In Washington Irving’s short story The Devil and Tom Walker, Tom is not a good man. Described upon his introduction as a “meager miserly fellow,” he will be presented as the personification of morally deficient. Irving goes so far as to emphasize that even Tom’s wife is psychotically cheap, suggesting that “they were so miserly that they even conspired to cheat each other.” Tom, of course, sells his soul to the devil in exchange for untold riches – well, actually, it’s the buried treasure of legendary pirate Captain Kidd. Tom becomes wealthy, and, predictably, uses his new-found wealth to become even more obnoxious than when he was financially destitute. As Irving describes Tom’s use of these riches, his old miserly ways cannot be eliminated from his nature:
“In this way he made money hand over hand; became a rich and mighty man, and exalted his cocked hat upon change. He built himself, as usual, a vast house, out of ostentation; but left the greater part of it unfinished and unfurnished out of parsimony. He even set up a carriage in the fullness of his vain glory, though he nearly starved the horses which drew it; and as the ungreased wheels groaned and screeched on the axle trees, you would have thought you heard the souls of the poor debtors he was squeezing.”
As Tom enjoys the good life, however, he increasingly begins to regret the eternity he will spend in the clutches of pure evil in the form of Satan. He knows that, while he is rich beyond his wildest dreams, he is every bit as mortal as before his encounter with the devil, and his days are most certainly winding down. It is in this context that Irving describes Tom’s transformation from openly disdainful of faith and charity to one aspiring to become ‘holier than though’:
“As Tom waxed old, however, he grew thoughtful. Having secured the good things of this world, he began to feel anxious about those of the next. He thought with regret on the bargain he had made with his black friend, and set his wits to work to cheat him out of the conditions. He became, therefore, all of a sudden, a violent church-goer. He prayed loudly and strenuously as if heaven were to be taken by force of lungs. Indeed, one might always tell when he had sinned most during the week, by the clamor of his Sunday devotion. The quiet Christians who had been modestly and steadfastly traveling Zionward, were struck with self reproach at seeing themselves so suddenly outstripped in their career by this new-made convert.” [Emphasis added]
The narrator describes Tom as a “violent churchgoer” to emphasize Tom’s efforts at presenting himself as an exalted, pious human being so as to extricate himself from his apparent fate. The phrase denotes an excessive commitment to overt displays of religious orthodoxy, in this case all in the service of cheating the devil his due.