Quite a few things made it into Saint Maggie. One reviewer complained that I seemed to be including everything I had ever learned about the nineteenth-century. I, however, like to think I was adding context. Novel reading is a subjective process!
Part of the nineteenth-century American context in my historical fiction books are issues like race relations, the quest for women’s rights during the First Wave of American feminism, and hypocritical behavior among church folk.
First up: race relations. The first book, Saint Maggie, starts in 1860 and ends in 1861. If you know anything at all about American history, you know that this was the era in which people owned other people. More specifically, white people owned people of color. It also was an era of great division, something that led in 1861 to the outbreak of hostilities between the Northern states and the Southern states. So while we whine and beat our breasts about how divided we are in the early 21st century, maybe we should look back on the things that divided us during the early-to-mid-1860s. It might help us understand some of what we're going through now.
The state of New Jersey was not a rabidly abolitionist state. Attitudes among the populace regarding slavery ranged from “abolition now” to “gradual emancipation” (something the state carried out when it abolished slavery) to support for the slave-holding states. Maggie, as we know, sides with abolition.
Her attitudes regarding the full humanity of black Americans were advanced for her time, although some nineteenth-century white people held the same beliefs. I have long suspected that our stereotypes about other human beings get bashed to pieces once we get to know the people who are not like "us." It has happened to me, and I know Maggie’s long friendship with Emily and Nate shaped and sharpened her understanding that all people were equal, regardless of color. As a result, Maggie tries to see people not “according to the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. said back in 1963.
The relationship with Emily and Nate Johnson is what brings Maggie (and Eli) into the Underground Railroad. Historically, most white Northerners were not involved in this act of civil disobedience, although it often has been portrayed like that. I wanted to make it clear that Emily and Nate decided to break the law and help self-emancipators first, and then, once they felt they could trust them, invited Maggie and Eli to help.
But just because Maggie and Eli try to see all people as equals, another rule prevails in Blaineton. The black citizens in the town live on Water Street. History indicates that race relations in mid-nineteenth-century New Jersey were poor and, as a document in the Digital Collections of the New Jersey State Library revealed, their population declined dramatically from 8.0% of the total population in the 1800 census to 3.8% in the 1860 census. So, the Water Street community was small and the white population of the town were perfectly content to have them remain there. People of color needed to stay in their place, as far as they were concerned. It would not do to have black folk living in a house prominently located on the town square. And yet, with Maggie Blaine Smith, that is exactly what they got. No wonder most of the town looks askance at Maggie.
Maggie's tentative steps into another quest for equality begins when Eli gives her a feminist book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller Ossoli. The book stimulates her to think about other possibilities and pushes her to be supportive of greater opportunities for her daughters. When daughter Frankie expresses an interest in ministry, Maggie becomes aware on a personal level of women’s subordinate position in the church.
Women were told they could not be ordained and could not preach because Jesus had no male disciples and because the Apostle Paul seemed to be forbidding women to speak in church. (Paul's words, however, also can be seen as an effort to control the disorder and disruption that occured in worship when early Christians responded to the radical freedom of the Good News.)
However, some females of Maggie's era argued that God indeed had called them into ministry as preachers and church leaders. They pointed to verses that indicated God was more interested in one's spiritual state than what one looked like and to Jesus' welcoming interaction with women. Earlier in the nineteenth century, the experiences of a nationwide revival called the Second Great Awakening had opened the door for women preachers, the argument being that God calls and gifts the soul, not the sex. Even though many men and women frowned upon it, a number of women preachers actively circulated in the nineteenth century. Among them were Sojourner Truth, Phoebe Palmer, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Jarena Lee, Anna Howard Shaw, and Amanda Berry Smith. Inspired by such women and other forces, a young girl like Maggie's daughter Frankie may very well have dreamed of pursuing a theological education at Oberlin College in Ohio. (Founded in 1833, Oberlin was visionary. From its inception, the school was co-educational.)
The church figures large in Maggie’s life. She is a faithful Methodist and strives to follow what she calls “Jesus’ law of love.” But throughout Saint Maggie, intolerant and judgmental behavior by the a few powerful people in the Blaineton Methodist congregation drive her out of her faith home. I am not certain a pious, nineteenth-century evangelical like Maggie really would have walked out of her church and started attending an African-American congregation. But the Moore sisters and their ilk at Blaineton Methodist Episcopal challenge her "rule of love" and a frustrated Maggie is forced to search for a more congenial environment.
I have served six United Methodist congregations to date. Living in a church community is not all sweetness and light. Disagreements can and do arise. As the old saying goes, "there's no fight like a church fight." But it is helpful to remember that congregations are not comprised of saints but rather of recovering sinners. Those who complain that churches are full of hypocrites and un-Jesus-like types are correct. We’re a hot mess sometimes. In fact, the United Methodist Church is a hot mess right now. We're having a huge fight over whether or not LGBTQI people should be ordained. Decisions that are made this year very well might split the denomination as thoroughly as the issue of slavery split the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844.
But tensions and hurt feelings also exist on the congregational level. That is because on any given day someone in our midst may be having a bad moment or a struggle or an injury that the rest of us know nothing about and/or perhaps are not perceptive enough to notice. Being oblivious can result in a great deal of pain. Holiness is not a matter of 24/7 purity, goodness, and rule-following. Rather, it is a journey God-wise, a process. It is messy and uncomfortable and at times downright frustrating. The only way we as a congregation can get through it all and stay together is by the grace that comes from a Love greater than ourselves.
Maggie knows this. What she does not know is how to deal with the amount of vitriol thrown her way by certain members of the congregation. She needs healing and so goes elsewhere to recover.
On some level, I wrote Saint Maggie because we live in a world every bit as uncertain, unnerving, and angry as Maggie’s. I suspect that in the end what matters is not so much what happens to us, but rather how we respond to the things that happen in our world, to one another, and to the journey we call life. Like Maggie, I choose to believe that our journey is about faith, hope, forgiveness, and love – but primarily about love. And so, we have a choice: cave in to the forces of darkness and violence – or stand up to them through the power of love.
Digital Collections of the New Jersey State Library. Author unknown, “Afro-Americans in New Jersey,” p.16;
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder