Religion in Literature

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Religion as Foundation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933

Many of the colonies in North America were established to promote religious freedom, so religious beliefs have figured significantly in the prose literature of the North American continent. The belief that the colonists were like a new race establishing a New Jerusalem in the New World gave many of them great confidence in their pioneering work. William Bradford, in A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the Plantations Settled at Plymouth (1622; Bradford is generally considered author of the first half of this work, also known as Mourt’s Relation), in History of Plymouth Plantation (1856), and especially in the Mayflower Compact of 1620, demonstrates how his religious values as a Puritan permeated his daily life and his interpretation of events.

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Similarly, John Winthrop presented his Puritan colleagues with his sermon A Model of Christian Charity (1630) as a guide for the Massachusetts Bay Company. The role of the Bible in helping Winthrop design this new community was prominent, prompting the early Puritans to make him a governor of their colony. Samuel Sewall of the next generation in New England demonstrated similar religious values in his autobiographical work, The Diary of Samuel Sewall (1878-1882), published about 150 years after Sewall’s death. Cotton Mather, an early Puritan preacher, argued in his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) that America was designed to illustrate biblical history, and to help interpret the Bible for a new world order. Mather’s writings, along with those of another Calvinist preacher, Jonathan Edwards in his masterful Freedom of the Will (1754), emphasize God’s holiness and grace in contrast to human depravity. Such beliefs prompted many of the early settlers to labor long and hard to demonstrate gratitude through industry.

Among the early settlers, several women distinguished themselves as prose writers with deep religious convictions. One of those was Mary Rowlandson, whose Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) demonstrates how readily these early settlers interpreted worldly circumstances in biblical terms. In the eighteenth century, Elizabeth Ashbridge showed herself to be a master of the spiritual autobiography as she depicted her conversion and spiritual growth in her work Some Account of the Fore-Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge (1774). As was Rowlandson, Ashbridge was concerned about following God’s direction, but came to do so as a Quaker, in the tradition of William Rogers in Rhode Island and William Penn in Pennsylvania.

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Benjamin Franklin, in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (French translation, 1791, as Mémoires de la vie privée; English original, 1868) writes about how he learned the virtues of thrift and industry from his Presbyterian family and his Quaker friends. Franklin was personally opposed to attending worship services, but he was very respectful of the values that the Christian church promoted. Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack (1733-1758) is filled with witty sayings encouraging people to live virtuously and wisely. His sayings continue to be a significant factor in America’s religious identity, so much so that some people mistakenly assume his sayings come from the Bible. Sayings such as “God helps them that help themselves” (drawn from Aesop’s fables), and “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” are among those sometimes mistaken for being biblical.

The nineteenth century saw a continuation of these Protestant Christian traditions, but with increasing individualism. The philosophical works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, such as Nature (1836) and “Self-Reliance” (1841), and of Henry David Thoreau, in Walden (1854), demonstrate a tendency to move beyond traditional Christianity and to express a new optimism in the capacity of people to learn from nature the essential virtues needed for a good life. Not limiting themselves to biblical guidelines, these new American Transcendentalists were nevertheless deeply indebted to remnants of Christian teachings about simplicity and love.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the Second Great Awakening proved to be a major factor in revitalizing traditional Christian convictions and shaping cultural identity. Articulate leaders such as Timothy Dwight, Lyman Beecher, and Nathaniel W. Taylor led Congregationalist revivals; Baptist and Methodist ranks grew rapidly under other leaders. Perhaps the most prominent and influential of these revivalist leaders was a young lawyer from upstate New York, Charles Grandison Finney, ordained as a Presbyterian. His new methods for reaching the unchurched are articulated well in his Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1834-1835) and are further supported in his voluminous work, Lectures on Systematic Theology (1846-1847).

In the category of literature demonstrating how religion serves as a foundation for daily living, some of the finest prose writings are those of Abraham Lincoln. His first inaugural address echoes a rich understanding of the Christian tradition. Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address is not only a masterpiece of concise prose but also a skillful portrayal of the religious values that guided his life as a political leader. Lincoln’s second inaugural address, given at the close of the Civil War, is also richly religious in tone, with its gracious call for the victorious and the defeated alike to live with malice toward none. Speeches by the man who was perhaps the United States’ greatest president resonate with motifs from the Sermon on the Mount and other biblical passages.

During the last half of the nineteenth century and during the twentieth century, literary prose works exhibiting strong reliance on religious convictions were typically confined to specifically religious publications. American culture tended to become more secular in orientation. Groups such as the Unitarians focused much of their attention on public service and championed the potential of humanity to achieve great things through self-discipline. North American literature grew away from its religious roots.

Religion as Positive Inspiration

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Numerous literary works in American history have been inspired positively by religious values. In the earliest days of colonial life, only a few colonists had the talent and the time to write more than prose works. Furthermore, the early Puritan culture discouraged expressions of faith not specifically called for in the Bible; therefore, the fine arts, even when used as expressions of faith, were suspect. Anne Bradstreet, wife of governor Simon Bradstreet, saw her first volume of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, published unsigned and apparently without her consent in 1650. She went on to write some of her finest poems, which were published posthumously in 1678 and 1867. Her poetry runs the gamut from the tender and domestic, such as “To My Dear and Loving Husband” (1678) and “The Author to Her Book” (1678), to the more pensive and meditative, such as “Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House July 10th, 1666” (1867) and “A Weary Pilgrim” (1867). Edward Taylor, a Puritan divine trained at Harvard, also wrote a considerable volume of poetry of striking quality, most of which was not published until more than two hundred years after his death in 1729. Taylor gave strict orders that his poetry should never be published. His best work can be found in his The Poetical Works of Edward Taylor (1939), along with other meditative works such as God’s Determinations Touching His Elect (1939). Creative expressions of faith continued in the Puritan culture of early America, but often with a sense of embarrassment about doing more than explicating the Bible.

Religious convictions conveyed in creative literature tended to travel two different directions after the early nineteenth century. Much of the memorable literature treated religion as a cultural factor, and often critiqued its character and inadequacies. Literature treating religious convictions positively continued as well. In Canada, the writing of Thomas McCulloch in The Mephibosheth Stepsure Letters (1862) critiques American culture and champions the values of “industry, domestic comfort, and religion.” McCulloch’s use of humor and satire to convey his lay sermons is similar to the literary methods of Thomas Chandler Haliburton in his work The Clockmaker: Or, Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville (1836, 1838, 1840), in which he critiques his fellow residents of Nova Scotia and prompts them to moral uprightness and untiring industry through the advice of the Yankee named Sam Slick.

In the United States of the nineteenth century, one of the most widely read literary works supporting religious convictions was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852). To demonstrate that her work was rooted in historical facts, Stowe wrote a nonfiction work titled A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), which provides documented case studies to support her fictional accounts. Stowe’s novel exhibits moral outrage at injustice and cruelty.

From the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, a wide variety of novels appeared illustrating the life of Christ and his times, or depicting how individuals have come to a Christian understanding of life. Some of the better known works include Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), based on his research of the Holy Land and the Bible; Lloyd C. Douglas’ The Robe (1942) and The Big Fisherman (1948); Frank G. Slaughter’s The Road to Bithynia: A Novel of Luke, the Beloved Physician (1951) and The Crown and the Cross: The Life of Christ (1959); and James A. Michener’s The Source (1965), which covers twelve thousand years of history in the Holy Land and thereby illustrates the essence of Western civilization until the days of modern Israel of the twentieth century.

Alongside these historically rooted novels about the world of Jesus Christ, one can also find numerous novels illustrating the lives of Christians in various centuries. Some of the more popular authors and their works include Harold Bell Wright’s The Shepherd of the Hills (1907); Lloyd C. Douglas’ The Magnificent Obsession (1929), Forgive Us Our Trespasses (1932), and Green Light (1934), each illustrating different aspects of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount for the twentieth century reader; Catherine Marshall’s Christy (1967); and Frederick Buechner’s A Long Day’s Dying (1949), The Book of Bebb (1979), Godric (1980), and Brendan: A Novel (1987).

These various novels treating Christ, the biblical tradition, and Christian living illustrate the extent to which Christianity has continued to be a major source of inspiration to American and Canadian authors since the founding of their respective countries to the end of the twentieth century. During this same time period a number of poets and dramatists have also demonstrated the positive influence of Christianity on their identity as writers. In the nineteenth century Walt Whitman in his Leaves of Grass (1855) and Emily Dickinson in her poetry (most of which was published posthumously) were unconventionally religious souls whose writing demonstrates a profound indebtedness to a rich Christian heritage, rooted in the Bible (additionally, in the case of Dickinson, the hymn). The most prominent Christian poet and dramatist of the twentieth century is Thomas Stearns Eliot. T. S. Eliot began life in the Unitarian tradition and gradually moved toward the more orthodox beliefs of the Anglican Church. His Ash Wednesday (1930) and Four Quartets (1943) are technically some of his finest poetry and illustrate his Christian values and concerns. Few American poets of Eliot’s stature have striven to invest their creative energy in expressing the faith, although many of them, such as Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Galway Kinnell, were reared in Christian traditions. Perhaps the most prominent poet treating Christian views positively in the 1980’s and 1990’s has been Denise Levertov.

