Christianity and Christian Fundamentalism in Literature

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

Christianity is the religion that focuses on Jesus Christ as Savior to all followers. There are three primary divisions in the Christian religion, which are the Roman Catholic church, the Protestant churches, and the Holy Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Eastern church. All of these three divisions practice various rituals and beliefs, but as a whole, the followers of Christianity adhere to three basic elements of faith. The first element is that a story is told, which is the Gospel. The Gospel details and narrates the events and various aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching. The second element is doctrine, which followers accept as stemming from the belief that Jesus is God. Third, followers use Jesus’ life as an example for their own lives.

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Christianity relies on God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit as divine forces who guide their followers’ lives by emphasizing virtues such as patience, forgiveness, and love. Christians believe that perfection and happiness are found through God’s love. Christianity also strives toward universalism in that the followers and teachers of the religion and the Gospel act as witnesses, or examples for others, and in that way they spread the Gospel. Christianity seeks converts. It is unnecessary to point out how essential the written mode of communication is in spreading information to readers. Christianity is often found in literature for the objective of spreading knowledge of the religion. Christianity came to be in a time of the written word; hence, the Word is central to Christianity. Believers hold the Scripture, or the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, as the primary source of reference in their beliefs, and therefore the Scripture is instrumental in the spreading and informing of the religion to others. In the New Testament, Matthew 28:19-20 contains a Scripture in which Jesus tells his disciples: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” The followers, or disciples, of Christianity therefore welcome and use literature as a communicating tool.

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Major Protestant denominations within the Christian religion include Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, Baptist churches, and Methodism. In Christianity, baptism is the sacrament of admitting a person into Christianity by immersing the individual in water or by sprinkling water on the individual’s head, thereby washing away sin and allowing purification of the person’s spirit. Lutheranism distinctively allows the baptism to be performed on infants. A baptized infant remains purified, unless as an adult the person renounces the faith. Presbyterianism stresses the absolute sovereignty of God in deciding whom he will save. This sovereignty is known as predestination. There are some divisions in the Presbyterian church as well, and there are some congregations that advocate that it must be the individual’s choice in allowing God into one’s life, by giving that life to God completely. Only then will God administer his doctrine and direction to eternal salvation. Baptist churches distinctively teach that only adults can be baptized, having made the educated choice to accept salvation.

Christian Fundamentalism

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Fundamentalists are Christians who follow the fundamental aspects of faith. The movement of Fundamentalism is a reaction against other movements that criticize the Bible (that is, treat it more as a historical document than as the revealed Word of God) and that stress a rational, objective approach to Christianity. Revelations coming from research in astronomy, geology, and evolution led to the widespread belief among Christians that the Bible is not always literally true. Fundamentalists believe that it is. Fundamentalists vehemently oppose the modern critical approach to religion, doctrine, and Scripture.

The primary articles of Fundamentalist faith, dating from the beginning of the twentieth century and still followed as a general rule, are that Jesus Christ is God, that he was born of a virgin (Mary), that he died on the cross for all followers’ sins, that he was resurrected from the dead, and that he will return again in bodily form. The Trinity, or concept of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost as one composition of God, is another belief. The existence of Satan is acknowledged, as is the original sin of Adam and Eve. Salvation through grace and baptism is another commonly held belief. Most central to these beliefs, however, is that all final authority for faith lies in the Bible. To Fundamentalists, the Bible provides the answers to all questions. The examples of Jesus’ work and the lives in the Bible are to be used and embodied in one’s own life. Fundamentalists believe that events occur in history as they are foretold in Scripture and that scientific evidence that challenges literal interpretation of the Bible is only theory.

Another Fundamentalist belief is that of God’s salvation of sinners through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some of the most adamant supporters of the Fundamentalist movement are the Evangelicals, who believe that salvation holds the key to virtue. Consequently, if one does not believe in salvation, one will go to Hell. Certainly this is an extreme view, and not held so seriously by all Fundamentalists, although it is condoned.

Fundamentalists are sensitive to scientific criticism of the Bible, even when the criticism is of occurrences such as the parting of the Red Sea, which do not take place any longer and have not since biblical times. Most Fundamentalists agree that supernatural occurrences have happened since then and insist on their truth in the Bible. Fundamentalists defend the Creation of humanity as told in Genesis in the Bible. Those who challenge this version of human development defend the scientific theories, such as Charles Darwin’s evolution theory. There are many branches within the Fundamentalist camp, as there are in other large religious groups. Positions have evolved over time as society and culture have changed.

Important Works

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In American literature, Christianity and Christian Fundamentalism are widespread themes, especially in early American literature. In the early 1600’s, John Winthrop was an influential writer. His work of 1630 (the year of his arrival in America), entitled A Model of Christian Charity, is of lasting importance in American history and religion. The work clearly sets out the ideals of a harmonious Christian community. Cotton Mather referred to Winthrop as the embodiment of a perfect earthly ruler.

William Bradford wrote a Puritan work entitled History of Plymouth Plantation, which was published in 1856. It relates events to 1646. This work details the Reformation in England and describes the oppression the Puritans suffered after their break from the Anglican church. This work provides an example of the questioning of religion that was taking place in the 1600’s.

Michael Wigglesworth saw in his own day unfortunate occurrences and, considering the approach of Judgment Day and the Second Coming of Christ, wrote a poem, “The Day of Doom” (1662). He gives examples from the Scripture as answers to his questions of religion and the motives of God. As Fundamentalists believe strongly in the Second Coming, they also use the Scripture as a reliable reference.

