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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  • AnonymousSam

    The more things change~

  • For the Evangelical gatekeepers, those verses apply. But mostly for the pre-born.

    Everybody else gets charity. If they’re lucky. And maybe jump through certain hoops.

  • AnonaMiss

    In case anyone wasn’t aware, there is currently a law forbidding giving aid to illegal immigrants, even leaving water out for them, in the desert along the US-Mexican border. People, including Tohono O’odham acting on their own reservation (and in accordance with the mandates of their flavor of Catholicism/traditional religion mix), have been jailed for violating this law.

    In contrast, there is a city ordinance in Tucson (which is near said border) which requires a set of businesses including gas stations & fast food to provide water to anyone who asks, free of charge, and without requiring any purchases (or ID). Because lawmakers rightly recognize that the Sonoran Desert is fucking hot, and letting someone suffer heatstroke just because they don’t have any money is not acceptable.

    Unless you’re a Mexican.

  • dan

    “This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done–as I have always freely admitted I have done–in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right.”

    — John Brown

  • Well this is weird. So I JUST, this very moment, read this very passage as I’m working my way through “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis” by Noll….which has been profoundly eye-opening for me. The rhetorical devices used to support the “clearly biblical” case against abolition are painfully…shockingly…familiar. And I had to laugh when I got to this passage, having been told time and again by the Gospel Coalition, something to the effect of “Our 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.” 

    Thanks for posting this. 

  • Katie

     The rule on water isn’t a city ordinance, its a state one.  Any business the sells beverages has to provide water free of charge, and an individual who refuses to provide water on request can, under certain circumstances be charged with reckless endangerment.

    As far as I know, providing water to people crossing the border isn’t and hasn’t been illegal per se, all of the prosecutions involved charging people who were leaving water out with littering.

    I’m not saying that the situation isn’t terrible, just correcting a few details.

  • Jessica_R

    And I’m very doubtful that the worst of the “let ’em die of thirst!” lot don’t then go by the Home Depot to pick up a few undocumented people waiting outside to take care of the lawn and gutters. Gotta keep the place up you know.

  • Mary

    “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.”
    This is exactly what is wrong with the religious right. Cold-hearted bastards. They claim that the heart is evil and not to be trusted. I personally don’t trust anyone without a heart. That is what leads to evil.

  • Pete Enns

    Great book and an important idea: the crisis of slavery contributed to a crisis of the doctrine of Scripture as much as those nasty German biblical scholars and finding Babylonian creation myths on clay tablets. We need to start learning from our not too distant past.

  • summers-lad

    I’m sorry, but I disagree. Mary, unlike her husband, was obeying the literal text of scripture. She was also obeying the spirit of the gospel. There is nothing in the Bible that requires anyone to own slaves, or to support “agitation of our brethren” in this context.

  • I have recently thought that the reason America has never repented of its racism is because it never wants to repent of slavery. Now, with the corporatocracy moving us backwards in the direction of feudal/slavery economy, that refusal is coming full circle.

  •  Wow. Perfect quote, Mary. That’s going on my Facebook.

  • Jerimijo

    The greatest most important piece of American literature ever written.

  • Nathaniel

    “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only
    when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of
    heart and reverence for the Lord.”

    Colossians 3:22 

  • Ursula L

    “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only 
    when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.”
    Colossians 3:22 

    That’s an instruction to slaves, on how to behave in a bad situation.  It is not an instruction to slave owners or anyone seeing a hungry, cold person, who may or may not be an escaped slave.

  • Nathaniel

    Summers-lad asserted “There is nothing in the Bible that requires anyone to own slaves.” I was offering some counter evidence to that assertion.

  • Ursula L

    Summers-lad asserted “There is nothing in the Bible that requires anyone to own slaves.” I was offering some counter evidence to that assertion.

    And that quote does nothing to require someone to own slaves.  

    The letter was written in a society where slavery existed.  And slave owners are always  justifiably terrified that slaves will organize and revolt, demanding their freedom and taking bloody revenge for the abuse they’ve suffered.

    That instruction seems, to me, to be a cover-your-ass bit to be clear that while Christian slave-owners are to treat their slaves with the equality of a sibling, Christians as a group are not organizing a slave rebellion.  Because they knew the bloody fate of Sparticus and his rebellion. 

  • Nathaniel

     If there isn’t a requirement in the Bible to own slaves, it’s in the same way there isn’t a requirement to own refrigerators. As you point out, slavery was an accepted fact of life. I’ve yet to see any convincing evidence that an anti slavery reading of the bible actually comes from the text and not from the person reading it.

  •  No.  YOu’re making the same category error as “The bible teaches us that the sun goes around the earth.” There are passages on what to do if you are a slave, and there are passages on what to do if you are a slave-owner, but there are not passages saying “If you aren’t a slave-owner, you should go and get you some slaves, because slave-owning is good,” nor are there passages saying “What you definitely don’t want to do is abolish slavery as an institution, because slavery is totes awesome.”

