Joe Chait '05
Hometown: Knoxville, TN
Majors: English Literature & Religion
Senior Study Title: “A Day of Grace: Evangelical Theology in Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
Advisor: Dr. Mary Moss
“A Day of Grace”: Evangelicalism in Uncle Tom’s Cabin reviews the current status of scholarship on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best known work, asserts that this discourse on Uncle Tom’s Cabin lacks a proper understanding of Stowe’s theological context, and proceeds to interpret the novel’s theology in this context. Despite the divergent interpretations of modern critical scholars, Uncle Tom’s Cabin can and must be understood as a literary artifact of American evangelical Christianity. Chapter one’s literature review documents critics of Stowe who have either rejected or distorted Stowe’s Christianity, critics who have mistakenly viewed her as a theological revisionist, and critics who have tried to pin her to a particular denominational stance within Christianity. The second chapter offers an evangelical reading of the novel in the light of ancillary documents by Stowe, including pertinent correspondence and the Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and in the light of the Bebbington quadrilateral, a historical criterion for evaluating evangelicalism. The conclusion suggests that reading Stowe as an evangelical might ignite further academic interest in her writings and should redefine the way in which mainstream religious scholars and theologians view evangelical Christian social thought.
Listening to a conversation between Joe Chait and his advisor, Assistant Professor of English Dr. Mary Moss, is to experience a match of verbal volleys delivered at lightning speed. Divide your attention for a mere second and you may easily miss the parlay of allusions, literary footnotes and asides. The months of working together on Chait’s Senior Study have resulted in an ever-growing rapport of respect for one another’s contributions. The collegiality and appreciation is instantly recognizable.
It’s no surprise, really, considering the student and advisor had to be very open and comfortable with one another, and confident in articulating their beliefs and perspectives, to embark upon a Senior Study that would synthesize Chait’s major and minor areas of study--Religion, Literature, and Philosophy.
“We had many a good argument!” laughed Moss as she recalled the Friday, 8am meetings Joe scheduled as their regular advising time. “Our lively conversations often grew to include other students who dropped by at the end of our meetings.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic literary text, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, has certainly been written about and studied at length, but Chait looked at the work as a theological text. He viewed Stowe’s theology, as evoked through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as orthodox Protestant. For further critique and research, Chait went to the obvious resources, such as other texts by Stowe and other criticism of Stowe’s work. But then, things became really interesting.
“In addition to historical criticism, I decided to use the Bebbington Quadrilateral, a method of isolating and recognizing the qualities of evangelical conviction,” explained Chait. The Bebbington Quadrilateral defines four qualities: conversionism, or the emphasis on a new birth (being “born again”); activism, such as sharing one’s faith publicly; crucicentrism, i.e., a central focus on crucifixion; and Biblicism, or expressing the confidence that the Bible is a fully authoritative text.
Chait made an effective case to Moss for using the Bebbington Quadrilateral as a central tool for criticism, a decision that challenged him, and his advisor. To this complex study, Moss brought her expertise in early 17th Century British literature, the period during which much religious framework was established. “She guided me to use letters from Harriet Beecher Stowe to get more of an historical context, more than just a literary perspective,” added Chait.
“As student and advisor, we encountered interpretative, philosophical, and theological differences every step of the way which forced me to test my ideas and beliefs,” he remembered.
Enabling students to test their ideas through critical thought and discourse is a cornerstone of a Maryville College education, and the Senior Study serves as a rewarding and challenging capstone in this regard.
“A Christian theology approach to Uncle Tom’s Cabin was completely new,” said Moss with a broad smile. “Other readings haven’t recognized that what Stowe was saying would have really resonated with orthodox Protestants at the time. By recognizing this and writing this criticism so well, Joe has really added to the discourse for this text. He said something genuinely new, not just a synthesis of what everyone else has said.”
Work of this caliber and complexity, noted Moss, is usually not seen until the graduate level.
Chait says he has been called to go to seminary and has plans for a future at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School upon graduating from Maryville College.