Langston Hughes, a poet, novelist, playwright, and short story writer, belonged to the group of black artists known as the Harlem Renaissance. His short story "Salvation," published as a chapter in his autobiographical work The Big Sea, and first published in 1940, relates an experience in a twelve-year-old boy's life. This event helped shape the boy's religious understanding far differently from what his Auntie Reed intended.
"Salvation" begins with the narrator stating he was "saved from sin" when he was twelve. Then he announces he was not really saved, explaining what happened.
A religious revival was in town and had proven quite popular. His Aunt Reed attended every night for a week. On the final evening, the churchgoers' children were invited to give them a chance at salvation.
If he was saved, Aunt Reed had told him, he would see a light, meaning Jesus had come into his life. The boy believed her very literally; he had heard other adults mention the same light. So he sat in church, waiting to see this mysterious light and for a big change.
The preacher's sermon was very powerful. His words made some young girls cry as they anxiously went to the preacher to be saved. Many youngsters, however, continued to sit, unmoved. Even after many adults prayed at the children's feet, the narrator refused to move until he saw Jesus. In the end, he and his friend Westley were the only ones left. Westley whispered that he was tired of sitting there, so he walked up as if he had seen the light, so he might be saved too.
Though his aunt continued to pray for him, nothing happened. He could not understand this and felt ashamed. He wondered what God thought of Westley; God had not, after all, struck him dead for lying. So the narrator decided it might make less trouble if he, too, lied about seeing Jesus. So he stood up, and the whole congregation burst into shouts of joy.
For the first time in his life, later that night, he cried. When his aunt heard, she believed the tears were caused by the Holy Ghost, but the boy was crying because he could not bear to tell her he had lied to her and the congregation. Not only had he not seen Jesus, the whole experience left his belief in shambles. If there were a God, why had Jesus not appeared to him to save him?