Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Text by Frank W. Boreham
American Abolitionist and Author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) | June 14, 1811 – July 1, 1896 | Litchfield, Connecticut, United States
In a modest dwelling on the outskirts of the city of Rome, overlooking the shining waters of the Tiber, old Father Issachar lay dying, attended only by his daughter Ruth, a woman no longer young. It was towards the close of the first century. Issachar and Ruth had been among the earliest converts to the faith; indeed, they had been received into the Church at Jerusalem during the great Pentecostal ingathering. For their faith they had suffered much, and it was in the dispersion that resulted from that pitiless persecution that they had been driven into Italy. There were times, especially in his later years, when the mind of Issachar went back almost wistfully to the days of his youth. “To how great splendor,” Dr. F.B. Meyer exclaims, “had these Hebrew Christians been accustomed – marble courts, throngs of white-robed Levites, splendid vestments, the state and pomp of symbol, ceremonial and choral psalm! And to what a contrast were they reduced – a meeting in some hall or school with the poor, afflicted, and persecuted members of a despised and hated sect!” Who can wonder that, in his infirmity, Issachar should ponder the ornate ritual that had so often impressed his youth?
And Issachar was dying! For some months he had been unable to attend the sanctuary. He had, however, insisted on Ruth’s going; and she had carefully repeated to her father, on her return, the words of hope and grace to which she had herself listened. And of late her story had been particularly interesting to him. For her heart was full of a wonderful letter that, in sections, the minister was reading to his faithful people. It was a letter addressed to Jewish converts, pointing out to them the incalculable wealth of their invisible inheritance and imploring them to remain steadfast in their new faith. As a rule, Ruth trusted to her memory; but one day the reading seemed so majestic and affecting that she asked permission to remain behind and copy out the sentences that had so impressed her in order that she might convey them, in their integrity, to her aged father. The words that she copied were these:
For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest.
And the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard entreated that the word should not be spoken to them anymore.
(For they could not endure that which was commanded. And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart. And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake).
But ye are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels.
To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.
And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the book of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.
When she read them to Issachar the old man’s face became radiant.
“Yes, yes,” he exclaimed, “there come times when we children of the covenant look back to the old days and the old order; and we fancy that we relinquished more than we afterwards received. But, oh, Ruth, it is a great and terrible delusion! We only gave up the shadow because we had found the substance.”
Every day Issachar implored his daughter to bring to his bedside her worn but precious manuscript; and every day the words grew in meaning to him.
“Yes,” he exclaimed one day, “we gave up the shadow because we had found the substance. We gave up the material – the mount that could be touched – for the spiritual Zion, radiant with light and gladness. We gave up the revelation that was clouded and obscure for a revelation that a child can understand. We gave up a revelation that was narrow and exclusive – only Moses was allowed to draw nigh – for a revelation that is all-embracing and universal. We gave up a revelation that was terrible and forbidding – even Moses exceedingly feared and quaked – for a revelation that is all grace and pity and love. We gave up a revelation that shut us out for a revelation that takes us all in. Ye are come to Mount Zion – ye are come to God the Judge of all – ye are come to Jesus! The holiest is open to the lowliest! There was nothing in the old order to be compared with that!”
The old man insisted on having the golden sentences read to him on the day on which he died; and, to the end of her own life, Ruth pondered their profound significance with ever-increasing delight.
To a Jew the words add a new glory to the thought of the invisible and eternal Ye are come.…; his entrance upon his eternal inheritance is not a possibility of the future; it is an experience of the living present. The feet of the believing Jew are on Mount Zion; he is already a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem; he is a member of the general assembly and church of the firstborn; cohorts of angels attend him at every step. Ye are come to God….Ye are come to Jesus; the way is open; the door stands wide; man holds rapt, familiar intercourse with God!
