Some film characters were significant Presbyterians
by Dr. Edward McNulty, Visual Parables | Special to Presbyterian News Service
“Sons and Daughters of Thunder” is a new film that takes us back to a crucial period in American history.
Long before the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s and the current Black Lives Matter demonstrations, a small minority of Americans were agitating for the end of slavery. Known as Abolitionists, these freedom fighters were almost as unpopular in the North during the 1830s as they were in the South. And in Walnut Hills (a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio) at the brand-new Lane Seminary they first had to fight for the freedom to even talk in public about slavery and its abolition, as well as combat a popular belief that freed Blacks and whites could not live together and therefore ought to be sent out of the country.
Director Kelly Rundle’s film is based on the play by Earlene Hawley and Curtiss Heeter, written during the 1970s. It depicts the stormy events of what became known as the Lane Debates, held in defiance of the seminary’s administration in 1834. The seminary president, Lyman Beecher, was probably the best known preacher of the time, a longtime educator and writer as well as minister. His daughter Catharine Beecher was also widely known as an educator and writer. However, even better known today is Lyman Beecher’s other daughter, Harriet, 11 years Catharine’s junior. Harriet and her sister are shown present at the debates at which activist student Theodore Weld plays the leading role. Weld, an ardent Abolitionist, had helped found the seminary, but when he had been invited to teach, he enrolled instead as a student.
The thesis of the film is that the Lane Debates were an important inspiration that led many years later to Harriet writing her influential novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Kelly and his co-writer and producer wife Tammy have made two additions to the play that inject even more drama into it, as well as Black authenticity.
First, the film opens and closes with a powerful speech given by the most famous Black Abolitionist of the time, Frederick Douglass. It is 1852 in Rochester, New York where the great orator is giving what we know as his “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” speech. Harriet Beecher Stowe and husband Calvin are in the audience, as is Theodore Weld and his wife Angelina, one of the Grimke sisters who had left their native South Carolina when they became convinced that slavery was morally wrong. The film then jumps to 1894 in Hartford, Connecticut, with Harriet at her desk writing a letter to Weld about that pivotal year in Cincinnati. Thus the bulk of the film consists of flashbacks to the time and events that would shape the future novelist.
The Rundles’ second addition to the play is the scene in which the only Black student at Lane Seminary, James Bradley, speaks — some time after we have heard from Weld and other students and professors. In his autobiographical testimony, Bradley adds authenticity to the debate which hitherto has been voiced by whites. The young Black man tells of his capture in Africa and of the horrors of the Middle Passage, his years of uncompensated labor and his nights of working for himself so that he was able to purchase his freedom. Nothing abstract or theoretical about his presentation, just the harsh facts.
President Lyman Beecher was against slavery but favored what was called “colonization.” He argued for gradual emancipation, to be followed by shipping the freed slaves back to Africa. He addresses the student body trying to “reason” with them but quickly learns that they are not docile sheep. Led by Weld, they are eager to debate the issues, no matter the danger from the pro-slavery public. The seminary’s Board of Trustees, led by a Judge Wright, forbids the debates and orders Beecher not to speak about the issue in public. Weld and the students rebel, deciding to hold a series of meetings over 18 days. It is while nailing up a poster advertising them that Weld meets Harriet and then her older sister Catharine.
The sisters, especially Catharine, support their father’s views. During this initial meeting Weld laments that “the chief conspiracy of slavery is that it must not be talked about.” This was a popular stance by those who wanted to maintain the uneasy peace between the North and the South and within their own families and communities. Congress itself, led by its Southern representatives, had adopted a gag rule forbidding the discussion of slavery in either congressional chamber or the consideration of any petition brought by abolitionist groups. (This film, though released two years ago, might seem prescient of those now opposing the teaching/discussion of Black history in schools!)
In the first debate Catharine speaks on behalf of her father, espousing colonization. Others, including Weld, argue against it, their fervent arguments carrying the day. Some of the students come from Southern slave-holding families but admit that Weld has convinced them to embrace the freedom of slaves. (Although we will continue using the term “debate,” the film makes it clear that the sessions were not formal debates — no platform speaker argues for slavery. All were against it, with just a few in the audience arguing against emancipation.)
Between debates there are several exchanges between Harriet, Weld and Dr. Beecher and Judge Wright and the trustees. It is obvious to Weld that the trustees are businessmen worried about their commercial ties with slaveholders, as well as fearing for the safety of the seminary. The majority of Cincinnati citizens supported slavery and had attacked Blacks during the riot of 1829, so their fears were well founded. Indeed, the whole state of Ohio had passed a Black Code about a quarter of a century earlier that severely restricted the freedom of Blacks, so the Lane students were bucking serious trends. During one session a member of the audience claims that science has proven that Blacks are inferior to whites. The students are quick to refute this.
At the crucial debate Weld answers the charge that he has been exaggerating the cruel conditions of the slave. (Catharine has said this to keep her sister from going over to Weld’s position.) He brings out a large stack of posters and articles in which rewards are offered for runaway slaves. As he dramatically tosses them among the listeners and they flutter to the floor, Harriet picks one up and reads it. Seeing how many of them there are, and shocked by their view of slaves as being the same as strayed cattle, she is convinced that Weld is right and her sister wrong.
