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Displacing the Divine

Displacing the Divine: The Minister in the Mirror of American Fiction

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    Displacing the Divine
    Book Description:

    As religious leaders, ministers are often assumed to embody the faith of the institution they represent. As cultural symbols, they reflect subtle changes in society and belief-specifically people's perception of God and the evolving role of the church. For more than forty years, Douglas Alan Walrath has tracked changing patterns of belief and church participation in American society, and his research has revealed a particularly fascinating trend: portrayals of ministers in American fiction mirror changing perceptions of the Protestant church and a Protestant God.

    From the novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who portrays ministers as faithful Calvinists, to the works of Herman Melville, who challenges Calvinism to its very core, Walrath considers a variety of fictional ministers, including Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon Lutherans and Gail Godwin's women clergy. He identifies a range of types: religious misfits, harsh Puritans, incorrigible scoundrels, secular businessmen, perpetrators of oppression, victims of belief, prudent believers, phony preachers, reactionaries, and social activists. He concludes with the modern legacy of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century images of ministers, which highlights the ongoing challenges that skepticism, secularization, and science have brought to today's religious leaders and fictional counterparts. Displacing the Divine offers a novel encounter with social change, giving the reader access, through the intimacy and humanity of literature, to the evolving character of an American tradition.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52180-2
    Subjects: Religion, Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Fiction as a Mirror of Culture
    (pp. 1-14)

    In the pages that follow, I show that Protestant ministers who appear as characters in American (U.S.) fiction over the past two hundred years, especially fiction published between the 1790s and the 1920s, mirror a discrediting and displacement, first of ministers and then of their God in American society.¹ I call this process of social and cultural change “displacing the divine.” Fiction provides a historical record of the declining regard for ministers and their God. Changing portrayals of ministers in fiction mirror changing perceptions of ministers and their God in society. Fiction reflects culture.

    Fiction can function as a mirror...

  5. PART I Exposing the Divine:: 1790s–1850s

      (pp. 17-40)

      Ministers served in America for nearly two hundred years before distinctly American clergy emerged. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, most Protestant clergy in America followed Old World ways as they ministered. Even after the Industrial Revolution transformed the quiet villages of the American East into factory towns, and tens of thousands of Americans rushed west, when it was obvious everywhere that Old World models did not suit pastors for ministry in the New World, many ministers still kept to them. Because the old ways were norms. Ministers believed in them.

      The Revolutionary War strained the American colonies’ political,...

      (pp. 41-67)

      In 1830 when Samuel Miller of Princeton Theological Seminary said he wished that novels could be banned, he probably spoke for the majority of America’s clergy at the time. Miller’s concern about the portrayal of ministers in American fiction was legitimate—as the novels discussed in chapter 1 attest. During the first half of the nineteenth century, novelists generally were not kind to ministers. But they were not entirely, or even mostly, to blame for the tainted images of clergy that come through in their characters. The characters that novelists invented reflect cultural images. The minister’s fall described in American...

    • III VULNERABLE DIVINES: Radical Images
      (pp. 68-100)

      From his first appearance, it is clear that the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister who stands at the center of The Scarlet Letter, will become an infamous character in American literature. In 1851, just after The Scarlet Letter appeared, Arthur Cleveland Coxe writing in the Church Review dismissed Hawthorne’s recently published book as simply “the nauseous amour of a Puritan pastor.”¹ Despite this critic’s obvious discomfort (and he was clearly not the only contemporary reader offended by Hawthorne’s portrayal of a Puritan pastor), The Scarlet Letter attracted more public interest than anything else Hawthorne published. More than 150 years later,...

  6. PART II Discrediting the Divine:: 1860s–1920s

      (pp. 103-128)

      In 1864, when she was only twenty years old, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps began to keep a diary that four years later became the basis for The Gates Ajar, one of the most popular novels of the post–Civil War era.¹ Phelps began the journal in an attempt to overcome the despair she felt when the young man she had hoped to marry was killed in the Civil War. Many years later in her autobiography, Phelps says she made the transformation from journal to novel to give courage and hope to others who suffered losses similar to hers: especially to “the...

