red cheeks, which quite improved her general appearance, and walked up to her husband, with quite a resolute air, and said, in a determined tone, “Now, John, I want to know if you think such a law as that is right and Christian?”

“You won’t shoot me, now, Mary, if I say I do!”

“I never could have thought it of you, John; you didn’t vote for it?”

“Even so, my fair politician.”

“You ought to be ashamed, John! Poor, homeless, houseless creatures! It’s a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I’ll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance; and I hope I shall have a chance, I do! Things have got to a pretty pass, if a woman can’t give a warm supper and a bed to poor, starving creatures, just because they are slaves, and have been abused and oppressed all their lives, poor things!”

“But, Mary, just listen to me. Your feelings are all quite right, dear, and interesting, and I love you for them; but, then, dear, we mustn’t suffer our feelings to run away with our judgment; you must consider it’s a matter of private feeling, — there are great public interests involved, — there is such a state of public agitation rising, that we must put aside our private feelings.”

“Now, John, I don’t know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate; and that Bible I mean to follow.

“But in cases where your doing so would involve a great public evil — ”

“Obeying God never brings on public evils. I know it can’t. It’s always safest, all round, to do as He bids us.”

“Now, listen to me, Mary, and I can state to you a very clear argument, to show — ”

“O, nonsense, John! — you can talk all night, but you wouldn’t do it. I put it to you, John, — would you now turn away a poor, shivering, hungry creature from your door, because he was a runaway? Would you, now?”

Mary Bird has clearly been reading too much Rob Bell or something. How else to explain her utter disdain for the many biblical texts condoning slavery? And if she’s so concerned about comforting the desolate, why does she so callously ignore the sincere agitation of “our brethren in Kentucky”?

By elevating her personal feelings and emotions above the literal words of sacred scripture she makes herself God. Typical post-evangelical arrogance. …

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  • I wasn’t aware that supposedly univeral comandments depended on social disapproval or not.

  • Nathaniel

     As Fred has articulated in previous posts, it relies on a conveniently narrow reading of a particular passage where Paul gets a vision of a table laden with non kosher food, with God telling him that nothing he sees is unclean in the sight of God. Someone like Fred interprets that to mean that no one is seen as unworthy by God. A homophobe restricts it to God specifically saying, “Bacon is totes okay now.” 

  • Foelhe

    Wow, I’m making a total hash of this conversation.

    Some fundamentalist Christians will act kindly until you do something they don’t approve of. Then any compassion they’ve been showing suddenly dries up.

    If you know anything about the NT, you know Jesus tells you to treat everyone with compassion and respect. Which means these Christians aren’t doing their Christ-ordained duty.

    So no, universal commands don’t depend on social disapproval. Which is the point I’m trying to make, but apparently I’m doing a piss-poor job of it.

  • olsonam

     The best antislavery text that’s specifically about slaves and not something like the golden rule that incorporates slavery is the book of Philemon which Fred did a whole post about:

  • summers-lad

    Foelhe, I think you’ve got it right and your argument is clear enough to me at least. Fundamentalist or not, we are all prone to having our compassion dry up in some circumstances, which is a challenge to each of us to do better.

    In reply to AnonymousSam, there is a change of tone between OT and NT, but there are also many tones within the OT (and to some extent within the NT). I am persuaded that the most Christian way to read the Bible is not as though it all has equal validity but as an unfolding relationship between God and humankind which reaches its ultimate peak in Christ. Therefore Christ is the key to the rest of it.

    And so while the debates about the rightness or wrongness of slavery, and the cultural context of it, are relevant, Mary’s stance in the original quote gets to the heart of the matter. 

  • Jim Roberts

    … So, you’ve never read Philemon, then?

    Paul, writing to a slave-owner to whom he is returning a slave. With this letter, incidentally:

    I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

  • Jim Roberts

    Nathaniel, that’s hardly the only place where we’re told that there is neither Greek nor Jew, and when Fred applies that reading (which really seems to be the most accurate), it’s specifically to repudiate the homophobe.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Someone like Fred interprets that to mean that no one is seen as unworthy by God. A homophobe restricts it to God specifically saying, “Bacon is totes okay now.”

    Which doesn’t explain the cotton-poly fabric. Cloth of mixed fibers is strictly forbidden by Leviticus and it wasn’t among the heap of non-kosher food.

