Religion in Literature Analysis

Religion as Foundation

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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.

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...

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Religion as Positive Inspiration

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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...

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Religion Under Scrutiny

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 470 words.)