Nation Under God

How the American Novel Lost Its Religion

American fiction was once inseparable from proselytizing. How did it become the anticlerical, ego-theistic literature of today? Cultural historian Philip F. Gura, whose new book, Truth's Ragged Edge, traces the early history of the first American novels, looks at the evolution.

Bernd Kammerer/AP

In the 1850s a reviewer for the Philadelphia Graham’s Magazine, intending merely to comment on the ubiquity and variety of the novel in America, revealed the assumption at the time that novels were didactic. He wrote that there are “political novels—representing every variety of political opinion—religious novels, to push the doctrine of every religious sect—philanthropic novels, devoted to the championship of every reform—socialist novels … philosophical novels [and] metaphysical novels.” Given Paul Elie’s recent lament in The New York Times Book Review that contemporary fiction seems to have lost its faith, this 19th-century assumption is significant. Many early American novelists once took as their primary concern the role of religious belief in a modernizing nation. This may not surprise us. What should is that even novelists writing from a secular vantage assumed that novel writing was analogous to proselytizing.

The early 19th century was characterized by major transformations of traditional patterns of belief. In 1800 the overwhelming majority of Americans defined themselves as subjects of a distant, all-powerful God. A quarter century later, as the secular, republican beliefs of the revolutionary generation took deeper root, religious belief moved hesitantly and not without conflict toward the idea of free will. Then, in the two decades prior to the Civil War, there occurred a momentous shift from free will to self-consciousness. As Emerson put it, “the mind became aware of itself.” To him, to like-minded contemporaries, and to many if not most Americans since, the once-accepted notion that a person should spend his time on earth building his Christian character was obsolete. Instead, each American should spend his days cultivating his individualism, his selfhood.

As it developed, the American novel embodied these monumental changes in belief and consciousness. At the start of the century, novelists often took religious tracts as the models for their fiction. These were short allegories and parables aimed at the pious Christian that circulated widely due to enterprising clergymen and the advent of new publishing technologies. Sarah Savage’s Factory Girl (1814), one of the first novels set in a manufacturing village, made a statement about the rewards of patient and pious suffering that would have resonated with readers of religious tracts. Adjusting to life in the new environment of the manufacturing village, the saintly Mary Burnham catches the eye of one of the male workers and soon is engaged. But when she returns home to care for an ailing relative, he breaks the engagement and marries someone else. Mary is despondent, but her Christian piety finally brings her happiness, in the form of the right husband, the good Mr. Danforth, whose wife she had nursed through a fatal illness.

As secular and more fully realized novels began to arrive from Europe, American writers borrowed their structure and tone but infused them with their own theological preoccupations. The novel in this country emerged as a place not only of religious ideas but as a means of religious dispute. The central contest was between older forms of religious duty and the newer belief in self-reliance, which mirrored the larger one in American life between civic duty and individualism. For instance, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Maria Cummins’ wildly popular The Lamplighter (1854), whose main character, Gerty, inspired millions of readers to emulate her Christian humility, epitomized the religious but nondenominational social concern of many early 19th century American novels.

By the 1850s, too, there were many novels that were not just religious but actively anti-religious. As the Graham’s Magazine reviewer observed, these books nevertheless pushed creeds of all sorts on American readers. In the Philadelphian George Lippard’s Quaker City (1845), for example, the reader meets wealthy urban gentlemen—clergy among them—mired in depravity, who meet secretly in a place called Monk Hall to indulge criminal fantasies with young women lured to their moral destruction. But Lippard balanced his anticlericalism with genuine concern for the urban working class—from which the “monks” lured their female victims—devoting much time and energy outside of his novel writing to reformist activities that included the creation of effective labor unions.

Emerson’s liberal religion and personal philosophy, Transcendentalism, occupied a space between Stowe and Lippard, between religion and irreligion. As “the mind became aware of itself,” novelists were on hand to record it, writing stories whose subject was not social concern of one kind or another but self-consciousness. They followed the lead of Continental Romantics, who believed that self-examination was central to one’s humanity. A reviewer described Donald G. Mitchell’s perennial best-seller, Reveries of a Bachelor (1850), as displaying “limpid, pellucid streams of thought,” not so different from what the philosopher William James would later call the “stream of consciousness.” Referring to the new invention of photography, another reviewer claimed that Mitchell had “daguerreotyped” the heart. In the same year Nathaniel Hawthorne accomplished a similar thing in his chapter in The Scarlet Letter called “The Interior of a Heart.” These were the metaphysical novels that the Graham’s Magazine reviewer saw as a major genre.

But while Mitchell and Hawthorne were interested in the mysteries of the interior life, other novelists challenged their obsessive individuality as a threat to the nation’s moral fabric. What one of Emerson’s critics called “ego-theism” needed a counterweight, and a wave of novelists returned to the idea of social concern as an organizing conceit and foundational belief. Rebecca Harding Davis—in addition to painting with remarkable fidelity the consciousness of inarticulate factory workers in “Life in the Iron Mills” (1861)—explored in her first novel, Margret Howth (1862), how the listless self-consciousness in Reveries of a Bachelor or Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (1852) could, if re-imagined, connect people across racial, class, and gender lines. By knowing themselves, Davis’s characters move toward social awareness and commitment, returning to the nation’s first principles even as the Civil War brought these into doubt.

In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books the philosopher Ronald Dworkin defines religious belief in part as the belief that “human life has objective meaning or importance,” with the corollary that each person has “ethical responsibilities to oneself as well as moral responsibilities to others.” It was the project of most 19th-century American novelists, religious and secular, to argue for such an enlarged view of the meaningful life.