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by Alfred Bendixen

There is no single American view of religion that has dominated either our culture or our novels. A brief survey of the role of religion in the American novel demonstrates that a wide variety of religious experiences, ideas, values, metaphors, and myths have shaped much of the most significant and most popular examples of the form.

Books about damnation have a long literary heritage in our country, going back to the first Puritan best-seller, Michael Wigglesworth's long poem, DAY OF DOOM (1662), which also detailed the sufferings of sinners at the end of the world. Popular religious writing, however, does not have to imagine either a biblical past or an apocalyptic future. Much of it deals with the present and the question of how to live a meaningful spiritual existence. That is the subject of what may be the best-selling novel in American literary history, Charles M. Sheldon's IN HIS STEPS (1896), in which a minister persuades his congregation to devote a year to living according to the Christian principles and to respond to all moral and practical decisions with the question "What would Jesus do?" Because the book had a defective copyright and was thus widely pirated by publishers who did not bother to ask if Jesus would have paid royalties, it is impossible to determine exactly how many millions of copies were sold, but it has never been out of print. Its clear style and plain speaking made Jesus Christ into not only an advocate for the social gospel but also a practical guide to virtually all decision making.

The second best-selling religious novel of the 19th century was Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's THE GATES AJAR (1868), which provided a series of reassuring conversations about the heavenly afterlife. Phelps's primary consolation for mourners rests on the prospect of reuniting with departed loved ones in a kinder, gentler world, but her novel is also a carefully wrought rejection of a cruel Calvinist orthodoxy that was overly willing to judge and condemn, rather than provide comfort and solace. This novel remained so popular that Phelps later produced two sequels, BEYOND THE GATES (1883) and THE GATES BETWEEN (1887), and Mark Twain satirized it in "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" as late as 1909. Phelps also wrote two of our most important early feminist novels, A SILENT PARTNER (1871) and THE STORY OF AVIS (1877), and some recent critics have argued that her GATES series offers a feminized heaven as a rebuke to patriarchal ideas that kept women out of the pulpit for many years. Certainly, many of the women writers who were once dismissed as sentimentalists, including Phelps and Harriet Beecher Stowe, now can be seen as women who used the novel to deliver their own kind of sermon and thus to assume positions of religious leadership analogous to those denied them by patriarchal conventions.

Phelps was later one of the contributors, along with Henry James, W. D. Howells, Julia Ward Howe, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, to a collection of essays about heaven and the afterlife, IN AFTER DAYS (1910). It should not surprise anyone to see James and Howells listed in this company, because religion has played a large part in the works of our major novelists. Indeed, it is remarkable how many major novels either contain sermons or rely on Christ figures, how many engage the questions raised by religion in complex ways. Nathaniel Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTER (1850) focuses on the conflicts generated by the discovery of adultery in a Puritan theocracy. The woman who has borne her lover's child is forced to wear the stigma of the scarlet letter while her lover, one of the town's leading ministers, escapes discovery and public punishment only to suffer the torments of his own private guilt. As its setting shifts between marketplace and forest, between society and nature, the novel asks compelling questions about the meaning of freedom in America.

This same openness to a world of multiple meanings is at the heart of Herman Melville's masterpiece, MOBY-DICK (1851), in which Captain Ahab's mad pursuit of the white whale is told in rolling cadences that seem drawn from both Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Ahab seems to defy both God and nature as he seeks both to destroy the whale that has taken his leg and to penetrate the heart of a mysterious and apparently cruel universe. Hawthorne once said that Melville could neither believe nor disbelieve. This sense of ambiguity about the place of religion in the modern world marks much of the fiction that American novelists produced in the late 19th century. For example, Harold Frederic's THE DAMNATION OF THERON WARE (1896), a brilliant blend of psychological realism and moral inquiry, focuses on the spiritual collapse of a Methodist minister whose na•ve views of the world and religion are shattered by his contacts with an atheist physician, a Catholic priest, and a beautiful Irish woman.

