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A Handful of Stars: 19: Uncle Tom's Text

By Frank W. Boreham


      I

      Poor old Uncle Tom has been stripped of everything. All that he counted precious has vanished. He has been torn away from the old Kentucky home; has been snatched away from the arms of old Aunt Chloe; has been sold away from children and kindred; and has fallen into the merciless hands of that vicious slave-dealer, Simon Legree. And now Uncle Tom is dying. He lies in the dusty shed, his back all torn and lacerated by the cruel thongs. All through the night there steal to his side the other slaves on the plantation, poor creatures who creep in to see the last of him, to bathe his wounds, to ask his pardon, or to kneel in prayer beside his tortured frame. With the morning light comes George Shelby, his old master, to redeem him.

      'Is it possible, is it possible?' he exclaims, kneeling down by the old slave. 'Uncle Tom, my poor, poor old friend!'

      But Uncle Tom is too far gone. He only murmurs faintly to himself:

         Jesus can make a dying bed
         Feel soft as downy pillows are.

      'You shan't die; you mustn't die, nor think of it! I've come to buy you and take you home!' cries George, with impetuous vehemence.

      'Oh, Mas'r George, ye're too late. The Lord's bought me and is going to take me home--and I long to go. Heaven is better than old Kentucky!'

      At this moment the sudden flush of strength which the joy of meeting his young master had infused into the dying man gives way. A sudden sinking falls upon him; he closes his eyes; and that mysterious and sublime change passes over his face that suggests the approach of other worlds. He begins to draw his breath with long, deep inspirations, and his broad chest rises and falls heavily. The expression of his face is that of a conqueror.

      'Who,' he murmurs, 'who--who--who shall separate us from the love of Christ?' And, with that unanswerable challenge upon his quivering lips, he falls into his last long sleep. Severed from all that is dear to him, there is yet One heart from which nothing can separate him. And in that indissoluble tie he finds strong consolation at the last.

      II

      I was speaking the other day to a lady who had known Signor Alessandro Gavazzi. 'When he was in England,' she told me, 'he used to come and stay at my father's home, and, to us girls, he seemed like a visitor from another world.' The life of Gavazzi is one of the stirring romances of the nineteenth century. Born at Bologna in 1809, he became, at the age of fifteen, a Barnabite monk. His eloquence, even in his teens, was so extraordinary that, at twenty, he was made Professor of Rhetoric in the College of Naples. Some years afterward Pope Pius the Ninth sent him on a special mission to Milan as Chaplain-General to the Patriotic Legion. A little later, however, a new light broke upon him. He left the church of his fathers and devoted his distinguished gifts to the work of evangelism. In connection with his conversion, a pathetic incident occurred. A superstitious Italian mother will sometimes hang a charm around her boy's neck to drive away malignant powers. When Gavazzi was but a baby, his mother placed a locket on his breast, and he never moved without it. But when, in riper years, he found the Saviour, his mother's gift caused him great perplexity. As a charm he had no faith in it; he relied entirely on the grace of his Lord to sustain and protect him. And yet, for his mother's sake, he felt that he should like to wear it. He solved the problem by placing in the locket the words by which he had been led to Christ. When he died, an old man of eighty, the locket was found next his skin. And, when they opened it, they read: 'Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.' Gavazzi's excommunication nearly broke his heart. He left Rome to wander in strange lands, the most frightful anathemas and maledictions ringing in his ears. He was an exile and an outcast, shuddering under the curse of the church that he had served so devotedly and so long. Yet, after all, what did it matter? He had found a love--the love of Christ--that he had never known before; and from that all-compensating love no power in church or state, in heaven or earth, in time or in eternity, had power to tear him.

