Gothicism Embedded In Religion: Comparing Jonathan Edwards To American Gothic Authors: Compares Jonathan Edwards, Charles Brockden Brown's "Weiland", And Edgar Allan Poe

3199 words - 13 pages

In 18th century America, religious faith was the most important aspect of life. It was a time period where society revolved around prayer and ideas of salvation, thoughts of purity and becoming close to God; it was a time of great excitement, of Great Awakenings and the conversion of many souls to Christianity. But it was also a horrific time period, where and anyone who wasn't devoted to God was considered a dissenter and a heretic, and as a result suffered repercussions that had an elements of dark and sinister gothicism. Though some of the ideas involved in the gothic could be considered blasphemous when scrutinized under a religious perspective, the gothic and religion are allied in an eerie manner that closely intertwines the divine with the sinister. The sermons and personal narratives of America's most famous theologian, Jonathan Edwards, are evidence of the level of extreme religious fanaticism of the time period and induced more horror than instilled divine worship. The terror inflicted by Edwards (and by others like him) created an emotional upheaval in society; people began to doubt and fear God, and thus began to doubt social order as a whole. Societal and religious restrictions allowed little ability to express the uncertainties they created, and in attempt to understand the darkness that was embedded in religion, gothic literature was born. Through comparing the works of Jonathan Edwards to the gothic novel Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown, and to the later short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, it is clear that religion is not only dense with gothic ideology and binaries, but also that societal expectations of 18th and 19th century America, mixed with the terrors embedded in religion, created the gothic in attempt to express and purge suppressed religious fears and societal flaws.Though Wieland is recognized as one of the first American gothic novels, the many dark and dismal references in the work of Jonathan Edwards are a clear indication that gothic literature first started to take shape in religious scripture and sermons, and is deeply embedded within the text. Edwards was a minister and devout Christian, and tried to glorify religion in his descriptions of salvation. However, even when Edwards describes the process of The Great Awakening, the images that he intended to be positive are tainted with underlying darkness. The significance of a section of text is completely altered when the divine language is interrupted by a single disturbing word or a transfer to a dark tone. This can mainly be seen in his letter to Benjamin Colman, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, in his description of the number of people who had been saved."The Reverend Stoddard...was eminent and renowned for his gifts and grace; so he was blessed, from the beginning, with extraordinary success in his ministry in the conversion of many souls. He had five harvests, as he called them....Some of these times were much more remarkable than others, and the ingathering of souls more plentiful, Those that were about 53, and 40, and 24 years ago were much greater than either the first of the last: but in each one of them, I have heard my grandfather say, the bigger part of the young people in the town seemed to be mainly concerned for their eternal salvation." (Edwards 58)Edwards is trying to convey that there was great glory in converting so many souls, and the nostalgia of his grandfather recollecting that the conversions were successful seems to add a tender affirmation of that fact. However, there are conflicting words and ideas that add an eerie tone to what Edwards intended to be positive. The term "harvest" in reference to souls is quite dark and out of place; the idea of harvesting souls seems diabolical (much like something that would occur in the short stories of Poe or John Washington Irving), and when surrounded by pleasant phrases such as "extraordinary success" and "plentiful", and encapsulated in the general idea that Edwards believed Stoddard was "blessed", the eeriness of the statement intensifies. Similarly, the statement Edwards makes about the Puritan youth being concerned with their salvation is seen as fanatical delusion, because they were more afraid of damnation than concerned with being saved. The omission of that fear in the text, paired with the pride that Edwards had in his own personal conversions, makes A Faithful Narrative seem more maniacal and scary than inspirational. There are many similar conflicting textual instances throughout all of Edwards' work, and they add an underlying darkness to the message of the text itself, enticing the same emotions in its readers and listeners that Gothic literature also creates.The evidence that Edwards' writing is full of gothic undertones doesn't need to be analyzed through close reading of the text itself, but lies on the surface just as the work of gothic authors like Brown or Poe. Edwards was as much of an artist as he was a minister (if not more of an artist). The way that he described damnation and hell in his sermons is still chilling to read in this time period, and the effect that it had on the Puritans even seems supernatural. He was an author who used terrifying imagery to create fear in the wrath of God and hysteria among the Puritans, and seemed to take great pleasure in having an intense effect on his congregation. In Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Edwards relentlessly abuses the Puritan psyche, filling them with terror of being eternally damned."The bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your are thus in the