American Religion in Fiction

American Religion in Fiction
John Turner

A few months ago, we discussed our favorite American religious history authors.

Once in a while, I find myself learning vivid new facts and ideas about the American past through great works of "historical fiction." I think these fall into several subcategories. Some are fictional recreations of the past that involve considerable research and painstakingly try to dramatically recreate the past. Kenneth Roberts's Arundel, about Benedict Arnold and the march to Quebec, is a classic in that genre. Others recreate a historical setting for a more fully fictional tale, such as Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain (one of my favorite books -- so much better than the movie, which wasn't a bad adaptation). To help students comprehend the subculture of American evangelicalism, many teachers of American religious history have used Shirley Nelson's The Last Year of the War, which I would put in the latter category.

My favorite novel that pertains to American religious history is Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter, a vivid account of John Brown's abolitionist odyssey. Banks's narrative is gripping, and his portrayal of Brown's Calvinist fury has stuck with me, reminding me not to overlook John Brown as a key figure in the history of American religion.

What are other great novels that shed light on American religious history?


Paul Harvey said…
How about Uncle Tom's Cabin -- just about perfectly captures nearly everything about certain forms of sentimentalized anti-slavery Protestantism in the mid-19th century. Also good to read with Ed Blum's chapter on Stowe and others from Reforging the White Republic.
Kelly Baker said…
I often use Brian Moore's _Black Robe_ as an entry into the relations between Jesuits and Native Americans. The novel focuses primarily on the interior lives of the priests and the anguish of this Catholic/indigenous encounter. It can be a bit racy, but the students seem to love the foul language. Go figure :)
John Fea said…
Frederick Douglass's narrative is a staple in my U.S. survey course. My students are always taken by the fact that the Hugh Auld became more tyrannical after he converted to Methodism. Douglass's distinction between slave Christianity and "true Christianity" (in the appendix) is excellent.

Immigrant novels are also great for exploring religious themes. Anzia Yesierska's *Bread Givers* (Jewish culture in NYC) and Willa Cather's *My Antonia* (Catholic v. Protestantism in the midwest) work very well with students.
Kelly Baker said…
Okay, one more. _The Rise of David Levinksy_ provides a perspective into the experience of Jewish immigrants and their embrace (as well as rejection) of Americanization.
Brett said…
_The Damnation of Theron Ware_ by Harold Frederic is pretty good. The story is about a wholesome Methodist minister who is led astray by the worldly Irish Catholic immigrants that have entered his territory.
Manlius said…
John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies is an interesting cultural/religious journey through the 20th century.