  • AndrewSshi

    But the unspoken issue that we’re talking about is, of course, teh ghey. The theological conservative would argue that  the New Testament gives commands about how to treat slavery, but they’re not positive commands to practice slavery. They are instead commands for how people who already own slaves should treat them and how slaves should act, but they only apply to those Christians who own slaves. In contrast (the theological conservative would argue), Romans 1:26-7 is a positive statement about the badness of gay sex rather than a set of commands on how to treat an institution that already exists. (Of course Paul isn’t really talking about pair-bonded gay sex, but that’s another story…)

  • Nathaniel

     Which is my point. Slavery was in the same moral category as owning a dog. Something that could done with condemnation or commendment.  Just with a few instructions for proper care and feeding.

  • Nathaniel

     In that case, I’d always like to ask those people in a sweet tone how far they’ve gotten on paying off their college loans.

  • AndrewSshi

    (Speaking of sex and money, I’ve actually seen people–evangelical libertarians, shockingly–argue that the Old Testament commands on social justice were part of the old Law that was abrogated in the New Testament…)

  • You mean the same parts that tell them to keep trashing QUILTBAG people as the spiritual successors of Sodom and Gomorrah?

  • People are saying Sandy Hook was a fraud.

    What on Earth are they putting in the freakin’ water over there?

  • Katie

    I’m not sure, but it seems that, of late, every tragedy gets its own conspiracy theory.  I do not like this trend. 

  • misanthropy_jones

    Once you have convinced yourself that members of any group, slaves or gays or ‘illegals’, are the Others, it becomes easy to ignore Christ’s commandments to care for and about them.

  • Launcifer

    I imagine that it was ever thus: why else would that Jesus fella have felt the need to come up with the parable of the Good Samaritan, after all?

  • smrnda

      Nice that people can be Christians and slave-owners at the same time, and some ‘equality’ you can get from that.  ‘slave owners, be nice’ and ‘slaves, shut up and obey’ aren’t really equal, reciprocal obligations.

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

  • Lori


    But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality.
    Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.  

    Colossians 3:25-4:1

  • Grey Seer

    Invisible Neutrino:

    It is rather bizarre, isn’t it? As far as I can tell, the general pattern seems to be reversing cause and effect. Namely, in the wake of a horrific disaster wherein numerous small children were gunned down by a madman with an assault rifle, certain important and influential figures decided that maybe they should put some rules into effect that would restrict the ability to madmen to acquire assault rifles.

    (Note that I use the term ‘madman’ here in a loose fashion. It is not my intention to indicate that mentally ill people are all dangerous and need to be watched, because that is unfair and untrue. Rather, it reflects my belief that there must be something fundamentally wrong in the mind of a man who would turn an assault rifle on innocent children.)

    Anyway, this is the cause and effect – Sandy Hook being the cause, the possible new legislation being the effect. Certain people, however, have convinced themselves that the legislation is in fact the cause, and that because the nefarious Powers-That-Be wanted to restrict gun ownership, they clearly arranged for a horrific shooting to give evidence and backing to their cause. Because that clearly makes FAR more sense.

  •  Yeah. It’s ashame Jesus gave such a concise, unambiguous, carefully exclusive answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” thus making it easy to identify which people you can exclude.

  • Lori

    People have been saying Sandy Hook was a fraud since about 15 minutes after the story broke. The shooting at the theater in Aurora was also a fraud. For a certain segment of the Right wing everything that they don’t like and which is inconvenient to their preferred policies (in this case gun control) is a false flag operation. Every. Thing.

    Every country has its own typical form of homegrown nutter and the illogical, paranoid conspiracy whacko is ours.

  • Madhabmatics

    For those who have missed it, Alabama is doing a knee-jerk gun-liberalization thing that has just about every sheriff in the state freaking out.

    tl;dr private property is sacrosanct unless you don’t want people carrying guns on it, in which case you are bad, and a policeman responding to the call can get fined something ridiculous up to $10,000 for violating ARE GUN RIGHTS

  • Madhabmatics

    ““My goal is to work on a legislation bill that’s good for the citizens
    and protect the Second Amendment, not get in an arguing match over
    details that we may or may not agree on,” said Beason, who added that
    the purpose of the bill would be to clarify what is in stated law.”

    yo who cares what this law does as long as people can see me talking about it.

  • Nathaniel

     Strike me as an odd duck, but I find “slavery” and “just and fair” to be contradictions in terms when used in the same sentence.

  • Lori

    You’re the one who said that slavery was just an accepted part of life at the time and the only thing necessary was some guidance on how to go about it. That’s guidance on how to go about it. Don’t punish your servant unfairly. Don’t threaten them (that’s in a different verse. Ephesians maybe). The gist seems to be treat your bondservant the way you would hope to be treated if you found yourself in that position. Unlike chattel slavery in the US, the masters being addressed in Colossians actually had reason to look at it that way.

