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Religion in literature: a history; Faith in Fiction: The Emergence of Religious Literature in America, By David S. Reynolds. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. $22.50.

Well-known authors such as Taylor Caldwell ("Great Lion of God") and Joyce Carol Oates ("Son of the Morning") may not know it, but such religiously oriented novels are part of a trend in fiction that began back in the late 1700s and reached a peak in the 1850s.

In those days, Calvinism's grim doctrines of predestination and everlasting punishment no longer satisfied those who felt that God was more than a stern judge. Classed more as liberals than a strictly anti-Calvinist, such authors used the sentimental approach possible in religious fiction (as opposed to dry doctrinal tracts) to capture the hearts -- if not the minds -- of their readers.

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The writers' purpose was to make God seem more loving and man's lot seem more hopeful than did the religion of the period, while at the same time caricaturing the contemporary dogma. At first, many tales were dominated by God or angles. But gradually, the stories became more secular, and plot development took on far more importance than the discussion of theology. In fact, as the literature increasingly emphasized good works, the people presented in these books became almost independent of God, able to achieve a kind of salvation through their own efforts.

Naturally, the Calvinists began rebutting the liberal tales with novels of their own.

Between 1834 and 1850 a strong anti-Roman Catholic movement developed, stimulated primarily by fear that the growing numbers of immigrants would make Roman Catholicism the dominant religion in the United States. The result was exceedingly lurid fiction that spread false tales about alleged practices in convents and churches.

In self-defense, Roman Catholic novelists replied in kind, conjuring up unscrupulous preachers who took advantage of women at camp meetings, and so on. Though these writers at first tried to base their arguments more on logic than on emotionalism, they, too, began to resort to the standard techniques -- such rewards for conversion as material success or romantic love, or deathbed scenes of conversion or unrepentance.

Other forms of literature used by writers of religious novels included fictionalized accounts of Jesus and other biblical figures. In the beginning, these were more like descriptive journeys through the Holy Land. But as the genre developed, authors began to make freer use of their imaginations, even attributing feats to Jesus not recorded in the Bible.

David Reynold's scholarly study of this period is of value of anyone seriously interested in religious fiction. His "Chronology of Fiction," which lists in detail the religious novels and stories written from 1746 to 1850 and gives selected works for the period following 1850, is alone well worth the price of the book.

But Reynolds's perspectives, particularly on the changing views of man and God seen in religious fiction, are also valuable, sometimes unsettling. The scholar -- and the dedicated nonscholar -- will find much to ponder here.

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