hands of an angry God; 'tis nothing but his mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction....The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely..." (Edwards 97-98)If the word God was removed from this section of writing, it would be hard to decipher if Edwards was describing a ghost or some supernatural demon, and already sounds like he is describing an evil tyrant. He is unyielding in presenting these images one after another, continuously, and sparing not a single person in his path. Children are even addressed in the sermon in a patronizing and cruel way intended to scare them: "And you children that are unconverted, don't you know that you are going down to hell, to bear the dreadful wrath of God that is now angry with you every day and night? (A Jonathan Edwards Reader, pg 104)" Edwards is intentionally attempting to inflict terror, and was so successful that people began to convulse, grow obsessed with religion and forget about any other daily activity, or commit suicide. Edwards was a very successful author, because not only could he write well but his work actually caused intense emotion and effected people to the point that their lives were altered by him; his religious sermons instilled the terror and emotion that Gothic literature intended to, but at a level that no Gothic author has been able to achieve.The effect that Edwards had on the Puritans was a double-edged-sword however, because though he created intense terror and achieved an artistic status that an author rarely reaches, he also created large doubt in religion in the process. He exposed the dark recesses of religion, the unmerciful hand of God that was ready to strike the already damned human soul down to hell at any moment. The Puritans were of course convinced that they were dangling over the fiery abyss of hell, yet couldn't question why God was being presented as tyrannous or why they should still attempt to obtain salvation even though they were not worthy of it. This conflict of blindly waiting for an evil, unmerciful God to save their condemned souls created massive amounts of terror which the Puritans could only keep locked inside their own minds. At the very end of the Great Awakening, and during the second and third Great Awakenings in American history, society needed an outlet for these suppressed religious fears, and the entrance of the American gothic novel was a prime player in addressing those fears.Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown was the first gothic novel to emerge in American literature, coincidently directly after the end of the Puritan and Colonial time periods, and is a novel that shows the true ambiguity of the restrictions religion placed on society. The events that take place in the novel, such as the mysterious spontaneous combustion of Clara and Wieland's devoutly pious father, to Carwin playing God and creating spiritual confusion among the characters in the story, reflect the conflict of coming to terms with the darkness embedded in religion. Wieland and Clara's father spontaneously bursting into flames is an exaggerated version of Jonathan Edwards' sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, where the soul was eternally damned and God could smite whomever he chose at any moment. It is through Wieland's father that Brown makes a connection to the dark implications in Edwards' version of religious faith."A Bible was easily procured, and he ardently entered on the study of it...His progress towards the formation of his creed was rapid...His constructions of the text were hasty, and formed on a narrow scale. Every thing was viewed in a disconnected position. One action and one precept were not employed to illustrate and restrict the meaning of another. Hence arose a thousand scruples to which he had hitherto been a stranger. He was alternately agitated by fear and by ecstacy. He imagined himself beset by the snares of a spiritual foe, and that his security lay in ceaseless watchfulness and prayer." (Brown 9-10)Wieland's father was entranced by religion; so absorbed in the teachings of God, yet so terrified of damnation that he devoted his life to religion in attempt to save his soul, and still met an untimely death through an incident that Clara implies is connected to divinity. His devout faith represents Puritan religious views, and Brown allowing him to succumb to a divine doom shows an exaggerated version of the fear present in the minds of people in 18th and 19th century America of God and eternal damnation.In Wieland, the character who echoes the ideology of Jonathan Edwards the most would be Carwin, who creates spiritual commotion by pretending to be a supernatural voice speaking to other characters in the novel. When Carwin is acting as a ventriloquist to cause disruption, he never fully identifies himself as God to any of the characters but stays an ambiguous, disembodied voice. Though Wieland interprets the voice he hears as the voice of God, it is never specifically written by Brown that Carwin revealed himself to Wieland as God (or even that Carwin is the originator of the voice)."I was dazzled. My organs were bereaved of their activity. My eye-lids were half-closed, and my hands withdrawn from the balustrade. A nameless childhood fear chilled my veins, and I stood motionless. This irradiation did not retire or lessen. It seemed as if some powerful effulgence covered me like a mantle. I opened my eyes and found all about me luminous and glowing. It was the element of heaven that flowed around. Nothing but a fiery stream was at first visible; but, anon, a shill voice called upon me to attend." (Brown 190)Wieland connects this holy vision to divinity, but Brown doesn't reveal the source. Brown never tells the reader if the voice belongs to Carwin, is a product of Wieland's insane imagination, or