  • Nathaniel

     Being asked to voluntarily free one slave is different than forbidding it. Thomas Jefferson ended up freeing one or two of his vast numbers of slaves, but that didn’t stop the slave trade.

  • Jim Roberts

    Well, no. So, in order for you to accept that the Bible has anything to say against slavery, it would need to say, Zebediah 4:3, “Slavery is bad”?

    There are a lot of things it doesn’t say are bad. Spousal abuse, for instance. Heck, child abuse. The purpose of Scripture, particularly the New Testament, isn’t to serve as a list of rules to abide by, but instead it very strongly leans toward teaching a person how they ought to live. This is also said quite frequently by our host. When you look to the Bible as a rulebook, you’re always going to be disappointed because when it does that, it’s always speaking in a cultural context, and it’s one that only a psychopath would find laudable.

    If, instead, you look at Philemon, and Galatians, and Ephesians, and James, you’ll find a text that speaks of freedom. Of freeing others and being free yourself, and living in service to your fellow man.

  • Ursula L

    Why not just say you can’t be a Christian and own slaves?

    My take on it is that many of the early Christians were looking for a far more radical reorganization of society than merely ending slavery.  The gospels and letters describe all sorts of social experiments – holding property in common (rejecting the massive inequality of wealth at the time), voluntary celibacy (in a context where there wasn’t a good conceptual framework of consent), treating everyone with the equality of sibling (in a social context that was deeply heirarchical, from emperor down to slave and beggar.)  Different Christian groups took different focuses.But it was all very experimental and socially radical.  The best modern analogy that I can think of is a cross between a hippie commune and a Hutterite colony – the religiosity of the Hutterites but the radicalism and experimentation of the hippies.What does it even mean to be a slave, or a slave-owner, when both are part of a community that holds all property in common?  What kind of property is a slave, as a member of a community where he has an equal share in ownership, and equal status as a believer?  

    Merely saying that a Christian can’t own slaves doesn’t go nearly far enough for what they were trying for.  Elsewhere they discuss not merely freeing a slave but accepting the slave with the equality of brother – recognizing that mere freedom does not do enough to address the injustice of slavery, and freeing a slave, with no other resources, is not sufficiently radical for what early Christian groups were trying for.  

    A slave (presumably not owned by a Christian, who would be sharing property in common with the slave-Christian and with whom there would be the equality of brotherhood) being told to obey their masters is another aspect of Christian responsibility for others – recognizing that if Christian slaves rebelled from non-Christian owners, not only would they be killed and tortured, but many other slaves around them would be killed as the uprising was suppressed as well, and non-slave Christians would also be targets.  

    Unless the Christian slave was in a position where trying for personal freedom would not harm other people also being oppressed, then concern for others being oppressed becomes another form of radical love – even in the worst oppression, caring for the welfare of others, being willing to lay down one’s life and freedom to protect others.  

  • Jim Roberts

    It’s worth mentioning, too, that the earliest texts of Christianity were written for a marginalized religion that was mostly in the backwater areas of the Roman Empire – written for the oppressed, not the oppressor, by and in large.

  • I can’t speak for Nathaniel, but for my own part: if I am to treat a text as having something singularly important to teach me about how to morally understand the world (which my culture frequently insists that I should do with the Bible, which is frequently presented as differentially an artifact of an omniscient and omnipotent Creator that lays out Its Plan for my existence), then I expect that text to be consistent in its opposition to bad things and its support of good things.

    If, instead, it opposes bad things in some places and implicitly supports the same bad things in other places, that seems to me a good reason not to treat the text as a singularly important source of moral understanding.

    Personally, I endorse deriving my moral understanding from my experience of the world and from the reported experiences of others. Which includes texts of all sorts.

    Of course, having done so, I can then return to a favorite text and search within it for support for that moral
    understanding. I can absolutely find that in the Bible. This is sometimes a useful exercise for rhetorical or didactic purposes.

    The same is true of Lord of the Rings, and Winnie-the-Pooh, and a million other texts.

  • Nathaniel

     We come from very similar positions then when it comes to ethics. The point of my postings is pointing out that the Bible fails to be a reliable source for ethical behavior.

  • Foelhe

    Are we… reading different translations of Philemon?

    Paul says that Onesimus is like a son to him, and asks Philemon to welcome him as a brother in the Lord. He also explicitly calls this a favor, says that he “did not want to do anything without your consent”, and makes no moral arguments for releasing Onesimus or anyone else.

