Edward Payson Roe (1838-1888) began reaching wide audiences in the 1870s and 1880s with bestsellers such as Barriers Burned Away (1872), Opening a Chestnut Burr (1874), A Knight of the Nineteenth Century (1877), and A Face Illumined (1878). A Presbyterian minister who served as a Civil War chaplain, Roe left the pulpit to spend more time writing novels he consistently understood as evangelizing instruments. Roe was for many years the most popular author in evangelical literary circles and enjoyed a popularity ranging far beyond evangelicalism’s nebulous borders.
Fred Lewis Pattee, generally thought to be the first person to hold a professorship in American Literature, wrote in 1896 that “[if] he is most successful in literature who is most widely popular, and who exerts the most far-reaching influence, then E. P. Roe must be counted amoung the most successful of American novelists.” Paradoxically, Roe’s popularity helped seal his literary doom, for critics like Pattee were suspicious of novels that captured a popular audience. Pattee ultimately judged Roe’s novels as devoid of “high literary merit” and thus fit only for “a large audience that cares little for more classic literature.”
Pattee and other early influential literary critics dismissed religious authors like Roe and subsequent critics have made little attempt to systematically study his work and its reception. Such a study must account for the ways that Roe’s initial audiences were the readers of evangelical monthly periodicals like The New York Evangelist and The Advance.