      III

      One is tempted to continue in this strain. It would be pleasant to speak of Hugh Kennedy, of Savonarola, and of others who found life and grace and inspiration in the text on which poor Uncle Tom pillowed his dying head. The testimony of such witnesses is strangely fascinating; their name is legion; we may yet cite one or two of them before we close. Meanwhile, we must pay some attention to the words of which they speak so rapturously. And even to glance at them is to fall in love with them. They are among the most stately, the most splendid, in all literature. Macaulay, who read everything, once found himself in Scotland on a fast day. It was a new experience for him, and he did not altogether enjoy it. 'The place,' he said, 'had all the appearance of a Puritan Sunday. Every shop was shut and every church open. I heard the worst and longest sermon that I ever remember. Every sentence was repeated three or four times over, and nothing in any sentence deserved to be said once. I withdrew my attention and read the Epistle to the Romans. I was much struck by the eloquence and force of some passages, and made out the connection and argument of some others which had formerly seemed to me unmeaning. I enjoyed the "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" I know few things finer.'

      The words constitute themselves the greatest challenge ever uttered. Poets and painters have gloried in the conception of Ajax, on his lonely rock, defying all the gods that be. But what is that compared with this? In the passage whose sublimities awoke the enthusiasm of Macaulay, and delivered him from insufferable boredom, Paul claims to have reached the limits of finality, and he hurls defiance at all the forces of futurity.

      'Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Death? Life? Angels? Principalities? Powers? Things Present? Things to Come? Height? Depth? Any fresh Creation? I am persuaded that none of them can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.'

      IV

      Neither death nor life can do it. Not death--nor even life. Both are formidable forces; and Paul knew which was the more dangerous of the two.

         So he died for his faith. That is fine--
            More than most of us do.
         But, say, can you add to that line
            That he lived for it, too?

      When Elizabeth came to the English throne, a number of men and women, who were awaiting martyrdom under Mary, were liberated. Animated by the spirit of Ridley and Latimer, they would have kissed the faggots and embraced the stake. Yet, in the years that followed, some of them lapsed into indifference, went the way of the world, and named the name of Christ no more. The ordeal of life proved more potent and more terrible than the ordeal of a fiery death.

      Bunyan had learned that lesson. When he was in the depths of his despair, envying the beasts and birds about him, and tormenting himself with visions of hell-fire, he went one day to hear a sermon on the love of Christ. To use his own words, his 'comforting time was come.' 'I began,' he says, 'to give place to the word which with power did over and over again make this joyful sound within my soul: "Who shall separate me from the love of Christ?" And with that my heart was filled full of comfort and hope, and I could believe that my sins would be forgiven me. Yea, I was so taken with the love and mercy of God that I remember that I could not tell how to contain till I got home; I thought I could have spoken of His love to the very crows that sat upon the ploughed lands before me. Surely I will not forget this forty years hence?'

      Forty years hence! Forty years hence Bunyan was sleeping in his quiet grave in Bunhill Fields; and nobody who visits that familiar resting-place of his supposes for a moment that death has separated him from the love of Christ.

      But life! Life is a far more dangerous foe. 'The tempter,' Bunyan tells us, 'would come upon me with such discouragements as these: "You are very hot for mercy, but I will cool you. This frame shall not last. Many have been as hot as you for a spirit, but I have quenched their zeal." With this, several, who were fallen off, would be set before mine eyes. Then I would be afraid that I should fall away, too, but, thought I, I will watch and take care. "Though you do," said the tempter, "I shall be too hard for you. I will cool you insensibly, by degrees, by little and little. Continual rocking will lull a crying child to sleep. I shall have you cold before long!" These things,' Bunyan continues, 'brought me into great straits. I feared that time would wear from my mind my sense of the evil of sin, of the worth of heaven, and of my need of the blood of Christ.' But at that critical moment a text came to his help--Uncle Tom's text, Signor Gavazzi's text. 'What shall separate us from the love of Christ? For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.' 'That,' Bunyan says, 'was a good word to me.'

      Death cannot do it!--that is good!

      Life cannot do it!--that is better!

      'And now I hoped,' says Bunyan, in concluding his narrative of this experience, 'now I hoped that long life would not destroy me nor make me miss of heaven.'

