With their voices often unwelcome in the public theological debate, evangelical women used fiction as a pulpit. The significance of these fictions has not gone unnoticed. Scholars like Ann Douglas argue that these fictions have altered the course of evangelicalism in the United States. Jane Tompkins describes these women as having “designs” on their historical moment, in that they sought to remake their world by shaping how their readers felt.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Minister's Wooing
My Wife and I; or, Harry Henderson's History
In her preface to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 – 1896) argued that the arts were responsible for awakening “sympathy and feeling” for the “lowly, the oppressed, and the forgotten.” She writes:
Another and better day is dawning; every influence of literature, of poetry, and of art, in our times, is becoming more and more in unison with the great master chord of Christianity, “good-will to man.” The poet, the painter, and the artist now seek out and embellish the common and gentler humanities of life, and, under the allurements of fiction, breathe a humanizing and subduing influence, favorable to the development of the great principles of Christian brotherhood.
Elizabeth Prentiss (1818-1878) is most well-known for a hymn (“More love, O Christ to Thee”) and the novel Stepping Heavenward. Both have retained their initial popularity and continue to circulate in contemporary evangelical circles. Prentiss wrote from an early age, composing poems and short stories for periodicals like The Youth’s Companion. When she began publishing novels, she consistently used them to evangelize and promote particular doctrinal emphases.
Urbane and His Friends (1874), for example, is an extended discussion between an aged pastor, his colleagues, and his parishioners. There is not much plot: instead Prentiss presents a particular vision of the Christian life. In fact, the novel reads like an extended sermon on the topic of sanctification.
Stepping Heavenward (1871) first appeared as a serial in the Congregationalist weekly The Advance in 1869. In the novel, Katherine Mortimer journals her way from indifferent religiosity to zealous evangelicalism. Prentiss’s depictions of the thoughts – spiritual and otherwise – of her young protagonist are so convincing that generations of evangelicals have taken the novel as non-fiction.
The work of Mrs. H. C. Gardner appears in a variety of evangelical publications, including The Lady’s Repository and The Advance. Gardner wrote poems, essays, and Sunday School fictions. In The Power of Kindness (1864), a recalcitrant Jack is adopted by his Aunt Janetta who is guided by principles that seem intended for an adult audience rather than a Sunday School classroom. For example, Gardner writes that “[occasional] reveries of beauty hurt no one, and the diseased imagination, which never wearies in the architecture of airy palaces, is less perverted than the sordid soul which has no existence outside the covers of a ledger. The mere workers take up quite too much room in the world.” Aunt Janetta, like many of the women in evangelical texts, has a “warm-hearted sympathy,” and so she’s able to judge that Jack “would be unable to take up an train of thought suggested by the preacher.” Undaunted, she resolves: “I will just preach to him myself in the evening … I must lead him to the Savior.”
Elizabeth E. Holding’s Joy the Deaconess (1898) has many of the trappings of a sentimental novel: an orphan child neglected by relatives endures affliction but later in life finds herself the heir to a great fortune, which she uses to fund works of mercy. But it also depicts one woman’s journey to a position of relative power within a church hierarchy and is an example of shifting attitudes about the status of women in evangelical church governance.