Among Canadian authors, one of the best known from the twentieth century has been Robertson Davies. He has often treated religious themes in his novels and plays. Davies’ Salterton trilogy— Tempest-Tost (1951), Leaven of Malice (1954), and A Mixture of Frailties (1958)—deals throughout with issues of religious identity and evil, along with issues of Canadian provincialism. Davies’ novel Fifth Business (1970) treats one man’s struggle with guilt as a Scottish Presbyterian and with his quests for historical information about the lives of the saints. The lively and often humorous writings of Davies show his probing concern for depicting his Canadian culture in its various dimensions, especially its religious earnestness.

Religion Under Scrutiny

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Almost every prominent author writing since the earliest days of America’s history has made significant references to religion, and not all the references have reflected positively on religion. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, various writers have either attacked traditional Christianity or have challenged its traditional interpretation of the Bible. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) depicts the irony inherent in a Puritan culture that condemns immorality in Hester Prynne but does not adequately deal with the deadlier sins of the heart in Reverend Dimmesdale, Hester’s secret mate.

This critiquing of culture can also be found in Herman Melville’s highly poetic and transcendentalist work Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851) with its exploration of a supposedly naïve narrator called Ishmael and a seemingly insane Captain Ahab obsessed with capturing a giant white whale. Beneath the surface of descriptions about life aboard a whaling boat runs a subtle and profound interpretation of humanity struggling defiantly against the divine forces of predestination.

Mark Twain also uses a naïve narrator in his finest work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) to critique many aspects of the pre-Civil War culture of America, including the use of religion to manipulate people and justify slavery. The novel provides a simple and scathing interpretation of the depravity of humanity and the inadequacy of any theology that presumes to express God’s commandments without first embodying God’s love. Huck Finn also illustrates the potential of the innocent child to turn out well if exposed to nature and freed from the corrupting influence of civilization, which includes religion. One can see in Twain’s work echoes of the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the philosophers Emerson and Thoreau.

During the same era in which Twain wrote, William Dean Howells produced a variety of novels critiquing the moral and ethical aspects of American culture. Howells’ most famous novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), explores the disintegration of post-Civil War America. His later novels, such as A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) and A Traveller from Altruria (1894), show the influence of Leo Tolstoy’s Christian socialism. While the characters in these novels are not themselves especially religious, these works are particularly revealing as analyses of the need for genuine religious convictions to prevent destruction of the American culture. Similarly, Henry James wrote much about the dilemma of innocent and naïve Americans who encounter the corruption of European culture, particularly in his works such as Daisy Miller: A Study (1878) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Other works, such as The Turn of the Screw (1898), explore the problem of evil on the level of personal obsessions or fears. Even in the largely bleak and sometimes nihilistic writings of Stephen Crane, such as The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895) and The Blue Hotel (1895), one can see characters struggle with the theological problems of moral and natural evil as well as predestination or fate. Although not overtly religious in focus, the works of Twain, Howells, James, and Crane are each rooted in their identity with, or struggle against, religious ideals in American culture.

During the twentieth century numerous American authors have treated religious themes, often as a critique of religious values, or a yearning for what has not yet proven sufficient for some. One of the most direct challenges to traditional Christian beliefs came from Wallace Stevens in his poems “Sunday Morning” and “The Idea of Order at Key West,” in which he calls for a new sense of order based on aesthetics and personal re-creation of the world through the exercise of the imagination.

The writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, especially This Side of Paradise (1920), critique the flaws in the American Dream of obtaining great wealth and fame quickly. Theodore Dreiser’s bleak novel An American Tragedy (1925) also explores the inadequacy of seeking wealth at any price. Arthur Miller further explores this tragic theme in his most popular play, Death of a Salesman (1949).

Other authors of the twentieth century have treated religious themes directly in their novels, freely exposing the failures of various individuals who claim to believe in God. William Faulkner, for example, concludes his most famous novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929), with a powerful sermon that inspires fortitude in its black listeners, but consists of little more than humanism. Other novels by Faulkner, including The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959), present the Snopes family as a group of poor white Baptists from the northern United States who opportunistically take over the decaying, post-Civil War culture in Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. Religious individuals are rarely presented positively in Faulkner’s fiction.

