The Diverse Landscape of Evangelical Print Culture
Evangelicals began to develop a distinctive print culture in the nineteenth century, separate from what evangelicals now call the “general market.” Part of what makes evangelical literature distinctive is that evangelicals consistently regard fiction as a tool capable of leading spiritual pilgrims from this world to the next. Instead of judging works of fiction on aesthetic grounds, evangelicals value these texts as vehicles for spiritual and moral development. In other words, they require texts not to be something, but to do something. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, this insistence on utility meant that evangelical authors could retain large audiences, but rarely could they achieve popular and critical acclaim.
Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ
Valeria: The Martyr of the Catacombs
Yet, evangelical texts of the mid-to-late nineteenth century still influenced the broader literary landscape and vice versa. Often these crossover books – such as bestsellers like Ben-Hur (1880) by Lew Wallace and Valeria: The Martyr of the Catacombs (1882) by W.H. Withrow – responded to interests held by evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike. For example, the popularity of Ben-Hur and Valeria is due in part to their lavish depictions of exotic historical settings.
Another popular evangelical author Augusta Evans Wilson (1835-1909) made substantial living writing novels, with royalties exceeding $100,000 during one eight-year period. In her most popular book, St. Elmo (1867), she depicts a Byronic character who is redeemed by the love of a sacrificial woman who eschews intellectual pursuits in order to take up the tasks associated with evangelical domesticity.
Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth (1819-1899) is often ranked as one of the most-rad American novelists of the nineteenth century. She is best known for her novel The Hidden Hand (serialized three times before being published as a novel in 1880) which stretches, but ultimately reaffirms evangelical beliefs. Southworth’s novels feature strong heroines’ who negotiante a series of melodramatic events. The Bridal Eve(1876) features many dramatic plot twists, including a last-stand stay of execution.
The title of Noah Porter’s What Books Shall I read and How Shall I Read Them? (1871) contains two of the questions about books and worked to balance their interests in literature with their commitment to personal holiness. For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that Eugene Sue’s novels were “powerful but stiflingly devoid of moral principle … not the first discernment of any boundaries between right and wrong in them.” Yet she hesitated to make these concerns public, for if she wrote an essay condemning the French novelist, “will all the saints go and read them to see if it is true?”
The Russell Library and Wesleyan University Library Class List for Literature is one identification that by 1869, most evangelicals were reading both religious and secular novels.
In recent years evangelicals have balked at the magic found in books like the Harry Potter series yet texts featuring magic sporadically appear in the evangelical archive, such as Elizabeth Prentiss’s Nidworth and His Three Magic Wants (1869).
Other evangelical authors attracted wide audiences by advocating for particular social causes. In the case of T.S. Arthur, this cause was temperance. Arthur is most well known for his 1854 novel Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I saw There. Golden Grains from Life’s Harvest Field (1850) is a collection of short stories and poems that advocates for Christian gentility.