Mary Rowlandson, a Puritan woman, was captured by Indians in 1675 on one of the Indian chief Metacomet’s raids. She was held captive for almost eight weeks. After her release she wrote an account of the captivity. This was published in 1682 as Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, and she revealed her heavy reliance on the Scripture, specifically the book of Psalms, to endure the experience. Throughout the work she makes constant reference to God and the Scripture.

Cotton Mather was pastor of the Second Church of Boston from 1685 until his death in 1728. He was a skillful preacher and theologian and secured a very important place in American literature through his historical accounts of the time. He lived during the time of the Salem witch trials. Mather wrote Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), which details the struggles of religion during his time, and provides a reference, based on Scripture, for Christian lives.

Jonathan Edwards welcomed the responsibility and opportunity to approach a disillusioned mass of people who had lost a sense of commitment with God. He wanted to reform these people into believers and followers who understood the doctrines and beliefs of Christianity and followed them. He wrote a work entitled The Nature of True Virtue (1765) in which he depicts the Fundamentalist view of the complete sovereignty of God. This tract was valuable to Fundamentalists during the middle of the twentieth century. He also delivered the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), which goes step by step through Scripture so he may define the beliefs to the people, and in it he provides methods of application so that the people can see how to mold their lives to the Scripture.

Thomas Paine, the son of a Quaker father and an Anglican mother, came to America when he was thirty-seven years old. He was an active journalist and anonymously published Common Sense in 1776, which is a pamphlet encouraging an American break from England. This break was political as well as religious. He later wrote a larger work entitled The Age of Reason in 1794, attempting to defend his beliefs, which at the time were seen as attacks on Christianity. He does challenge the validity of the Scripture, perhaps writing the beginnings of modernist thought in American literature.

Phillis Wheatley, once a slave, was intellectually encouraged as a young woman in her studies of religion and the status of the world. In 1773, her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London. Her literary genius, intelligence, and piety serve as an example of a righteous believer in God and follower of Christianity. In her poem “Thoughts on the Works of Providence,” she gently speaks to the people of her day of the grandness of God, once describing him as the light that the world cannot function without. She reveals the emotions of an age filled with religious spirit.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Another great voice of Christianity in American literature, if not the greatest, is Nathaniel Hawthorne. In his short stories and in a more famous novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hawthorne depicts the Puritan ethos. Perhaps the most recognizable short story dealing with the topic of religious faith is his “Young Goodman Brown.” The main character’s faith in God is questioned when he faces realizations concerning corruption and hypocrisy in a supposedly perfect church. Hawthorne never gives an answer or solution to the issue. People of Hawthorne’s time were immersed in doubt, speculation, suspicion, and disillusionment. Yet, he contributed to the view that answers must be sought, or like Goodman Brown, people will live out bitter and spiritually empty lives. Another short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” questions not those involved in positions within the church but those of the congregation. Hawthorne challenges his readers to avoid becoming Reverend Hooper’s congregation by removing their own superficial veils and allowing religion into their lives.

From Hawthorne’s writings, there is a gap in American literary history in which there were no major writings concerned with Christianity. Most of the writings addressed social issues apart from religion. This is significant because the steady strong line between religious devotion and the socially aware individual has been bent or in some cases, completely severed. Wallace Stevens, in the twentieth century, revealed the transition across this line. He began writing when popular religious poetry was losing popularity. He embraced a modernist ideology and his new faith shows especially in his later poems. In his poem “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman,” he criticizes her rigid Christian Fundamentalist views, showing how the woman is so restricted in her beliefs and her views that she winces at even winking her eye. The winking of her eye would mean looking out the windows and acknowledging the modernist challenge, and she, as the Fundamentalist, simply cannot wink. Stevens wrote this during the height of the Fundamentalist debate leading to the trial in 1925. Since that time, many essays and nonfiction books have been written in American literature, discussing all sides of both movements.

Finding Identity

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An individual looking for identity, specifically religious identity, can easily go to the great works and eras of American history and find perhaps what best suits that individual. A survey of Christianity and Fundamentalism in literature provides an educated, intellectual, and broad knowledge of the identities of believers, followers, and those in opposition of religious faith and doctrine from the time of the Roman Empire to present. The role that religion has played in history is primary. Ages have been shaped and identities have been found through eras of strong religious devotion, of questioning and unrest, and of religious resistance. The most important mode of communication for this world, the written word, continues to provide a source of religious and social history, as well as a source for an individual’s search for religious identity and existence. American literature depicts all identities on both sides of the religious debate, so that future generations may draw on them in pursuit of their own.


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Suggested Readings

Evans, Rod L., and Irwin M. Berent. Fundamentalism: Hazards and Heartbreaks. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1988. Defines Fundamentalism, presents the movements challenging Fundamentalism, various interpretations of the Bible, and includes bibliography.

Levine, Lawrence W. Defender of the Faith: William Jennings Bryan—The Last Decade, 1915-1925. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965. Chronicles the political and religious life of Bryan, and his active involvement in the Fundamentalist debate.

Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicals, 1870-1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. Discusses American status before Fundamentalism, the debate, Christianity and culture, and interpretations.

Novak, Philip. The World’s Wisdom. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. Introduction to the world’s religions and each religion’s sacred texts.

Williams, Paul J. What Americans Believe and How They Worship. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. Survey of the Christian church and all denominations, innovations, and movements. Also includes a survey of the role of religion in shaping American identity.

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