To a Hebrew mind the words impart, moreover, a new splendor to the thought of immortality. Every Jew had some vague expectation of a life beyond the grave. The Old Testament seemed to encourage such a confidence. But the language was scarcely calculated to awaken enthusiasm. No Jew ever went into transports over the promise of immortality contained in the ancient documents. But how different was this! It fills in the blanks. It irradiates the dim and shadowy hope. The new phraseology compares with the old as a painting of the sunset by [J.W.M.] Turner (1775-1851) compares with a mere photograph of the same sublime spectacle. The ancient Scriptures led a Jew to expect some ghostly existence beyond the chilly darkness of the grave; the glowing message of the new revelation made him feel that, after death, he would find himself surrounded by an innumerable company of angels; he would hold high converse with prophets and patriarchs; he would gaze with unveiled face upon the exalted and glorified Person of his Redeemer.
But the stirring phrases do not confine their uplifting ministry to the Jews of a day that is dead. “That Scripture is worth a thousand, thousand thoughts,” exclaimed Richard Baxter, on his deathbed, when these majestic sentences were read to him. “At another time,” says John Bunyan, Baxter’s great contemporary, “at another time there fell upon me a great cloud of thick darkness which did so hide from me the things of God that I was as if I had never known them. I was as if my bones were broken or as if my hands and feet had been tied or bound with chains.” “I lay long, long at Sinai,” he says in another passage, “and saw the fire and the cloud and the darkness.” “But,” he adds, “after I had been some three or four days in this condition, as I was sitting by the fire, I suddenly felt this word to sound in my heart: I must go to Jesus! At this my former darkness fled away and the blessed things of heaven were set in my view.” “Wife,” said I, on being thus surprised, “is there ever such a Scripture, I must go to Jesus?” She said she could not tell; therefore I sat musing still to see if I could remember such a passage. But I had not sat above two or three minutes when there came bolting in upon me, And to an innumerable company of angels … and to God … and to Jesus; and withal, the twelfth of Hebrews, about Mount Zion, was set before mine eyes.
Then, with joy, I told my wife, “Oh, now I know, I know!” That night was a good night to me; I never had but few better; I longed for the company of some of God’s people that I might have imparted unto them what God had showed me. Christ was a precious Christ to my soul that night; I could scarce lie in my bed for joy and peace and triumph. This great glory did not continue, yet the twelfth of Hebrews about Mount Zion was a blessed Scripture to me for many days together after this.
“The words are these: Ye are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel (Heb. 12:22-24). Through this blessed sentence the Lord led me over and over, first to this word, and then to that; and showed me wonderful glory in every one of them. These words also have oft, since that time, been great refreshment to my spirit. Blessed be God for having mercy on me.”
Now if these golden words are as full of grace and power as this old Jew of the first century and this immortal dreamer of the seventeenth would lead us to suppose, they ought by this time to have demonstrated their transforming efficacy on the broader fields of history. But have they? “The death knell of American slavery,” says David Livingstone, in writing to his daughter Agnes, “the death knell of American slavery was rung by a woman’s hand.” And what was it that moved the soul of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe to that great historic task? She has herself told us. The most formative influence in her life, she says, was the influence of her mother; and she could never think of her mother without thinking of her mother’s text. “For,” she says, “there was one passage of Scripture always associated with her in our childish minds. It was this: For ye are not come unto the mount that burned with fire, nor unto blackness and darkness and tempest; but ye are come unto Mount Zion, the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.” “We all knew,” Mrs. Stowe continues, “that this was what our father repeated to her when she was dying, and we often repeated it to each other. It was to that we felt we must attain, though we scarcely knew how. In every scene of family joy or sorrow, or when father wished to make an appeal to our hearts that he knew we could not resist, he spoke of mother!”
