In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section American Literature and Religion

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Theoretical Approaches
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • Databases
  • Colonial America
  • 18th Century and the Revolutionary Era
  • American Renaissance
  • Long 19th Century
  • 20th and 21st Century
  • African-American Literature
  • Beats
  • Catholicism
  • Eastern Religions
  • Environmental Studies/Ecocriticism
  • Gender
  • Hispanic and Native American Literature
  • Individual Authors
  • Jewish American Literature

American Literature American Literature and Religion
Joe Fulton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 December 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0175


From the era of exploration and first contact to the present day, religion has always been a defining feature of American culture. The contribution of religion and theology to the development of American literature cannot be overstated, and it is natural that literary history and criticism have paid close attention to religious matters, some adopting a religiously informed approach. From the first narratives of exploration, interest in religious observances of the indigenous inhabitants comprised one level of religious writing while most of the colonies were established, in one way or another, as religious havens for particular religious groups. Because religious writing, broadly considered, was one of the most important types of literature, many studies attending to these issues blur the line at times between literary criticism, history, and anthropology, religious studies (the discipline), and theology.

General Overviews

The volumes in this section attend to broad swathes of American literary history but often focus on a specific religious or theological aspect, such as Dunne 2007 and Shurr 1981 in their analyses of Calvinism’s influence on American literature, or Bercovitch 2012, which considers a particular religious aspect, such as the jeremiad. One study covering a long period of history is Pearce 1961, which discusses the heretical strain in American poetry from the 1600s through much of the 20th century. With similar sweep, Gatta 2004 considers the subject of religion and the environment; Smithline 1966 elucidates more of the theological implications. A good introduction to the subject is Kazin 1997, followed by Williams 1987, both of which discern the same centrality of religion. Fessenden 2007 argues for rising secularism in American literature and forms an interesting pair with Stewart 1958, who provides a rather rigid orthodoxy test.

  • Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.

    Originally published in 1978. The new edition of this classic study of Puritan rhetoric features a preface contextualizing the study (pp. xi–xl). Bercovitch responds at numerous points to Miller 1953–1954 and Miller 1956 (both cited under Colonial America) examining rituals of assent and the errand or mission, mainly focusing on the Puritans, but with considerable commentary on writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville.

  • Dunne, Michael. Calvinist Humor in American Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 2007.

    This book broadly discusses the subject from the Puritans through Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and others. The book has a limited view of Calvinist humor, seeing it mainly as relating to human frailty but is a useful introduction to the subject.

  • Fessenden, Tracy. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

    A somewhat episodic treatment of the rise of a secular Protestantism seen as normative in the United States, this book has two sections, one treating the colonial era through the American Renaissance and the other looking at four writers: Stowe, Twain, Gilman, and Fitzgerald.

  • Gatta, John. Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1093/0195165055.001.0001

    An essential treatment of the literary and religious response to the American environment. Gatta attends to such nuances as the shift in Puritan attitudes from Bradford to Mather, examines the relationship of Bryant to Cooper, and surveys the most important environmental writings from five centuries. Gatta explores theological, religious, and spiritual influences, examining formal religions and denominations as well as Native American and African-American beliefs.

  • Kazin, Alfred. God & The American Writer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

    The most accessible comprehensive treatment of the subject, Kazin’s book begins with the Puritans and ends with Faulkner. Along the way, he discusses all the major American writers: Emerson, Hawthorne, Stowe, Twain, Eliot, Frost, and others. Kazin argues that the centrality of religious issues is a defining trait of American literature.

  • Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poetry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961.

    The classic, indispensable history of American poetry. Pearce argues for the continuity of American poetry from the Puritans through Wallace Stevens and much of the 20th century. The source of the continuity is the antinomian heart of American poetry. Pearce’s argument for American poetry bears consideration alongside Delbanco 1989 (cited under Colonial America) and his view of American writers as diverging from the orthodoxies of their time.

  • Shurr, William H. Rappaccini’s Children: American Writers in a Calvinist World. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1981.

    One of the most important books discussing Calvinism in American literature, Rappaccini’s Children is organized thematically, with chapters such as “The Persistence of Calvinism,” “The Revolution Expanded,” “Death and the Deity,” “The Southern Experience,” and “Calvinism and the Tragic Sense.” Shurr discusses multiple authors and multiple centuries in each chapter, but his writing is as deft as his coverage is broad.

  • Smithline, Arnold. Natural Religion in American Literature. New Haven, CT: College & University Press, 1966.

    This volume argues that deism as present in the works of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Philip Freneau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman has roots in Cotton Mather’s book Christian Philosopher. In his presentation of Mather, Smithline shows that Nature was, for this most Puritan of all Puritans, a book to be read alongside the Bible. Smithline contends that America’s religion of nature began with Mather.

  • Stewart, Randall. American Literature & Christian Doctrine. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1958.

    Beginning with the Pilgrims and ending with Faulkner, Stewart has chapters on some of the most important literary figures, though the treatment is much an overview. Adhering to his title, Stewart employs doctrine as the test of orthodoxy, in his case instancing original sin as the theological trait an American writer must depict to be included.

  • Williams, David R. Wilderness Lost: The Religious Origins of the American Mind. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1987.

    The book provides broad coverage, featuring three sections, one covering the Pilgrims and Puritans (pp. 23–80), another the era of the Great Awakening and the American Revolution (pp. 83–145), and the third Transcendentalism, Hawthorne, Melville, and others (pp. 149–253). The book begins with the Puritan typological understandings of wilderness and traces these through three centuries of American literature.

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