Several authors of note in the last half of the twentieth century have entertained religious themes. John Updike’s prize-winning tetralogy about Harry Angstrom, starting with Rabbit Run (1960), explores the moral failings of a pleasure seeking and self-centered generation. As Robert Detweiler points out in Breaking the Fall: Religious Readings of Contemporary Fiction (1989), the sermons that occur in these Rabbit novels, as well as in Couples (1968), A Month of Sundays (1975), and The Witches of Eastwick (1984), all help to underscore the religious ideals against which these novels are set. Furthermore, the use of sexuality in these novels tends to be sacramental, emphasizing the spiritual dimension of sexuality often overlooked in the secular American society of the latter half of the twentieth century. Like so many other authors, Updike seems to be rejecting traditional Christian morals while ironically underscoring their value in helping people avoid disaster.

What one finds in the writings of Updike is strikingly similar in some ways to qualities in the writings of Flannery O’Connor, whose gothic short stories, such as “Revelation,” often show people coming to terms with evil in themselves. This probing and disquieting exploration of evil seems to be another major theme in American literature as authors from Hawthorne to Updike have continued to explore the depravity of humanity.

Margaret Atwood, a Canadian novelist and poet, has also used specifically religious and biblical themes in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1986). In this novel Atwood offers a feminist critique of American culture and of the Christian religion as she explores life in Gilead, a supposedly biblically based patriarchal society of the 1990’s generated in the aftermath of the fall of the United States. Atwood uses her Gilead community to reveal various ways in which women have been exploited in the name of religion. What positively religious and antireligious works often have in common is the theme of human depravity.


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The literatures of the United States and Canada have been profoundly shaped by religious beliefs. Nearly all of the literature of these two nations demonstrates a profound indebtedness to biblical Christianity, at the least as a cultural reference point and at the most as a foundation for belief and for moral and ethical ideals. The capacity to be appalled at evil or to be disappointed in merely material success is a product of a religious heritage. Whether North American authors acknowledge the fact or not, they are literary descendants of the Puritans.


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Suggested Readings

Detweiler, Robert. Breaking the Fall: Religious Readings of Contemporary Fiction. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989. An interpretation of the fiction of authors such as Walker Percy, John Updike, Russell Hoban, and Margaret Atwood. Employs a wide variety of critical tools with an eye to the often subtle but significant role of religious beliefs in these author’s writings.

Frye, Northrop. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. One of Canada’s leading literary critics, Frye provides a sweeping analysis of ways in which the Bible has inspired Western literature. Frye treats the work of several American authors, including T. S. Eliot, Herman Melville, and Wallace Stevens, along with the works of numerous world authors.

Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. New York: Basic Books, 1978. Provides a lucid analysis of literature, especially American fiction, and discusses the subtle points of balance needed to create literature of integrity and enduring worth. Gardner’s work is a fine counterbalance to criticism that champions relativism.

Gunn, Giles. The Interpretation of Otherness: Literature, Religion, and the American Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Explores the relationship between religious identity and literary development in America. Gunn’s views are not universally accepted, but he continues to be one of the best critics of religion and culture in America.

Gunn, Giles, ed. The Bible and American Arts and Letters. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983. This fine collection of essays by various critics explores the ways in which the Bible has been a factor in the poetry, fiction, and drama of American authors. These essays also analyze ways in which American culture has prompted new interpretations of the biblical tradition.

Lewis, Richard Warrington Baldwin. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955. Covers American literary development between 1820 and 1860. Reviews optimistic views of America as a new Eden filled with new Adams who will change the course of history. Treats authors such as Horace Bushnell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Walt Whitman, and Francis Parkman.

Morey, Ann-Janine. Religion and Sexuality in American Literature. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A discussion of the peculiar ways in which religion and sexual practices have been treated in American literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Morey’s feminist critique of these aspects of literature is informative and well written.

Scott, Nathan A., Jr. The Broken Center: Studies in the Theological Horizon of Modern Literature. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966. Explores the relationship between religious imagination and literature written in the middle of the twentieth century. Provides a comprehensive and useful critique of modern literature and American religious identity.

Stouck, David. Major Canadian Authors: A Critical Introduction to Canadian Literature in English. 2d ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988. Reviews the works of many Canadian authors whose works sometimes treat religious themes.

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