At another session a fight breaks out, and Professor John Morgan, a supporter of the students, comes away with a black eye. The trustees meet behind Dr. Beecher’s back, fire Professor Morgan and forbid any discussion of emancipation, even during mealtime. Almost all of the students decide to leave the seminary and enroll as a group at the more liberal Oberlin College. Before departing, Weld seeks out Harriet to say goodbye. She tells him that she wants her life to count for something, but she does not know for what. He asks her what she likes best to do, and she replies with one word: “write.” (Though just 23, she has already published several articles in regional journals.) Then write, he tells her, but write the truth. The filmmakers do not need to tell us how well she rose to and fulfilled this challenge.
The Rundles, of course, had to take some liberties in order to dramatize in a two-hour period a complicated series of events. (See my review here.) However, thanks to their well-written script and the excellent acting of the cast, this all but forgotten event comes alive for the viewer. Although some scenes in the film might suggest romantic feelings passing between Harriet and Theodore, Harriet’s heart actually belonged to one of the Lane professors, Calvin Stowe, a biblical scholar who also would become a great champion of public education. He appears in the film — and in one scene you can see him making moon eyes at her — but Stowe was not then an Abolitionist, so apparently took no part in the debates. He married Harriet two years after the debates, and the couple did lend aid to runaway slaves. Much later when the couple moved to Maine and began teaching at Bowdoin College, he and Harriet again participated in the Underground Railroad by hiding escaped slaves en route to Canada.
Presbyterians should especially be interested in the film because the Beecher family had many connections to Presbyterian churches. Lyman Beecher had served Presbyterian churches in the east, and while president of Lane, pastored for ten years Cincinnati’s Second Presbyterian Church (which through a later merger formed what is today’s Covenant-First Presbyterian Church). Harriet’s brother Henry Ward Beecher was a student at Lane at the time but also took little or no part in the debates (this would have been in keeping with the wishes of his father), and so he does not appear in the film. Later he would become the most famous Presbyterian preacher in America, successfully carrying out two important missions at the behest of President Lincoln, and later still become enmeshed in a scandal with a female parishioner that made national headlines.
Lane Seminary itself is important to Presbyterian history, it being the first seminary established west of the Alleghenies. Thanks to the acquisitions of Prof. Stowe, its library grew to 10,000 volumes, the largest collection of biblical/theological books in the west at the time. These in the next century would be deposited at Chicago’s McCormick Theological Seminary when Lane’s lack of finances forced it to close down. (I remember seeing some of these books when I worked in McCormick’s library during my student days. I was also the recipient of a “Lane Scholarship.”) When Theodore Weld led his fellow students out of Lane in 1834, the seminary was left with just a couple of students. Though Dr. Lyman was able to recruit some more, the seminary never recovered enough to fulfill its early promise of growing to become the most influential seminary for ministers in the West. Instead, as stated above, its major assets in the next century would strengthen the ministry of McCormick, located in the city that would surpass Cincinnati in size and influence.
“Sons and Daughters of Thunder” derives its title from Mark 3:17, which is part of the list of disciples whom Jesus chose as apostles:
“James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder)”
From other gospel passages we learn that these two ex-fishermen were bold — asking Jesus for prime positions in his kingdom and at an earlier time wanting to call down fire from heaven to punish a Samaritan village that would not serve them. Certainly Theodore Weld’s voice was thunderous in his attack on slavery — and later, when Harriet as a writer found her voice, the daughter of Lyman Beecher also cried out with a thunderous voice that shook the foundations of this nation’s racist structure.
No other book changed as many minds or, on the contrary, stirred up as much anger, as her “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” There were other factors that contributed to her writing her polemical book — her seeing slavery firsthand when she visited Kentucky, her contact with the slaves whom she and her husband hid, plus some personal experiences — but there can be no doubt that Theodore Weld and the Lane Debates deeply impressed her. And she, in turn, through her book that exposed the cruel barbarism of slavery, left a deep impression on the nation.
The film can be rented on Vimeo and is available on DVD for home use. A special license is available for colleges and organizations for classroom and public showings. For a wealth of information and photos check out the film’s home page here.
History buffs can open and read many source documents through this article.
Dr. Edward McNulty is a Presbyterian minister and former film critic for Presbyterians Today. The author of 3 film books published by Westminster John Knox Press, his latest is “Jesus Christ: Movie Star.” More than 2,300 of his film reviews, many of them dealing with social justice issues, can be read here.
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Categories: Racial Justice
Tags: abolition, calvin stowe, catharine beecher, covenant-first presbyterian church cincinnati, dr. edward mcnulty, emancipation, film, frederick douglass, harriet beecher stowe, kelly rundle, lane seminary, lyman beecher, mark 3:17, mccormick theological seminary, racial justice, review, sons and daughters of thunder, theodore weld, uncle tom's cabin, underground railroad, visual parables, westminster john knox press, what to a slave is the 4th of July?
Ministries: Gender, Racial and Intercultural Justice