Other novelists of the time sometimes portrayed religious ministers as a potentially invaluable sources of insight in dealing with moral dilemmas, as did William Dean Howells with his depiction of Reverend Sewell in THE RISE OF SILAS LAPHAM (1885). Increasingly, however, religious references might turn out to be ironic and sometimes caustic, as in those moments in Stephen Crane's MAGGIE: A GIRL OF THE STREETS (1893) when various characters pretend to possess morality or affirm religious principles.

The late 19th-century writer who dealt most fully and most critically with religion is Mark Twain. He spent much of his final years rewriting biblical tales and experimenting with various biblical narrators, including Adam, Eve, and Satan. Twain's capacity for satire seems endless, and it is not surprising that he punctured religious hypocrisy at every stage of his career. It is, however, quite remarkable that his best novel, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1885), features a protagonist whose greatest moral act is a decision to go to hell. This novel has been banned from some schools and libraries in our time for its use of racist language. In Twain's time, it was banned for its treatment of moral ideas and its assault on organized religion.

In the early 20th century, many novelists depict a world that has become a wasteland devoid of any sense of faith or meaning. That is particularly true of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. In their major novels, characters move in endless circles, never making any kind of moral progress and unable to find the stability once provided by religion. The modern American writer who most skillfully used religious imagery to reveal the disintegration of Southern and American society is William Faulkner, who employs ironic Christ figures in most of his major works. Faulkner is not suggesting that Joe Christmas of LIGHT IN AUGUST (1932) or Issac McCaslin of GO DOWN, MOSES (1942) is like Christ because of the superficial details that relate to the Messiah; he is using Christ as the image of the perfect man against which he measures the faults of these and other characters. Faulkner's THE SOUND AND THE FURY (1929) also emphasizes the rhythms of the Easter week to suggest the idea of symbolic death and the possibility of resurrection: the most positive moments of that most difficult novel are embedded in the Easter sermon delivered by an African-American minister in the fourth section. Only through the metaphors of spiritual rebirth that are basic to the Easter story could Faulkner provide any hope in a novel that is fundamentally about death and loss.

Numerous late 20th-century novels portray Americans struggling to find meaning in a world in which old established religious conventions have lost their ability to nurture and nourish. The protagonists either reject or flee from a failed religion to seek either some new, more individual faith or some sense of personal insight that will make life more meaningful. Examples include such different works as James Baldwin's GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN (1953), John Updike's RABBIT, RUN (1960), and Saul Bellow's MR. SAMMLER'S PLANET (1970). The inability of human beings to find meaning without religion is the underlying theme behind the grotesque humor and violence of Flannery O'Connor's WISE BLOOD (1952) and THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY (1960). More recently, a number of African-American and Latino/a authors have suggested that the answer to our religious hunger may be in connecting to other, pre-Christian systems of belief, particularly those that affirm our spiritual connections to the world of nature and recognize the potential role of women as healers. These ideas are developed with particular grace and power in both Rudolfo Anaya's BLESS ME, ULTIMA (1972) and Gloria Naylor's MAMA DAY (1988).

American novelists have struggled with the idea and experience of religion in a wide variety of ways, sometimes attacking organized religion, sometimes affirming the need for faith and the moral power of belief, sometimes simply using the narrative power of the form to raise questions that can never be easily answered.

Alfred Bendixen, Professor of English at Texas A&M University, is the founder of the American Literature Association which he serves as Exceutive Director. He has published widely on American women writers and the literature of the supernatural.

Cover of ''Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.''
Like most evangelical preachers during the Great Awakening, John Edwards employed the fear of divine punishment to bring his audiences to repentance -- as he did here, in a famous sermon called "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Edwards's vast theological output, however, dealt with many themes beside that of damnation.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Suggested Novels
Book cover of THE SCARLET LETTER. Book cover of MOBY DICK. Book cover of GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN.
Suggested Authors
Photo of Marilynne Robinson.    Marilynne Robinson
Photo of Ernest Hemingway.    Ernest Hemingway
Photo of William Faulkner.    William Faulkner
The American Novel