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.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder