Rightly dividing the word of truth: Biblical intertextuality in American women's novels of the 1820s

Dorothy Jane Keeton McKowen, Purdue University


The purpose of this study is to investigate the many biblical references appearing in four novels, first published during the 1820s, authored by Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Vaughan Cheney, and Catharine Maria Sedgwick, all of whom had repudiated Calvinism and embraced liberal religion as young women. This biblical content may be explained, partially, by the intensely religious nature of that decade, resulting in the availability of the Bible to all people and democratization impulses such as the Second Great Awakening, Restoration Movement, and Unitarianism. The novels' biblicism was an attempt by the authors to discredit Calvinism, participate in a new national literature, promote equality, and, most importantly, participate in contemporary religious discourse. How these biblical references are used within the texts may be traced to the influence of religious literature, written religious disputation, and Puritan histories. The interaction of the "voices" within the novels may be explained by theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, who illustrates the distinction between "debased" Calvinist and "sacred" biblical discourse. "Double-voiced" characters and narrators are portrayed as either "assimilated" into the biblical voice or "alienated" from it, depending upon the compatibility of their natural voices to the biblical references that they make. The authors use Bible references to portray and attack Calvinist characteristics, including bigotry, intolerance, hypocrisy, and legalism, and, more importantly, specific doctrines that support this behavior. In Hobomok (1824), Child accuses Calvinists of the "unpardonable sin" and, as a result, pictures a covenant canceled by God. Cheney's A Peep at the Pilgrims in Sixteen Hundred Thirty-Six (1824) also questions the validity of the Puritan covenant, particularly in the observance of a Sabbath that had been relocated from Saturday to Sunday. Sedgwick's Hope Leslie (1827) impeaches Calvinist doctrine, suggests a better law---love and mercy---and pictures a Native American as a type of Christ, while A New-England Tale (1822) presents a satirical view of Calvinists, whose morally bankrupt millennial theology is countered by an "uncorrupted Christianity." Calvinism, therefore, is undermined by the very Bible that it claims as its own, and the authors have used fiction as a means to participate in national religious discourse.




Oreovicz, Purdue University.

Subject Area

American literature|American studies|Bible|Womens studies

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