The book by means of which Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe contrived to infect the world with her own implacable hatred of slavery is drenched from cover to cover with the noble thought embedded in the text. When, for example, little Eva lies dying with Uncle Tom sitting sadly beside her, she speaks of the heavenly Jerusalem, and of the innumerable company of angels, and of Jesus. And Uncle Tom’s eyes sparkle at every word. For, though a slave, Uncle Tom has learned to love with all his heart and strength and soul the sacred things that are so precious to his frail young mistress. He, like her, has entered into the unsearchable riches of Christ. The argument is obvious and unanswerable. If a slave can come to Mount Zion and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, how can you set him up on an auction block and sell him, body and soul, from one white man to another? That was the sublime discovery that underlay the abolition of slavery.
“I lay long at Sinai!” says John Bunyan. Sinai, the mount that might be touched and that burned with fire, covered with blackness and darkness and tempest! And so horrible was the sight that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake! “I lay long at Sinai!” Too long, perhaps! For, in Pilgrim’s Progress, the road to the Cross seems to be a needlessly tiresome and tedious one. The text comforts us by telling us that, in point of fact, we need not visit Sinai at all! Ye are not come to the mount that might be touched and that burned with fire, but ye are come unto Mount Zion and to Jesus. We all feel that we were present at that memorable Kirk Session at Drumtochty which Ian Maclaren has so vividly described. Jessie, aspiring to be numbered among the young communicants, is before the elders, and is being examined. Burnbrae asks her a few questions, and is satisfied. Burnbrae is a big-hearted man, with a fatherly manner, and Jessie said afterwards that he treated her as if she were his ain bairn [own child]. But after Burnbrae comes Lachlan Campbell. Lachlan stands for inflexible justice. He soon has poor Jessie on the rack.
“How old will you be?”
“Auchteen  next Martinmas [St. Martin’s Day, November 11].”
And why will you be coming to the Sacrament?”
“My mother thocht [thought] it was time,” with a threatening of tears, as she looks at the harsh face of Lachlan Campbell.
“Ye will, maybe, tell the Session what has been your law-work, and how long ye haf [have] been at Sinai.”
“I dinna ken what yir askin’ [I don’t know what you are asking],” replies Jessie, breaking down utterly. “I was never out o’ Drumtochty!”
Sinai! Here was a mountain peak to so suddenly confront the astonished gaze of a young communicant! Sinai, the mount that burned with fire, the mount that was swathed in blackness and darkness and tempest!
“I lay long at Sinai!” says Bunyan.
“How long haf ye been at Sinai!” asks Lachlan Campbell of poor Jessie.
But Jessie need not be ashamed or confounded beneath the old elder’s cross-examination.
Ye are not come to the mount that burned with fire,” says the text, “but ye are come to Mount Zion. And Jessie is able to convince the elders that, though the first is a foreign territory to her, she is perfectly at home in the second. She has come to Jesus, the Mediator of the new Covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaketh better things than that of Abel, and, as a consequence, she has come to Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.
“I move,” says Burnbrae, as Jessie stands weeping and discomfited [embarrassed], “I move, Moderator, that she get her token. Dinna greet [Don’t cry], lassie, for ye’ve done weel [well], and the Session’s rael [real] satisfied.” The motion is carried, and Jessie goes away comforted.
I should like to have seen Jessie on the day of that first communion of hers. Ian Maclaren says nothing about it, but, somehow, I fancy that the communion hymn on that never-to-be-forgotten Sabbath was Mrs. [Cecil Frances] Alexander’s (1818-1895]:
There is a green hill far away,
Without a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.
And when she joined with wavering, tremulous voice in singing that lovely hymn, Jessie forgot all about Lachlan Campbell’s uncomfortable questions. She felt – as we all feel – that, once the eyes have rested on that green and holy hill, no other mountain, however lofty, is worth worrying about.
Even Moses, the only person permitted to approach it, exceedingly feared and quaked as he drew near to the mount that burned with fire; but the beauty of the gospel is that a wayfaring man, though a fool, may find his way to Mount Zion; a dying thief may enter Paradise side by side with his Lord; and the heavenly city is “full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof.”
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