      V

      Paul dares the universe. He defies infinity. He summons, in pairs, all the powers that be, and glories in their impotence to dissolve the sacred tie that binds him to his Lord.

      He calls Life and Death before him and dares them to do it!

      He calls the Powers of this World and the Powers of Every Other; none of them, he says, can do it!

      He calls the Things of the Historic Present and the Developments of the Boundless Future. Whatever changes may come with the pageant of the ages, there is one dear relationship that nothing can ever affect!

      He calls the Things in the Heights and the Things in the Depths; but neither among angels nor devils can he discover any force that makes his faith to falter!

      He surveys this Creation and he contemplates the Possibility of Others; but it is with a smile of confidence and triumph.

      'For I am persuaded,' he says, 'that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.'

      VI

      The covenanters knew the value of Uncle Tom's text. Among the heroic records of Scotland's terrible ordeal, nothing is more impressive or affecting than the desperate way in which persecuted men and women clung with both hands to the golden hope enshrined in that majestic word. It was in a Scottish kirk that Macaulay discovered its splendor; but even Macaulay failed to see in it all that they saw.

      It was a beautiful May morning when Major Windram rode into Wigton and demanded the surrender, to him and his soldiers, of two women who had been convicted of attending a conventicle. One of them was Margaret Wilson, a fair young girl of eighteen. She was condemned to be lashed to a stake at low tide in such a way that the rising waters would slowly overwhelm her. In hope of shaking her fidelity, and saving her life, it was ordained that her companion should be fastened to a stake a little farther out. 'It may be,' said her persecutors, 'that, as Mistress Margaret watches the waves go over the widow before her, she will relent!' The ruse, however, had the opposite effect. When Margaret saw the fortitude with which the elder woman yielded her soul to the incoming tide, she began to sing a paraphrase of the twenty-fifth Psalm, and those on the beach took up the strain. The soldiers angrily silenced them, and Margaret's mother, rushing into the waters, begged her to save her life by making the declaration that the authorities desired. But tantalized and tormented, she never flinched; and, as the waves lapped her face she was heard to repeat, again and again, the triumphant words: 'I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.'

      As a representative of the men of that stern time, we may cite John Bruce. When that sturdy veteran, after a long life of faithful testimony and incessant suffering, lay dying, he beckoned his daughter to the chair beside his bed. He told her, in broken sentences and failing voice, of the goodness and mercy that had followed him all the days of his life; and then, pausing suddenly, he exclaimed: 'Hark, lass, the Master calls! Fetch the Buik!' She brought the Bible to his side. 'Turn,' he said, 'to the eighth of Romans and put my finger on these words: "Who can separate us from the love of Christ? For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Now,' he continued, as soon as she had found the place, 'put my finger on the words and hold it there!' And with his finger there, pointing even in death to the ground of all his confidence, the old man passed away.

      VII

      'Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?' asked Uncle Tom, with his last breath.

      'Massa George sat fixed with solemn awe,' says Mrs. Beecher Stowe, in continuing the story. 'It seemed to him that the place was holy; and as he closed Tom's lifeless eyes, and rose to leave the dead, only one thought possessed him--What a thing it is to be a Christian!'

      It is indeed!

Back to Frank W. Boreham index.

See Also:
   Introduction
   1: William Penn's Text
   2: Robinson Crusoe's Text
   3: James Chalmers' Text
   4: Sydney Carton's Text
   5: Ebenezer Erskine's Text
   6: Doctor Davidson's Text
   7: Henry Martyn's Text
   8: Michael Trevanion's Text
   9: Hudson Taylor's Text
   10: Rodney Steele's Text
   11: Thomas Huxley's Text
   12: Walter Petherick's Text
   13: Doctor Blund's Text
   14: Hedley Vicars' Text
   15: Silas Wright's Text
   16: Michael Faraday's Text
   17: Janet Dempster's Text
   18: Catherine Booth's Text
   19: Uncle Tom's Text
   20: Andrew Bonar's Text
   21: Francis D'assisi's Text
   22: Everybody's Text

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