"The Awe-Creating Presence of the Deity": Some Religious Sources for Charles Brockden Brown's 'Wieland.'

Article excerpt

A substantial body of criticism has grown up around Charles Brockden Brown's 1798 metaphysical romance Wieland, or the Transformation: An American Tale. Yet absent in the abundant interpretations of Wieland is much discussion of Brown's religious influences, beyond a few obvious and overworked references. Perhaps the most satisfying interpretations of Wieland have recognized the eclectic influences on the text, stemming from Brown's struggles with the cultural and epistemological crises affecting the late eighteenth century (e.g., Kimbell, Hagenbuchle, O'Shaughnessy, Ringe, Watts). These might be simplistically described as a contest between the old worldview of man's depravity and utter dependence on God and the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and human capability. Oddly, though, even these readings have slighted many of the religious allusions in the text. As Ringe laments, religion is a subject seldom considered of much importance in discussions of Brown (113). A decade ago, Rosenthal analyzed Wieland as a warning against religious insularity and his essay suggested that religious sources might be useful to studies of Brown's novels. Recently Watts has studied Brown as an interpreter of social and political tensions, and in his book-length treatment Watts has chronicled Brown's criticism of both orthodox Christianity and extreme sectarianism.(1) However, Watts, a historian, works chiefly with Brown's letters (Watts 55-57, 83-84) and makes no important discoveries in the novels themselves. With the exception of Warfel's biography, treatments of Brown's life, too, have largely ignored the influence of religion on him.(2) For example, other than passing references to his Quaker past, religion gets little mention in Clark's biography. Even at that, Clark fails to appreciate Brown's Quaker past, preferring to put it only in a political perspective (see Moses 12-14). Clark believes that Brown's religious motivation was largely an effort to compensate for his Quaker family's pacifism, and brief banishment from Philadelphia, during the Revolutionary War.

Religious allusions are evident from the beginning in Wieland. In the first pages the readers learn that as a young man the elder Wieland(3) had come under the influence of a book written by "one of the teachers of the Albigenses" (8:5),(4) a separatist Protestant sect. Instead of looking to others to check the validity of what he reads, the elder Wieland hastily develops his own creed. Foreshadowing the attention to elocutionary rhetoric later in Wieland, Brown writes that the elder Wieland also obsessively weighs each of his "looks, gestures, and phrases" (9:20). Eventually his religious strictness, along with a missionary zeal, causes him to emigrate to America where he will seek to evangelize the Indians in rural Pennsylvania (9:35-11:15).

The Albigensian reference is one of two religious allusions in Wieland that have particularly stood out for critics. Axelrod, for example, consulted reference works contemporaneous to Brown to discover that the Albingenses, a heretical Protestant sect in southern France in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, were known to reject the resurrection of the body, baptism, and marriage rites, among other things. Axelrod joins others (e.g., Rosenthal) in seeing the Manichaean view of dualistic forces of good and evil as an undercurrent in Wieland. Regardless of the particulars, it seems obvious that Brown has chosen this religious allusion as a point of irony to raise an epistemological question: What can a person trust as a basis for his or her actions. Brown writes that for the elder Wieland the Albingensian book "was the fountain, beyond which it was unnecessary to trace the stream of religious truth" (8:38-9:1). Here, no doubt, Brown was criticizing religious groups that do not weigh what they are taught against history and reason. Brown also writes that the elder Wieland read the Albigensian book at night and Sundays. …