Maggie Beatty Blaine Smith, the main character of the Saint Maggie series, is a faithful Methodist woman who lives in 1860s America. The environment in which she lives is a small town in New Jersey. At that time in U.S. history, Protestant variants of Christianity dominated, and so most people were familiar with biblical references and verses. I try to work within that environment to the best of my ability.
That said, some people today find that the novels contain “too much religion.” All those Bible verses and Maggie’s spiritual rumination feel like overkill or proselytizing to some 21st century folks.
On the other hand, there have been those who have complained that the novel presents a warped view of Christianity. I’m exactly not sure why. Maybe it’s because the pastor in the first novel breaks the Fifth Commandment (thou shalt not kill): Maybe it’s because some of the church folks are not exactly loving to those who do not conform to their beliefs. Or maybe it’s because Maggie forgives the pastor, which feels weird to me because forgiving is part of what Jesus did. Forgiving on our part does not wipe out the other person’s crime but releases the one doing the forgiving from their anger and resentment. In other books, I’ve had some Christians complain that Maggie’s husband Eli swears too much and that the sex is too graphic. (In every encounter between Eli and Maggie, I wrestle with Maggie, who wants a set of imaginary curtains discreetly drawn over their love making, and Eli who keeps throwing the curtains open. Obviously, Eli has won in a few instances!)
Just so everyone is clear. I do not write Christian fiction. That is because to me the genre seems to exist mainly to reinforce the views of some branches of Christianity. Instead, I say that I have opted to write about a Christian woman trying to navigate the world through her faith. As for Eli, a former Quaker and free thinker, as well for a host of other characters with differing beliefs, I try to honor their belief or unbelief, as well.
But Maggie is undoubtedly a Methodist Christian. So, what about her faith drives her? Simply put, it’s active love. The precipitating incident occurs in Saint Maggie. It puts her firmly on a path that winds throughout the rest of the series and is why Eli teasingly calls her “Saint Maggie.” An epiphany happens at a camp meeting after she has been dressed down by her brother over everything from her daughter Frankie speaking up during a worship service to her budding relationship with that scandalous free thinker, Elijah Smith. Despondent, Maggie runs off to a field to weep. That’s when something interrupts her grief, as seen in the excerpt below:
And now she could hear people singing. The wind must have been coming from the direction of the camp, carrying the sound of worship with it. The melody and voices were faint, but she recognized the hymn nonetheless – “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” by Charles Wesley. Suddenly the words were clear and bright as angels’ wings.
Long my imprison’d spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night:
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light:
My chains fell off, my heart was free,--
I rose, went forth, and follow’d thee.
She heard only that one verse, which was odd. Odder still was that the words and the beautiful voices disappeared as quickly as they had come. Had the wind changed so abruptly?
And then Maggie understood. The verse had been a gift. She had been told that she was free – had been so ever since she had accepted Christ as her savior. She was, in essence, being asked, whom will you follow?
Two Bible verses rose up in her mind. One was from Galatians: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” The other verse was from I Corinthians: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”
Her bruised heart lifted and began to soar. She always had been free in the Lord. The difficulty came when she allowed other people to place their yokes on her neck. God’s only rule was love and so long as she acted out of charity – out of love – she was doing what Christ wanted. Granted, sometimes what Christ desired was far different from what social custom demanded, but she did not need to take on the burden of other people’s criticism. She could stand up as a free woman with Christ’s yoke – light and easy – on her neck.
Jesus did things that upset others. He healed the sick on the Sabbath, he touched lepers, he had dinner with social rejects, he spoke with and taught women, he cast out demons, he criticized important people when they were hypocritical, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and animal sellers in the outer court of the Temple because they barred the poor’s access to God. Maggie understands this.
Maggie also understands that to be a disciple is to follow the way of Jesus, to follow in his footsteps. That is why she welcomes all kinds of people into her home and lives and works side by side with them. That is why she feeds Confederate soldiers and cares for wounded soldiers from both sides. And that is why she starts a school so black children might have the same access to education as white children.
In Maggie’s context, love isn’t a feeling, dependent upon the ups and downs of one’s emotions, but rather a decision to be caring and giving and healing and respectful to all she meets. That doesn’t mean she is perfect, though. Maggie has struggles and doubts and feels hurt when people dislike and criticize her for busting through the town’s carefully constructed boundaries. But it will not stop her from the hard practice of loving others.
