Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Wrestling with Silence: Emily Dickinson's Calvinist God

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Wrestling with Silence: Emily Dickinson's Calvinist God

Article excerpt

Silence is all we dread.
There's Ransom in a Voice--
But Silence is Infinity.
Himself have not a face. (Fr 1300) (1)

The tension between Emily Dickinson's deep anchoring in New England Calvinism--or orthodox Congregationalism, as the denomination came to be called--and her recognition of the inadequacy of the Calvinist heritage to contemporary spiritual experience inspires some of her most intense, ferocious, and distressed verse. Summarizing a half-century of change in Dickinson's religious culture, Jane Donahue Eberwein observes: "In her childhood, belief seemed all but inevitable; by the time she died in 1886, agnosticism and even atheism had become easier positions to justify intellectually" ("Is Immortality" 69). Scientific discoveries, industrialization and the growth of capitalist economy, and, last but not least, the unprecedented bloodshed of the Civil War seriously undermined faith in a benevolent Deity and a divinely ordered universe. Despite the efforts of subsequent generations of revivalists to invest the ossified structures of habit and belief with relevant meaning, the Calvinist paradigm crumbled away under the pressures of cultural change. Congregational ministers and theologians gathered at the National Council in Boston in 1865 were even prepared to compromise their sectarian spirit for the sake of uniting believers against the spread of atheism, which their official report implicitly identified with the Darwinian theory of evolution:

   [W]e desire to promote a closer fellowship of all Christian
   denominations in the faith and work of the gospel, especially
   against popular and destructive forms of unbelief, which assail the
   foundations of all religion, both natural and revealed; which know
   no God but nature; no Depravity but physical malformation,
   immaturity of powers, or some incident of outward condition; no
   Providence but the working of material causes and of statistical
   laws; no Revelation but that of consciousness; no Redemption but the
   elimination of evil by a natural sequence of suffering; no
   Regeneration but the natural evolution of a higher type of
   existence; no Retribution but the necessary consequences of physical
   and psychological laws. (Walker 557-58)

The documents of the 1865 Council demonstrate not only Congregationalism's response to the intellectual challenge of natural science but also the growing liberalization of Congregationalism itself, visible in the amendment proposed by a Rev. Leavitt from New York City--but rejected by the majority of delegates with Edwards Amasa Park of Andover Theological Seminary at their lead--that the Council's Declaration of Faith does not define the doctrine as Calvinistic so as to avoid alienating believers (Walker 560). Like Andover in Park's time, Amherst was a stronghold of New England Congregational orthodoxy, inculcated both in church and in educational institutions. Amherst Academy, Amherst College, and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary at nearby South Hadley were closely allied with the Congregational church and designed to provide both academic and religious education. The appointment of Julius H. Seeyle, President of Amherst College, to the national committee which prepared the updated creed of 1883 (Walker 579) attests to Amherst's standing as a major center of latter-day Congregationalism. Still, despite its theological and social conservatism the poet's home town did not escape secularization as in the late nineteenth century institutional religion became a social ritual increasingly separated from other spheres of life. Whereas The Articles of Faith and Government adopted by Amherst's First Congregational Church in the 1850s stated that "immoral conduct, breach of express covenant vows, neglect of acknowledged religious or relative duties, and avowed disbelief in our articles of Faith" were "offenses subject to the censure of the Church," three decades later the fact that Emily Dickinson's brother Austin had a lasting extramarital relationship with Mabel Loomis Todd, wife of an astronomy professor at Amherst College and twenty-seven years his junior, did not interfere with his position as a prominent member of the First Church or prevent him from being asked, in recognition of his service to the parish and town, to contribute an essay to the volume celebrating the Church's 150th anniversary in 1889. …

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