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The Earnest Laborer; or, Myrtle Hill Plantation

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A juvenile antislavery and religious novel by an anonymous author, published by the American Sunday School Union in 1864 for use in Sunday schools. Digitized and annotated by the Antislavery Literature Project.

 

The Earnest Laborer, or, Myrtle Hill Plantation, is a juvenile novel published by an anonymous author in 1864. While a work of fiction, it sought to gain credibility by representing itself as “being sketches and incidents drawn from the experience of a school teacher.” The accuracy of this claim remains unknown. The novel’s New York publisher, Carlton and Porter, printed this and other juvenile novels for the Sunday School Union.

The Union had been founded as the Sunday and Adult School Union in 1817 in Philadelphia as a non-demoninational missionary society, and in 1824 changed its title to the American Sunday School Union. The Union had as its goal establishing a Sunday school in every American town and it produced massive amounts of juvenile literature for distribution throughout the United States. The Sunday School Union was slow to challenge slavery, since it had pro-slavery Southern officers and relied on the white Southern public for financial support of its activities. However, by the late 1850s both it and the American Tract Society sided with moderate antislavery politics and their publications began to attract censorship in Southern states.

The novel tells the story of George Freeman, a Connecticut-born young teacher, beginning with his developing religious inclination from boyhood. He receives notice and encouragement from his Sunday school superintendent, Mr. Ela. From a family of modest means and lacking funds to continue his college education, George takes a tutor’s position on the Myrtle Hill plantation somewhere in the Mississippi Valley, teaching the five children of the plantation owner, Mr. Walter Craig. Gradually, George introduces a new spirit of evangelical Christianity and Sabbath observance into plantation life and the surrounding area.

He begins a Sunday school that leads towards moral reform among both whites and blacks. A religious revival takes place in this rural area that, by advocating bible-reading for personal salvation, confronts the limits of what a slave society can accommodate. The novel’s moderate and gradualist antislavery advocacy emerges slowly, describing slavery as a manifestation of spiritual rot: “While the Spirit of God was thus at work, the demon of slavery was rousing to his customary work of evil against the ripening spiritual harvest-field.” (120) A revolution against slavery, the novel suggests by using the story of Moses in Egypt (60ff.), must first be bible-centered and spiritual.

Racial stereotyping characteristic of some antislavery literature accompanies this religious didacticism. A mulatto carpenter, Yellow Jim, exhibits the most visible intelligence, personal resistance to slavery, and speaks in white idiom and accent. An old black slave, Uncle Simeon, is faithful, subservient, and highly religious. The author has little use for black culture, describing religious progress, for example, in such terms as “The senseless songs of the quarters, so long, heard mingled with the noise of the rude dance, were exchanged for the sweet and melting songs of Zion.” (92-93) Working-class white Southern culture receives equal scorn. Melville, a poor white teenager who joins George’s revival, exemplifies potential class mobility; through learning religious virtues, he eventually goes on to receive an education in the North. The author comments pejoratively on and suggests a shared general opprobrium against poor whites, writing “when, as was often the case, [whites] were poor, and very wicked, and quite as ignorant as themselves, [blacks] esteemed them as they were truly, ‘poor white trash.’” (93-94)

Unlike many antislavery stories, this novel – likely in part because of its intended juvenile audience – describes plantation life as generally lacking in violent incidents. It mentions only briefly one proposed slave sale that would separate a mother and son. Myrtle Hill plantation is a site of spiritual lapse and disorganization; the revival works to improve relations between parents and children, and effects beneficial changes for both masters and slaves. According to this story, there is a unity of interests between masters and slaves in joining a shared spiritual revival.

The novel construes opposition, support, or active participation among slave-owners to religious education for slaves as indicative of social liberalism or illiberality. It is the wrong-headed master such as Mr. Craig who keeps religious instruction from his slaves, and the enlightened one such as Judge Walker who assists religious learning but finds himself forced to comply with the slave system. The most religiously enlightened slave-owner, a minister named Father Clifton, lets his slaves hire their own labor towards self-purchase; unable to live with the system, he eventually leaves the South together with his slaves in order to free them. Each converted soul, whether the aged anti-religious slave Uncle Griffen who collaborates with his master Mr. Craig against revival meetings, or the slave-owner ‘Yankee Smith’ who repents before he dies, brings the end of slavery closer. The overthrow of plantation slavery, in this view, will be the triumph of true Christianity. Any distinguishable interests between master and slave are temporal, not spiritual. Abolitionism is thus the achievement of a new pan-racial spiritual harmony. A newly-built Sunday-school and abolitionism come to be conflated, and so the school is shut down.

The novel concludes with the successful escape of two slaves to the North and, as the public attributes blame for their flight to George Freeman’s teachings and the local religious revival, his forced return to his Connecticut home. Arriving there George meets the pair of fugitives, who have followed the Underground Railroad and fortuitously taken refuge with his parents. George goes on to complete college and join the ministry, where he employs his three years spent at the Myrtle Hill plantation as an example of evangelism’s power and advocates for the abolition of slavery.

The anonymous author portrays the institution of slavery as a barrier to the realization of genuine religious life and the path of evangelism. As George Freeman says, “The necessities of slavery do forbid obedience to God’s commands. In the Scriptures is eternal life. God has said, Search them. Slavery interposes a barrier to the direct access of the slave to this divine treasury.” (160) The novel’s preoccupation lies in a story of evangelical missionary work among both blacks and whites; its antislavery theme derives from a young Northerner’s missionary engagement with social evil and patient conversion of all members of a slave society. For Sunday school students, the moral message here was that in order to be a ‘freeman’ one needed to embrace evangelical Christianity and its salvational theology.

— Joe Lockard