Personally, I would like to be like Maggie. I really would. I think we need more people like her in today’s world. And personally I don’t care who or what they believe in. I only care that they practice the discipline of loving their neighbors, seeking healing, health, and wholeness for all people and for our ailing planet. If they – or you – do, then take my hand and let’s get to work.
Until the summer of 1864, Maggie’s activities have been along the lines of many women who wished to make changes in American society. But this changes once Maggie learns that Blaineton, her hometown, has had a recent change in School Board policy. The school located on the town square is now for white students only, while the school on Water Street, where most people of color in Blaineton live, is reserved for black students. However, as the Water Street population dwindled over the course of the war, school age children on Water Street dropped to a total of six students and the town stopped funding their school. Maggie’s activism emerges as she and friends Emily and Rosa set out to find a way to give these children a decent education.
Since, industrialist Josiah Norton is chairman of the School Board, Maggie seeks him out and suggests that, given the situation, black children should be educated with white children in the school on the town square. Josiah explains that the majority of the townspeople would be against such a move and that she does not understand politics: “Mrs. Smith, you are a woman, and naturally you have a woman’s heart. However, you lack the rational capabilities of a man. These greater issues are beyond your comprehension. You should be content with keeping house.”
Insulted and furious, Maggie decides to “shake the dust off her feet” and move on. “I thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Norton. However, I am afraid I must leave. My husband is watching our baby and it is time I returned to ‘keeping house,’ as you say.”
Later, Maggie, Emily, and Rosa travel to Water Street to check on a rumor that a school is still there. What they find is a fourteen-year-old Mandy Hancock teaching a group of five children in a ramshackle building with few resources.
The women resolve to start a private school and locate it at Greybeal House, where all three live. To help them, they recruit Maggie’s sister-in-law, Abigail, who had been a teacher before she married.
When Josiah hears of the plan, he feels she is sticking her nose into places it doesn’t belong.:
When Maggie responds by saying her interest in the problem is because she is a woman and a mother. “And mothers, regardless of race, want their children to receive an education and fair treatment. And before you say it, I also am perfectly aware that the vicissitudes of life often make educating one’s children difficult. If more men took the time to recognize the hopes and dreams women have for their children –”
“Then the world would be in a pretty mess, don’t you think? No, Mrs. Smith, you know nothing of politics and nothing of the greater world. And that is as it should be.”
If Josiah thinks it is bad enough that Maggie is sticking her nose into a political matter by starting a private school, he goes ballistic when the new school enrolls a family of Irish students, who are the brothers and sisters of Moira and Birgit, who are working as maids at Greybeal House.
But Maggie’s compassion comes into play because the Irish are considered “less than” other people of European ancestry. To complicate matters, the Brennan children live on a farm a good five miles or so outside of town, which means someone would need to bring them to school each day . But that is impossible because the family needs their only wagon for farm work. Of course, the children could board with families in town. But it would cost more than their family could afford. Additionally, who would be willing to house Irish children?
As far as Maggie is concerned, the answer is simple: the children will attend the school at Greybeal House and board there.
This of course does not go down well with many people and causes an uproar that threatens the not only the school, but life in the town itself. And that is how Maggie finds herself in the unlikely position of trying to bring sense and healing back to the people of Blaineton.
But is she willing to take the big leap into politics itself? When Maggie reveals to Eli that some individuals have suggested that she run for Town Council (despite the fact that women cannot vote), she almost immediate demurs: “I probably shouldn’t. It’s just not done. Women don’t belong in politics.”
To which, her supportive husband replies, “Bunkum! I think women ought to be in politics. Men are complete asses.”
“See that? You had to remind me about my tendency to cuss. That is because, like every other man I know, I’m an impulsive dunderhead.”
Obviously, Eli believes that the male preserve of politics could use the moral tempering that women possess.
But will Maggie take the plunge?
Well, if she does, it will be for very specific reasons.
And I’ll talk about those reasons in my next blog.
Image from: https://www.wbur.org/npr/377606644/gateway-to-freedom-heroes-danger-and-loss-on-the-underground-railroad
As I write this blog, news has broken that a group within the United Methodist Church, the denomination to which I belong and have served on church staffs for 27 years, has proposed that the church split over the issue inclusion of LGTBQ+ people.
A split has been in the works for a long time. The church has been so obsessed with the question that it has lost its sense of mission and, in the process, its connection to Jesus Christ.
