Religious Minorities in Literature Analysis


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Religious Society of Friends was nicknamed Quakers because they believe that inspiration comes from an inner light, often accompanied by trembling. The nickname was also intended to impugn Quaker objections to war, the implication being that the Quakers quake at confrontation. Their literary image is generally positive, if limiting. They tend to appear as kindly and gentle; their mistreatment is the most constant theme.

Caroline Dale Snedeker has written on the sect’s socialist experiment in New Harmony, Indiana, in The Town of the Fearless (1931). Her Unchartered Ways (1935) pictures the persecutions of the Quakers by tyrannical Puritans, examining the religious beliefs that motivated colonial Quakers. Various books have been written portraying Quakers favorably for their involvement in the abolitionist movement. Novels by Ronald de Levington Kirkbridge describe the lives of one Quaker family as they move from Pennsylvania, the heartland of their religion, to South Carolina. Works such as these describe a simple people who are dedicated to helping the less fortunate, who practice conscientious objection to war, and who observe a rural, family-centered way of life.

An influential work featuring a Quaker protagonist is Theodore Dreiser’s The Bulwark (1946), the story of a principled Pennsylvania Quaker who becomes wealthy. He never forgets his roots in religion, and his children react to his example in varying ways as they grow up in a modern world. This book shows the delicate balance that a Quaker attempts to maintain between being in the world but not of it. Another book, written by Elizabeth Emerson, The Good Crop (1946), treats a similar theme: A Quaker couple move their family of eleven children from Tennessee to Illinois in the nineteenth century. The most popular of books featuring Quaker characters is The Friendly Persuasion (1956) by Jessamyn West. This book of fourteen stories details the lives of an Indiana Quaker family, discussing the peculiar language and customs of the Birdwell family in a manner that helps the readers identify with them.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Mennonite literary identity is mainly a matter of distinctively plain dress and horse-and-buggy transportation. Mennonites originally came to America for religious freedom. Although Mennonites were in the past predominately farming people, today only a third of the Mennonites in North America are rural. There are three main Mennonite groups: Hutterites, Old Order Mennonites, and the Amish. The Amish are the Mennonite group that appears most in literature. Much literature about the Amish deals with the difficulty of integrating tradition with the rapidly changing values of a larger society.

A popular dialect work of the early 1900’s by Helen Reimensnyder Martin is Tillie, a Mennonite Maid: A Story of the Pennsylvania Dutch (1904), which probes the restrictive life of Mennonite women. Martin’s second novel, Sabina: A Story of the Amish (1905), may be the most thorough treatment of the social implications of the Mennonite faith. Sabina admires the physical and emotional benefits of Amish life, but depicts Amish teachings as cruelly narrow. In the introduction to this book Martin writes that the Amish faith restricts its adherents “by its unique customs, and the peculiar garb it imposes, setting them apart from the rest of humanity, prohibiting ‘a life of vanity,’ and rigidly enforcing a plain and frugal manner of life and conversation.”

The usual literary view of the Amish lifestyle is one of charming simplicity. In Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish (1989) Sue Bender gets off the fast track of the frenzied business world and into the world of the Amish, where the slow-paced, community-centered life feeds her soul and changes her priorities. Rudy Wiebe’s fictional Mennonites, in such novels as the popular Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962), range from the rigidly dogmatic to the humane.

Mennonites, in the fiction of insiders and of outsiders, often are portrayed as frugal, shrewd at bargaining, clannish, and passive. Many works of fiction also describe Mennonite families and congregations as authoritarian. Particularly well expressed in Urie Bender’s Four Earthen Vessels (1982) is the seemingly unemotional demeanor and the extreme practicality of his Mennonite characters.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Of the minority religions in the United States, the Latter-day Saints have received the most literary attention. This is due in part to their large numbers and also to the controversies that have been raised regarding Mormonism. For the first hundred years of Mormon history, beginning in 1830, the dominant view of Mormons was as villains. Fitz-James O’Brian’s Harper’s Weekly “My Wife’s Tempter,” published in 1857 and widely read in the East, portrays a Mormon antagonist who is fat, boorish, and downright deceptive in stealing another man’s wife. Alvah Milton Kerr describes a polygamous husband in an 1895 story as toadlike and lazy. Many nineteenth century stories contain a fair unsullied maiden trying to avoid the lecherous advances of a Mormon polygamist. Even worse is the villainous Mormon who carries out the will of God by blood-sacrificing wayward members and antagonistic nonmembers, as in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887).

Humorists such as Artemus Ward and Mark Twain put a comic twist on the Mormon tale. In Ward’s Gloverson the Mormon (1874), a mule-skinner with twenty-one wives, saying good-bye to each, tries to remember their names. In Roughing It (1872), Twain jokes how he thought polygamy sounded great until he saw how ugly the Mormon women were; then he considered the men saints for marrying even one of them. In Max Adeler’s Out of the Hurly Burly: Or, Life in an Odd...

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Implications for Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

For religious minorities it is increasingly difficult, in the face of the homogenization of culture that has resulted from constantly advancing communications technology, to hold on to the uniqueness of their religion. These groups attempt, in their struggle for identity, to balance individual autonomy with community control. Fictional portrayals of such struggles are seldom historically accurate. For example, portrayals of polygamy were often the only education those in the East had about Mormons. With Mormons staying almost entirely in Utah, there was no one around to prove that the negative characterizations about Mormons that appeared in literature were false. It is true of other religious minorities as well that literature about them has often resorted to stereotype. Often, however, fictional portrayals are psychologically apt in defining the identity of minority religions. Successful literary portrayals of religious experience are typically quite an accomplishment, given that religious experience is ineffable. In an art form such as literature, which tends to strive for the universal in the particular, people who are different have often been characterized by the sensational rather than the significant.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Coan, Otis W., and Richard G. Lillard. America in Fiction. Palo Alto, Calif.: Pacific Books, 1967. Describes novels that interpret aspects of life, including religion, in North America.

Cracroft, Richard H. “Distorting Polygamy for Fun and Profit: Artemus Ward and Mark Twain Among the Mormons.” In BYU Studies 14 (Winter, 1974): 272-288. Examines the influence of humorists of the nineteenth century on common perceptions of the Mormons.

Driedger, Leo. Mennonite Identity in Conflict. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988. Explores the impact of minority status on identity.

Ficken, Carl. God’s Story and Modern Literature. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985. Explores the concept of religion in fiction.

Lambert, Neal. “Saints, Sinners, and Scribes.” In Utah Historical Quarterly 36 (Winter, 1968): 64-76. Details the portrayal of Mormons in fiction as comics and villains.

O’Connor, Leo F. Religion in the American Novel. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1984. Contains essays about the influence of religion on American literature.

Redekop, Calvin Wall. Mennonite Society. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. Provides insights into the Mennonite religion. Chapter 7, on Mennonite personality, is particularly insightful in terms of identity.