    None of which adds up to a command to have bondservants. Obviously it also doesn’t add up to a command not to have them. This is basically academic to me since I don’t believe the Bible is authoritative in any sense. My point is simply that, as with many things, the Bible is not nearly as clear on the issue of slavery as most people would like it to be (in one way or the other). This is one of many topics that IMO makes it very hard to justify a claim that the Bible is the last word in morality, handed down by inspiration from a being in possession of The Truth for all time.

  • Tricksterson

    Oy to the fucking vey

  • Tricksterson

    Because to a person of Paul’s era doing away with slavery would make about as much sense as proposing that people should walk on their hands instead of their feet.  Freeing slave was done but the concept of slavery itself was considered a law of nature.

  • Foelhe

    Can’t help but feel like you’re missing the point here.

    Slavery isn’t explicitly condoned in the bible, no, but the way slaves are supposed to behave is. Nathaniel already quoted the rule “Slaves, obey your masters”. Runaway slaves are disobeying their masters, so runaway slaves are disobeying the literal text of scripture. Not Mary.

    But that’s really pretty irrelevant. The point Mary’s making is that if you are a Christian, you must act as a Christian, which means you don’t ignore people’s suffering because you don’t approve of their behavior. It doesn’t matter if the person is a run-away slave, an illegal immigrant or someone planning to get an abortion. Debating the theology of how wrong they are is not the point – if you won’t feed the hungry, clothe the naked or comfort the desolate, you aren’t doing your Christian duty.

  • I wrote a piece several months ago about what I learned from George and Mr. Wilson’s confrontation earlier in the book. It was a big eye opener for me.

  • B

    More than that, Paul thought that the Kingdom of God was going to be coming in his lifetime, and that when that happened there would no longer be slave or free.  So why worry about trying to end slavery (which frankly would have been impossible — the number of slaves in the Roman Empire at that time was HUGE — I read something like 1/3 of the entire population) when Jesus was about to come back and do it for us?

    Of course by the time the Pastoral letters were written they’d figured out that the end wasn’t nigh after all, and were also returning to something much more like mainstream Roman cultural values.

  • Matri

    It reads to me more like one of those right-wing “Obama wants to taeks our guns, oh noes!” that has been coming up ever since he was elected four years ago.

    There’s even a facebook posting going around that says he’s ordered the military to shoot anyone who doesn’t turn in their guns.

    *sighs* Some days, I just want to leave this planet.

  • AnonymousSam

    For that matter, Jim Garrow started the rumor that Obama now requires that military officials take an oath that they would fire on unarmed citizens in order to keep their jobs.

    Curiously, few people seem inclined to report on this story.

  • Mary

    “Slavery isn’t explicitly condoned in the bible”

    Wrong: “However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who
    live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners,
    including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your
    property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may
    treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must
    never be treated this way”. (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)

    “Debating the theology of how wrong they are is not the point – if you won’t feed the hungry, clothe the naked or comfort the desolate, you aren’t doing your Christian duty.”

    I agree partly with that, as far as how to treat others as a Christian duty. But it disturbs me that many Christians want to pretend that the Bible doesn’t say what it explicitly does say.

    Here is what the OT says about how to treat slaves:

     When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the
    slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave
    survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own
    property. (Exodus 21:20-21 NAB)

    Granted the NT seems to be more progressive in its’ instructions on how both master and slave should behave, but still the bible explicitly condones slavery and this was why it was so hard to eradicate slavery in the U.S.

  • Nathaniel

     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.

  • EllieMurasaki

    If Levitical rules about gay sex are in effect, why are Levitical rules about slavery (or cotton-poly fabric and bacon cheeseburgers) not in effect?

  • Foelhe

    Sorry, I stand corrected. Other people have been arguing the theology here, but I don’t know enough about it to have an informed opinion. The point I’m trying to make is that if someone’s at your door who desperately needs help, and you decide not to help them because they don’t deserve it, you’re being a terrible neighbor.

  • Foelhe

    Let me put that differently. If you’re a Christian, you’re called to be generous, so if you can only be generous if you approve of the person who needs help, you’re not doing a very good job of it.

  • AnonymousSam

    A lot of the older writings don’t seem to focus much on treatment of others as being motivated by compassion, compared to how much they emphasize following the law because God will smite you dead otherwise. I suspect outlawing slavery was the last thing on the writers’ minds in the Old Testament, and by the time of the New Testament, slavery was that much more ingrained within society and even those who were uncomfortable with it had little room to object. They probably saw no way of eliminating it without causing the economy to collapse, so all they could do was remind the readers that compassion should be extended to all people, regardless of their roles.

    Hmm. To carry my armchair theology a little further, I notice that there seems to be a change of tone between Old and New — the authors of the Old seem to speak from positions of power and authority more often than those of the New. That might be a contributing factor as well.

    But I could be completely wrong.