But 2020 is not the first time Methodists have faced a major divorce. There was another great schism in the 1844.
The push for the abolition of slavery began with the Second Great Awakening, a cross-denominational and cross-racial revival starting in the 1790s, burning its way into the 1800s, and creating a growth spurt in Baptist and Methodists churches. The argument against the enslavement of people of color was rather simple: are not all one in Christ Jesus? But, as we know, there are plenty of verses about slavery in the Bible, and slaveholders latched onto these to support their economic system.
Much like today’s issue regarding LGTBQ+ people, the abolition movement simmered within churches and communities. Eventually, it blew up into a divisive social issue.
My character Maggie Beatty Blaine Smith was 23, a young married woman with a two-year-old daughter, when her church, the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) split over slavery in 1844. The pro-slavery faction aligned themselves with the Methodist Episcopal Church South, while the abolitionists remained in the MEC. Because the institution of slavery was primarily located in the southern states, the nation itself would split in less than 20 years.
By 1852, Maggie is a lonely, widowed boarding house owner. Supportive of the abolition movement, she sacrifices a little precious money to subscribe to a monthly newspaper, called The National Era. Her interest becomes a passion after The National Era prints a serialized version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin in March of 1852. Like many other Americans, Maggie was “turned” by the novel’s description of the brutality of slavery.
Maggie long had been against slavery, but after reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she had become passionately abolitionist. In her eyes enslaved people were men and women and children of God. It was beyond her comprehension that one group of people would treat another as a commodity and not as fellow human beings. (“The Dundee Cake.”)
But she is not an activist. Not yet.
Later in 1852, she makes friends with Emily and Nate Johnson, a black couple involved in the Underground Railroad. But the Johnsons do not share this part of their life with her. Helping self-emancipators get to Canada is civil disobedience and comes with a hefty $1,000 fine (no small change in the 1800s) and six months’ imprisonment, They keep their “other life” a secret until January of 1860, when they finally invite Maggie and newspaperman Eli Smith into their activity. Maggie writes:
Shall I tell you a secret, dear Journal? I am breaking the law. Nate and Emily serve the Underground Railroad. When they shared this with Eli and me one night four months ago, we did the sensible thing – we joined them in their endeavor. When word comes through, Eli hangs a lantern by his print shop. Nate shepherds the escaped slaves through the darkness and into the shop. We have constructed a hiding place for them. We feed them, clothe them, and then send them on their way. With God’s grace, they will make it to Canada. (Saint Maggie).
Years after the book's publication, I feel that the tunnel between the boarding house and Eli’s print shop is a bit much. I’m not sure whether I said that Maggie and crew constructed the tunnel because I haven’t sat down and read the first book in its entirety in a while. Shame on me!
After Saint Maggie was published, I had the opportunity to delve further into the Underground Railroad and learned that a tunnel would have been rare. Most people working on the UGRR would have hidden self-emancipators in barns or in the house in “hidey-holes,” particularly in the cellar.
When Maggie and family are chased out of Blaineton in 1863, Eli arranges for them to sojourn in the Smith family home in Gettysburg. The house also has been a stop on the Underground Railroad and is still in use in 1863 to aid refugees and self-emancipators escaping the war. When Maggie arrives, she is given a tour of the hidey-holes, which include a secret cellar below the annex, panels in bedrooms on the annex’s second floor, and a hiding place in the attic of the older part of the house. Eli’s Quaker sister and brother-in-law have a farm seven miles to the north and hide escaped people in a secret room behind the barn hayloft or keep them in their house during the winter and hurrying self-emancipators into the attic when slave catchers are near. (Walk by Faith)
Maggie’s work with the Underground Railroad diminishes as the war wears on. And that part of her political activity comes to an end, but she is becoming increasingly political – like many women of her era.
Just for fun, let me leave you with a story, as told in Walk by Faith by Eli and sister Becky about a time slave catchers broke into their home in Gettysburg. Eli speaks first.
“One time we learned that slave hunters were coming through town. So we had our people hidden in the secret cellar. The men showed up at our door and demanded to search the house.”
“Thee ran to the annex bedroom,” Becky said with a laugh, “and threw thyself upon the bed, drew the quilts up to thy neck, and pretended to be ill!”
“I was moaning as if I were on my deathbed.” Eli chuckled. “I’m surprised the men believed me. I’m no actor.”