      (pp. 129-146)

      The frontier fiction that became increasingly popular during the last third of the nineteenth century reflects a freewheeling and often irreverent culture that is quite different from the more staid and regulated culture of East Coast America. A typical story appears in Tall Tales of the Southwest: An Anthology of Southwestern Humor, 1830–1860. As the story begins, a group of revivalists board a riverboat named the Franklin and begin to hold services day and night. Their preaching, loud singing, and praying soon annoy some of the other passengers, who complain to Mr. Simmons, the Franklin’s captain. The captain listens...

      (pp. 147-174)

      The proliferation of cities interconnected by railroads and the development of large-scale manufacturing that followed the Civil War transformed American life and posed as many challenges for ministers in the closing decades of the nineteenth century as the frontier did in midcentury. Between 1860 and 1910, the population of the United States tripled, from thirty-one million to nearly ninety-two million. The increase in the number and proportion of Americans living in incorporated municipalities of more than twenty-five hundred was even more dramatic—from six million in 1860 to forty-five million in 1910, an increase of 750 percent. By 1910, nearly...

      (pp. 175-196)

      Testifying to the faith was the central concern of the courageous Methodist circuit riders who ministered along the Middle Border (the Middle West) west of the Appalachians and south of the Great Lakes during the early decades of the nineteenth century. They were muscular believers. They had to be. Circuits were commonly three hundred to five hundred miles long. Circuit riding ministers served these extended parishes regardless of the weather—through driving rain in the spring and blowing snow in the winter. Few of them married; itinerant ministry paid poorly and provided little time or space for a family. A...

    • VIII FOUNDERING DIVINES: Radical Images (1)
      (pp. 197-232)

      In the middle of the nineteenth century, only a handful of authors based their fictional clergy on radical images. By the end of the century, dozens of American writers drew on radical images to create fictional clergy. In fewer than four decades, writers and readers who accepted radical images as accurate reflections of real-life ministers became a significant subculture in American society. What produced such a dramatic development?

      Profound social, economic, and cultural changes at home and abroad during the last half of the nineteenth century challenged the credibility of traditional viewpoints and encouraged the growth of an openly secular...

    • IX FLAWED DIVINES: Radical Images (2)
      (pp. 233-268)

      Radical cultural images of Protestant clergy reflected in late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century fiction mirror not only the diminishing social status and waning authority of clergy in American society but also the declining quality of contemporary ministers.¹ Contemporary sources indicate that the quality of candidates seeking ordination to the ministry weakened significantly after the Civil War. Ann Douglas cites several late-nineteenth-century observers who bemoan the decrease in the quality of candidates for the ministry. Notable among them is President Charles Eliot of Harvard, who in 1883 observed that “the ministry had declined greatly in the preceding forty years principally because educated men no...

  7. PART III The Legacy:: 1930s–2000s

    • X FALLEN DIVINES: Some Contemporary Images
      (pp. 271-294)

      The displacing of divines in American society produced a cultural legacy that has shaped and still shapes cultural images of ministers mirrored in American fiction. Though not every work of fiction published after the 1920s reflects the fall of Protestant ministers and their God, as the years pass, the effects of this cultural transformation are apparent across the spectrum of cultural images. As noted in chapter 8, the actual displacement culminated during the cultural movement known as modernism. Modernism represented a rejection and turning away from the past, including theological perspectives associated with traditional faith. The previous integrating reality of...

  8. CONCLUSION The Legacy of the Displaced Divine
    (pp. 295-306)

    Throughout this book I argue that ministers in fiction reflect much more than their creators’ imaginations. They also reflect specific social contexts and cultural images of ministers that these contexts mold. When social contexts change, new cultural images emerge. The shaping effects of social change are apparent in the cultural images that emerge in the transformed social context. Between the 1790s and 1920s, cultural images reflected in American fiction were shaped by several interconnected social changes that eroded the credibility and diminished the authority of American ministers—and their God.¹

    1. Popular approval displaced official credentialing as the primary source of...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 307-352)
    (pp. 353-370)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 371-380)