    I’m trying to remember that Paul was a product of his era. Maybe in his day this letter would be a bold stance. But I’m can’t quite read this as anti-slavery.

  • Jim Roberts

    Difficult to read it as condoning it, at the least. And, so far as moral arguments go, Paul doesn’t make it as explicit as I’d like, but he repeatedly talks about freedom and being in chains himself, and about what he could do if Onesimus was freed to help him. I’d like it better if it actually came out and said, “Look, Onesimus is a good egg and you ought to release him so he can help more people.” It’s rather unPaul of him not to say this, but maybe this is how he wrote when he wrote to an audience of one.

    To everyone else who said that the Bible has passages that contain questionable ethical advice, I unreservedly agree.

  • It’s also worthwhile to remember that Paul, who had absolutely no legal authority, preferred to guilt-trip Philemon into freeing Onesimus, rather than advising Onesimus to spend the rest of his life on the run from the law.

  • Foelhe

    The chains might be part of the problem I’m having here. Paul describes himself as being in chains to duty/God, and it’s hard for me to call that a bad thing, or to think Philemon would see that as a bad thing. I guess you can make the argument that Onesimus is in chains to God as well, as a Christian, and shouldn’t be in chains to anyone else, but if you want to get that argument you have to get there yourself, because Paul doesn’t mention it.

    I dunno. I’m no theologian (as always) so I might be missing the obvious here, but this doesn’t really seem to condone or reject slavery. Paul requested one person be freed, whether because he was a personal friend or because they were brothers in spirit. I don’t think it follows that Paul though all slavery should stop. He might have, you can follow the logic, but he doesn’t say as such, and I’m not sure whether he meant Philemon to get to that point on his own.

  • The_L1985

     But there is also a big difference between the Bible and Winnie-the-Pooh that you’re ignoring.  Namely, the Bible was written by literally dozens of people, as lots of different books, whereas Winnie-the-Pooh is one book, written by one man, A.A. Milne.

    I tend to be less troubled by different authors contradicting each other than by one author contradicting himself/herself.

  • Can you clarify in what sense I’m ignoring that difference? Because I don’t think I am, although I agree that that difference is not relevant to the point I was making.

  • Tricksterson

    “and often Christians simply dismis such rules as irrelevant to Christianity except where convenient to their prejudices”

    There, fixed that.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     It’s worth mentioning that the earliest texts of Christianity were
    written for a marginalized religion that was mostly in the backwater
    areas of the Roman Empire – written for the oppressed, not the
    oppressor, by and in large. Thanks.

    Which is why I think becoming the state religion of the Holy Roman Empire was the wost thing to ever happen to Christianity.

  • Mary

    I am sorry if I was too harsh on you. I happen to agree with what you said about being kind to others without making judgments about their “worthiness.” I was just correcting you on one point only because many Christians (not necessarily you) have their blinders on as far as what the bible actually says about slavery. A lot of people have never read the OT and so do not know what it says about a great deal of things, unless their pastors bring them up in sermons. Naturally the pastors are reluctant to bring up the uncomfortable parts of the bible. 

  • Foelhe

    Oh no, not at all. I have a bad habit of getting hyper-focused when I debate with people, so I sometimes agree with things I shouldn’t because I’m arguing on another point. I’m certainly not perfect, and I’m not at all bothered if you correct me when I’m wrong.

  • Mary

    “While you’re right, I said that the Bible doesn’t condone slavery because all the lines condoning it are in the Jewish Bible, and often Christians simply dismiss such rules as irrelevant to Christianity. ”

    Well, there is the problem in a nutshell. Christians don’t care what the OT says, UNLESS they pull something out of it to support their point of view.  This is a very dangerous thing to do because anybody can come along and convince people that something is right because “it’s in the Bible.” During the days of slavery in the U.S. most Christians thought it was right and never thought to question it because their theological leaders said it was o.k.

    The reason why Christians should be concerned about this is that history repeats itself. We need to be vigilant that something like this never happens again. There is a war going on from the conservative camp that wants to oppress minorities, women, and gays.  All based in “biblical truth.” So the OT is not “irrelevant to Christianity” as many people believe.

  • Oh yeah. How many times has it been metaphorically said, “Oh, that’s the Old Testament! You can totally ignore* it!”

    (* except for convenient cases where we can beat people over the head with verses that reinforce existing social and cultural prejudices against disfavored groups)

    Gah, but that really, really annoys me.