The Altar at Home: Sentimental Literature and Nineteenth-Century American Religion

The Altar at Home: Sentimental Literature and Nineteenth-Century American Religion

The Altar at Home: Sentimental Literature and Nineteenth-Century American Religion

The Altar at Home: Sentimental Literature and Nineteenth-Century American Religion

Synopsis

Displays of devout religious faith are very much in evidence in nineteenth-century sentimental novels such as Uncle Tom's Cabin and Little Women, but the precise theological nature of this piety has been little examined. In the first dedicated study of the religious contents of sentimental literature, Claudia Stokes counters the long-standing characterization of sentimental piety as blandly nondescript and demonstrates that these works were in fact groundbreaking, assertive, and highly specific in their theological recommendations and endorsements. The Altar at Home explores the many religious contexts and contents of sentimental literature of the American nineteenth century, from the growth of Methodism in the Second Great Awakening and popular millennialism to the developing theologies of Mormonism and Christian Science.

Through analysis of numerous contemporary religious debates, Stokes demonstrates how sentimental writers, rather than offering simple depictions of domesticity, instead manipulated these scenes to advocate for divergent new beliefs and bolster their own religious authority. On the one hand, the comforting rhetoric of domesticity provided a subtle cover for sentimental writers to advance controversial new beliefs, practices, and causes such as Methodism, revivalism, feminist theology, and even the legitimacy of female clergy. On the other hand, sentimentality enabled women writers to bolster and affirm their own suitability for positions of public religious leadership, thereby violating the same domestic enclosure lauded by the texts.

The Altar at Home offers a fascinating new historical perspective on the dynamic role sentimental literature played in the development of innumerable new religious movements and practices, many of which remain popular today.

Excerpt

It hardly seems to bear remarking that sentimental literature of the American nineteenth century is steeped in Christian piety. As anyone acquainted with this female-centered literary aesthetic well knows, sentimental novels and poems routinely depict religious faith as a balm to the restless spirit and a beneficent influence on unruly behavior. Countless sentimental texts contain scenes of devout prayer, ardent hymn singing, and religious instruction. Heart-rending deathbed scenes and leave-takings are softened by promises of reunion in the afterlife, and Bibles and hymnals serve as the premier tokens of affection or goodwill.

To readers today, sentimental piety may seem colorless or indistinct. Prayer, Bible reading, and the pursuit of self-betterment are the principal requirements of Christian observance in sentimental literature; in contrast with the teachings of Calvinism or Catholicism, salvation in sentimental literature seems to be available to anyone with faith, with neither ritual nor conversion required. Without the delimiting contours of these conventional features of Christian observance, sentimental piety appears to be denominationally impartial and untouched by doctrinal specifics. Early scholarship registered this perception, as with Ann Douglas’s foundational study of sentimental literature, The Feminization of American Culture (1977). in that work, Douglas interpreted the absence of Calvinist rigor in sentimentalism as evidence of a general lack of theological substance, and she characterized sentimental piety as “peculiarly unassertive and retiring.” David S. Reynolds similarly described the religious life portrayed in sentimental literature as “determinedly nonintellectual and plain.” in response to the perception of sentimentalism as theologically vacant, Jane Tompkins offered a spirited defense of sentimental piety in Sensational Designs (1985), in which she documented the influence of religious typologies of sacrifice and renewal on sentimental narratives, as with her analysis of the death of Eva St. Clare in Harriet Beecher . . .

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