is in fact intended to be God, but he does want the reader to think it is possible it could be all of the above. Clara and Pleyel tend to associate the voice with Carwin or Wieland's mental instability, while Wieland automatically believes it is the voice of God that commands him to murder his family. The confusion Brown creates around Carwin's abilities as a ventriloquist and the way the other characters in the novel perceive him is very similar to the relationship between Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans. How could anyone be sure if Edwards' doctrines were the correct teachings and if their souls were truly eternally damned? Did Edwards and his sermons create the terror that caused mass-hysteria among the Puritans, thus inducing psychotic episodes and supernatural visions, or were they created by God? Brown's gothic novel (though maybe not intended to be compared specifically to Jonathan Edwards) is comparable to religious beliefs as a whole during the time period, and questioned the darker side of religion in an unordinary and exaggerated manner.Though he was more disconnected from the time period than Brown, Edgar Allan Poe was a 19th century gothic author whose writing technique closely echoed Jonathan Edwards' sermons and narratives. Poe's work is only similar in content to Edwards' in the sense that he used the supernatural imagery in his short stories and poems, but it is through narrative force that the two authors are connected. The short stories of Poe present the same continuous flow of sinister images that Jonathan Edwards presents in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and uses the power of over-descriptive words condensed into the form of a short story to essentially control how the reader's mind interprets the writing."The ordinary novel is objectionable, from its length, for reasons already stated in substance. As it cannot be read at one sitting, it deprives itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality....simple cessation in reading, would, of itself, be sufficient to destroy the true unity. In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fullness of his intention, be it what it may. During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer's control. There are no external or extrinsic influences- resulting from weariness or interruption.... In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design." (Poe)The reader is solely in Poe's hands with this method of writing and only showed the viewpoint of the narrator, but never allowed the advantage of an omniscient and all-knowing perspective. He is taking the "soul of the reader" under his control much like Edwards took the souls of the Puritans into his own hands; however Poe's connection with the reader is much more amiable. His writing has an outwardly patronizing tone and there are no false pretenses of him being humble about his superiority. The condescending nature of the short stories create a feeling of falseness in the truth of the writing, and though the overly-descriptive sinister images create an element of horror, there is an underlying feeling that Poe is teasing the reader for succumbing to his trap and not actually attempting to prove that the fantastic terrors he creates could happen in reality. Edwards, on the other hand, was cruel to the Puritans in his sermons, and truly believed that his soul was purer than theirs but masked that fact by condemning himself along with them, thus making his narration seem much more maniacal. Though it obviously can't be said that Poe's narrative force was inspired directly by the sermons of Jonathan Edwards (and it would perhaps be an insult to Poe's writing to make that connection), it shows that their writing styles were similar, but the intent of Jonathan Edwards sermons were much more twisted than Poe's, who is one of America's most well-known dark gothic novelists.The literature produced by Jonathan Edwards, Charles Brockden Brown, and Edgar Allan Poe couldn't seem anything but radically different from one another in some perspectives, but there are many connections that can be made between all three which solidify that the introduction of the gothic novel into American culture was a direct result of religious pressures on society. Jonathan Edwards was the true initial master of terror in American literature, who's preaching of the human soul being eternally damned and an unmerciful God extinguishing any human life at any moment He pleased, created hysteria and had extraordinary mental repercussions on his congregation. Edwards' utilization of imagery in his sermons and the conflicting dark images within pure text exposes the shadowy recesses of religion, and when compared to the gothic novelists, it is evident that it transcended time periods and had a lasting effect on society. It is through the religious allegories in novels such as Wieland, and the narrative force in Poe's short stories that there are hints of Jonathan Edwards and the way he altered society, but always in a mocking tone that questions the foundation of the religious expectations placed upon people. The gothic novel was derived from literature like Jonathan Edwards', using the dark and terrible religious images as inspiration and creating an outlet of fantastic and over-dramatized horror to help society come to terms with their suppressed fears of religious expectations.Bibliography:1) Poe, Edgar Allan. "Review of Hawthorne -- Twice-Told Tales." 13 April 1998 (article originally from Graham's Magazine pg 298-300. May 1842.). Smith, John E., ed. "A Jonathan Edwards Reader." New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.3) Brown, Charles Brockden. "Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist." New York: Penguin Books, 1991.


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