“Salvation,” a short excerpt from Langston Hughes’s memoir, recalls a religious revival Hughes attended with his aunt.
- At the revival, twelve-year-old Hughes and several other children sit on a bench. As the congregation sings and prays for their salvation, the children get up one-by-one to signal that they have found Jesus.
- Hughes, expecting to literally see Jesus, waits patiently until he is the last one sitting. When nothing happens, he eventually gets up from the bench out of sheer embarrassment.
- The church cheers for his salvation, but later that night, the disillusioned Hughes cries in his bed, having lost faith altogether.
Last Updated on May 12, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 790
Langston Hughes's "Salvation" is an excerpt from his memoir, The Big Sea, printed in 1940. Despite being an extract from a larger work, “Salvation” can also function as a complete and well-structured short story or autobiographical essay, and it regularly appears on high school syllabuses and reading lists as a stand-alone work.
In the story, Hughes describes how he was "saved from sin" when he was almost thirteen—except "not really." Having begun his story with this tantalizingly contradictory opening line, Hughes goes on to describe the scene. A big revival is being held at his Auntie Reed's church. This has been going on for several weeks, with much preaching, singing and praying intended to bring "hardcore sinners" into the church's fold. At the end of the revival, however, a special meeting is held for children, so that those who have not yet been "brought to Jesus" (like Hughes) can be saved.
Hughes's aunt explains the process of salvation to him, describing it as seeing “a light,” which indicates that Jesus is coming into one's life. Having heard other older people say similar things, Hughes takes their meaning literally and sits in the front row of the church with the other children, patiently waiting for Jesus to appear before him. Because of the way religion has been explained to him, Hughes imagines the entry of Jesus into his life will be a moment of great clarity and epiphany: Jesus will arrive and it will be immediately obvious to Hughes, just as it was apparently immediately obvious to Auntie Reed.
The preacher then begins a "rhythmical" sermon about salvation and hell, alluding to a lost little lamb who is still out "in the cold," while the ninety-nine others are “safe in the fold.” Hughes finds the sound of the sermon appealing, but he does not seem to engage with it on a spiritual level. The preacher then appeals directly to the children sitting in the front row and asks them to come to Jesus, drawing a comparison between the unsaved children and the little lamb who is not in the fold. Several little girls get up and go over to the altar at once; however, most of the children, including Hughes, do not move.
Then a large number of old people come toward the bench and begin to kneel and pray. The congregation begins to sing about light and sinners waiting to be saved. Even as the building fills with prayer, young Hughes remains seated, still waiting to see Jesus.
Eventually, all the young people get up and go to the altar to be "saved" except for Hughes and one other boy, Westley. The adults now gather around the two remaining boys, praying that they will see the light and get up and go over to be saved. Westley eventually whispers to Hughes that he is tired of sitting on the bench and decides to be “saved” simply so that he can leave. Hughes, still genuinely waiting for Jesus, remains alone on the bench.
Hughes's aunt comes to the bench and cries, while the whole congregation prays for him. Hughes desperately wants to see Jesus, but as he waits and waits, nothing happens.
The minister asks Hughes's name and then appeals to him directly to come and be saved. He asks why Hughes does not want to come to Jesus and tells Hughes that Jesus is here waiting for him and wanting to save him. Because it is now late, Hughes feels deeply ashamed of himself for holding up the proceedings. He sees Westley sitting up at the altar kicking his legs and looking very pleased with himself and wonders what God thinks of Westley, who was supposedly “saved” but definitely did not see Jesus. This seems a blasphemous lie to Hughes, but because Westley has not been struck down for his pretending, he decides he, too, should lie and claim to have seen Jesus to save himself from further trouble.
Hughes gets up and is embraced by his aunt while the church breaks out in a chorus of prayer and joyful singing. They are overjoyed that all the children on the bench have now found Jesus and been saved.
That night, however, Hughes cries alone in his bed and cannot stop. His aunt overhears him and tells Hughes's uncle that the young boy is crying because the Holy Ghost has finally entered his life. However, Hughes is actually crying because he cannot bear to admit to his lie: not only did he not see Jesus in the church, but he has lost his faith in Jesus altogether. Since Jesus did not come to help him in his moment of need, Hughes no longer believes there can be a Jesus at all.