William Gilmore Simms, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Calvinism, and the Novel in Antebellum America

In his The Novel: Who Needs it? Joseph Epstein proposes that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “beyond doubt the most important novel published in the United States.” The novel’s importance lay, says Epstein, in its effect. But “important though Uncle Tom’s Cabin Was, its importance remains historical only.”[1]

Epstein’s accurate assessment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as stylistically and literarily mediocre does not negate his thesis that it was important. In many ways, Stowe’s novel transcended politics and exposes important religious differences and developments in the South and in the North. Uncle Tom infuriated Southerners and inspired an entire group of Anti-Tom novels. Undoubtedly the most famous purveyor of Anti-Tom literature in the 1850s was South Carolinian William Gilmore Simms. The head of the state and perhaps the South’s antebellum literary pantheon, Simms quickly wrote Woodcraft and The Sword and the Distaff to refute Stowe’s allegations regarding slavery.  An Episcopalian whose piety shaded towards an almost Classical Roman naturalism, Simms increasingly believed that Stowe’s Calvinist Puritan forebearers programmed her and those like her to pursue utopian schemes that inevitably upset the social order.

Simms’ dislike of Calvinism and Presbyterianism preceded the publication of Stowe’s work. In 1849 he reviewed a published collection of William Cowper’s poetry. Simms championed the work of Cowper in the United States, and saw the hymnist and poet as a misunderstood genius. Simms saw no ambiguity in who to blame for Cowper’s battle with depression and suicide. It was John Newton, the Calvinist, Simms believed, whose zeal had led Cowper to battle with eternal assurance so much that he attempted suicide rather than keep living. Newton, Simms argued, was patently unfit to be a spiritual advisor. [2]

Calvinism and particularly political Calvinism proved to be the source of nearly every evil. Simms’ review of the works of Joel Headley, a Presbyterian minister and and popular historian, illustrated his increasing association of Calvinism with New England Puritanism and the Whiggish northern nationalism that eventually led to the creation of the Republican Party in the mid 1850s. The Republican Party’s foundations lay in what Simms perceived to be religious fanaticism and militarism historically downstream from the Puritan Roundheads and Cromwell’s New Model Army in the English Civil War.

In many ways Simms seems to have mirrored Hawthorne’s dislike of the Puritans, but unlike Hawthorne, Simms had another socio-cultural tradition to appeal to. Whereas Hawthorne at best could be a rebellious native Puritan, Simms looked to the Episcopal Church, which he in no way cared for theologically, as an alternative Anglophone founding myth to New England’s Puritans. In his novel The Yemassee, for example, Simms has the hero fall in  love with the fair daughter of a crusty of Puritan preacher whose piety is not only distasteful; its unnatural. Free from Calvinist clericalism, the heroine naturally falls for the gallant—and we are to assume, less puritanical and likely Anglican—protagonist. For the Early Republic novelists—North and South—Puritan moralism was unnatural, a theme carried forward in the the twentieth century by authors like Arthur Miller. Simms—hardly a political progressive—and Hawthorne and Miller all, interestingly enough, arrived at the same place in their literary treatment of the Puritans.

[1] Jospeh Epstein, The Novel, Who Needs it? (New York and London: Encounter, 2023), 109.

[2] James E. Kibler Jr and Daniel Moltke-Hansen, “William Cowper’s Poems,” in William Gilmore Simms’s Selected Reviews on Literature and Civilization (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2014)


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