Literary Depictions of Religious Conversion Analysis

Historical Roots

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Settlers from England came to America to escape the hypocrisy of established churches. Early American Puritans such as John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards describe intense religious experiences, insisting on personal conversion in order to fully sanctify oneself and accept God’s will. Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity (1629) describes the hope that colonial New England might become a “city upon a hill” upholding high standards of Christian behavior before the rest of the world. Edwards’ Divine and Supernatural Light (1734) argues that saving grace comes only from the mind’s supernatural illumination.

Native American literature contains many vision quests analogous to Christian conversions. Black Elk and John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks (1932) tells the story of the Oglala Sioux holy man’s instruction in sacred lore by medicine men who strived to retain the sacred identity of his nation. Black Elk’s book also describes his conversion to Catholicism.

Modern Expressions

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) describes tenant farmers from Oklahoma on an arduous westward journey. Accompanying them is Jim Casy, a former preacher who recounts being transformed by God. Although Casy has lost his faith, he functions as a spiritual healer and shows the powerful influence of his conversion. Some writers move away from tradition in their religious conversions while others move toward orthodoxy. T. S. Eliot’s cycle of poems Four Quartets (1943) is composed of religious and philosophical meditations. Especially in one quartet, “Little Gidding,” the poet undergoes a dramatic reevaluation of his concepts of time, faith, and God at the site of a seventeenth century Anglican community.

Thomas Merton converted to Roman Catholicism and became a Trappist monk at a Kentucky monastery. Merton depicts his conversion in The Seven Storey Mountain (1948). Flannery O’Connor’s novels and stories describe many ecstatic religious experiences, especially those that are grotesque in nature. Wise Blood (1952) concerns a young fanatic who tries to establish a church in rural Georgia. The Violent Bear It Away (1960) presents the fanatical mission of a boy intent on baptizing another boy. Many of O’Connor’s short stories, such as “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” show the inner turmoil of characters searching for a mystical revelation.


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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1975.

Eliot, T. S. “Religion and Literature.” In Religion and Modern Literature: Essays in Theory and Criticism, edited by G. B. Tennyson and Edward E. Ericson. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975.

Gallagher, Susan, and Roger Lundin. Literature Through the Eyes of Faith. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.

Hatch, Nathan, and Mark Noll, eds. The Bible in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers.” In Mystery and Manners, edited by Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961.