“I think thee frightened them off. We told them what ailed thee was catching.” Becky began to serve the cake. “They had no right to be in our house, but Mother was alone, and they forced their way in.”
Next blog: Maggie the activist: Politics
First off, I lied to you about getting a blog out by Monday. It just wasn’t in the cards.
Now, let’s get to the meat of this essay. The last time I posted, I wrote about how 19th-century women were perceived as purer and more moral than men. This led to at least two possibilities for their participation in the machinery of the political arena, considered to be a rough-and-tumble man’s world. First, women could be welcomed, cautiously, into politics and political action, a stance generally held by Republicans of the era. Second, they could be excluded from political activities, a position generally taken by Democrats, who were fearful that politics would sully a woman’s purity and/or challenge men’s patriarchal authority.
My character Maggie’s is modeled after 19th-century women who took their religious beliefs about loving all people, righting injustice, and practicing mercy out of their homes and into the broader culture. I love that about her.
A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a good friend of mine, a pastor with whom I had served as Christian educator. For three years, we did all manner of crazy things, including writing our own Vacation Bible School programs. While we were eating, I gave her a copy of A Good Community. She happily took it, telling me that she found Maggie to be an inspiration. Now, I am a fairly typical author, loaded with insecurities about my work, and learning how she feels about my character came as a heartening revelation.
But what is it about Maggie that is inspiring? For one thing, she has experienced tough times. She has lost homes, witnessed the death of loved ones, and even seen battle. But I think her most outstanding aspect is her big heart. In “The Dundee Cake,” a short story set in 1852, Maggie has acquired four boarders for her rooming house, none of whom can afford much to pay for room and board. Although she worries about paying her bills, she refuses to toss them out. Foolish? Probably. But loving? Yes, definitely, and she continues this throughout the series’ stories.
Maggie also shares her boarding house with an African American couple, Emily and Nate Johnson. Emily initially works as Maggie’s cook, but she and her husband move in when a fire strikes the Johnson home. This, of course, raises eyebrows in town, as the couple are more than employees, they are friends.
Throughout the series and other stories, Maggie continues to welcome others into her home regardless of color. An early example are Matilda Strong and her young daughter, Chloe, self-emancipators who arrive through the Underground Railroad (Saint Maggie).
Even when focused on personal problems, Maggie continues to welcome others. In “The Christmas Eve Visitor” short story, an illness has struck the children of the household. The last thing Maggie needs is a Jewish peddler by the name of Ira Strauss show up at her door in the middle of a blizzard. But their initial conversation is classic Maggie, as she is able to see Ira’s needs despite her concerns:
The man smiled and said in accented English, “Good evening, Madam. Would you be needing any ribbons or cloth? Some pans or pots perhaps? Or a bit of lace maybe?”
Peering into the dark beyond him, Maggie could just make out the shape of a handcart. She exclaimed, “Good heavens, sir! Whatever are you doing out on a night like this?”
“Business is business.”
“And freezing is freezing! Please do come in and take supper with us. We have some good, hot chicken soup.”
Maggie doesn’t have much to share other than a fire, chicken soup, and bread, but she’s willing to provide them. Ira came to her in the middle of a storm and might very well freeze to death if she turns him away. So, stranger or not, she invites him in.
Other welcoming acts by Maggie include feeding Confederate soldiers and caring for wounded men from both sides while in Gettysburg (Walk by Faith), temporarily housing inmates and employees when a riot consumes the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane (Seeing the Elephant) and, when a fire consumes most of the houses on Water Street, taking in black families in need of shelter (A Good Community).
So, why does Maggie do it? Simple. It’s her faith. I could be glib and say that Jesus makes her do it. However, his command to love God and love others goes further than just warm, fuzzy feelings. It is how Maggie chooses to live her life and interact with those around her.
Rosa Hamilton sums it up well in A Good Community:
“My brother was killed during the battle in North Anna. I came looking for Maggie Smith because I had nowhere else to go. She didn’t care what color I was. She just cared that I was hurting because my brother had died. She was kind to me without any reservations and invited me into her home. Now I work at Greybeal School, where I’m a teacher.” She smiled. “I always wanted to be a teacher. Mrs. Smith and the Greybeal House school gave me the chance.”
Writing Maggie has taught me oceans about welcoming others. I find myself striving to be like her.
Next blog: Maggie the 19th Century Activist: Seeking Justice
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder