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date: 26 November 2022

American Narratives of Sin and Salvationfree

American Narratives of Sin and Salvationfree

  • W. Clark GilpinW. Clark GilpinThe University of Chicago


Sin and salvation, as an interconnected pair of ideas, imply that human life as it is ordinarily lived has been diverted from its true good or distorted from its proper form. Taken together, these paired ideas thus imply a narrative of human transformation, a redemptive process that recovers human life from erroneous ways and reorients it toward an ultimate goal or a transcendent power through which life is fulfilled. Narratives of redemption from sin have taken many forms in the course of American history, but in considering any specific example it is useful to recognize its relationship to two especially common patterns. In some cases, the redemptive narrative is organized around a decisive personal experience, and autobiographical accounts of “conversion” that describe such transformative events are common in American religious literature. In other cases, the redemptive narrative accentuates the gradual process of shaping a way of life that incorporates an individual into the ongoing social practice of a community, through spiritual disciplines ranging from meditation and prayer to acts of public witness and compassion. In either of these versions, redemptive narratives frequently hinge on the reconciling work of a transcendent power, in which salvation represents the event or process that incorporates individual persons into a society or a natural order of existence that is itself the subject of a larger, even cosmic history of redemption. In all of these variations, American narratives of redemption have interacted with broader cultural ideas of human nature and the possibilities for human psychological and societal change.


  • Religion in America

In The Sources of Religious Insight, the American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855–1916) argued that the concept of salvation is composed of two more basic ideas. It presupposes, first, that there is “a central aim or crucial end of human life” and, second, that both humankind and the individual person are in danger of so missing this goal as to render the whole of life “a senseless failure.”1 In response to this besetting perception of peril, salvation organizes religious ideas and practices around a metanarrative about the fundamental transformation of the human condition. This redemptive narrative identifies an underlying problem embedded in human life as it is ordinarily lived; it offers a means of deliverance; and it reorients human life toward an ultimate goal or a transcendent power through which life is fulfilled.

Sin and salvation, as an interconnected pair of ideas and a paradigmatic narrative, entered North America as elements in the mental world of European Christian explorers and colonizers. But in consequence of the reformations and wars of religion that swept Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, both the ideas and the narrative arrived in America not as a consensus but as a dispute among the representatives of differing Christian groups. Each church’s distinctive interpretation of the path toward salvation became an integral feature of its communal identity and consequently occasioned nearly constant debate both within and between the various churches as each sought to demarcate its communal boundaries and form the life practices of its members. During the centuries since the colonial era, American religious diversity has markedly increased, and various religions have identified different underlying problems in the human condition, proposed different processes of transformation, and envisioned different forms of the life properly lived. Still, when religious communities or academic analysts have approached issues of personal and societal transformation in American culture, the inherited Christian template of sin and salvation has exerted a significant influence on their perceptions and proposals. Analogies drawn among diverse redemptive narratives and reciprocal borrowing of spiritual practices that support these narratives have produced a challenging complexity for the scholarly interpreter of religious concepts of human transformation.

Pivotal Issues in the Interpretation of Salvation

Three pivotal issues emerge if one compares Josiah Royce’s interpretation of the redemptive narrative with an overlapping, yet distinct, alternative proposed by Royce’s colleague at Harvard University, William James (1842–1910), in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Humans sense that there is “something wrong about us as we naturally stand,” James wrote, and this “uneasiness” is resolved by the sense that “we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.” In James’s analysis, the accent fell on salvation as a decisive personal experience, and he filled his book with vivid first-person narratives of sensations, voices, and events, which signaled intervention by transcendent powers that overcame “the wrongness.” James did not intend the conversion experiences he reported and appraised to be thought of as isolated incidents but instead as instances of the turning point in a narrative of reorientation that produced an enduring shift of perception. He situated this salvific “connection with the higher powers” within an individualized definition of religion: “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” Royce, in contrast, approached salvation through an analysis of human loyalties to particular causes and specific communities, and he argued that these proximate loyalties found their justification in loyalty to a comprehensive, ultimate cause: “the spiritual unity of all the world of reasonable beings” that he termed “the Beloved Community.”2

The differing emphases of James and Royce are not necessarily incompatible, but they do tend toward different versions of the redemptive narrative. In James’s interpretation, salvation hinged on a decisive event that reoriented a life, and the accounts of religious experience he collected in The Varieties of Religious Experience dramatized the unification of a “divided self.” Although Royce’s interpretation acknowledged the importance of religious insight that illuminated the character of human life, his analysis depicted an essentially social process that established a way of life, instilled virtues, and pursued ethical causes, in order to unify the self by orienting it toward a “central aim or crucial end of human life.” Throughout his philosophical works, Royce developed an ethic of critical loyalty to a comprehensive cause as the practical action that gave cohesion and coherence to selves and societies. These alternative interpretations by James and Royce provide a useful template when one turns to religious accounts of salvation, whether these accounts take the form of autobiography, doctrinal treatise, devotional practice, or ethical imperative, and they call attention to three broad issues. First, redemptive narratives have different ways of handling the relationship between decisive experiences of transformation and extended processes of disciplined reshaping. They give different contours to their representations of the life well lived. Second, these narratives of transformation invariably address the relationship between the redeemed individual and surrounding social institutions, whether these are religious communities, economic systems, and governments or “imagined communities” such as the nation.3 Although the individual and the corporate aspects of salvation are seldom, if ever, separated, one or the other does tend to propel the narrative in any specific historical instance. In some cases, personal inner turmoil and doubt are resolved by entrance into a redemptive community. In other cases, experiences of personal redemption and visions of social transformation are tightly interconnected in social reform movements, utopian experiments, and millennialism. Third, the interpretive template provided by the dialogue between William James and Josiah Royce calls attention to the transcendent dimension of salvation narratives, the “higher powers” or the “Beloved Community,” in which journeys begun in life and time find their fulfillment.

The Human Flaw

By presupposing that the ordinary human condition is dangerously awry, the idea that people need salvation raises a perennial question: what is the source of this human misalignment with the good? The classic Christian narrative located the propensity toward sin at the primordial origins of human social relations: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:7–3:24). For present purposes, the significance of the story of the garden is that it occurs within a creation already completed and good. Neither God nor the natural order is the source of sin and evil. Instead, the root of the problem lies in humans: by their own decisions, humans have become estranged from their own true being and have attached themselves to a false or illusory goal. Determined to pursue the objects of their own desires, they have turned away from the will of God that orders a good creation and, in the process, have lost touch with their authentic selves. This temptation—symbolically present as the serpent in the garden—becomes a habituated, universal failing of humankind, “original sin” in Christian theology. Sin, in this narrative, became elemental to the human condition.

The influence of this classic narrative, which emphasized the complicity of humankind in sin down through the generations, persisted in American religious thought from the colonial era into the 19th and 20th centuries. As the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) remarked in 1958, only partly in jest, “actually the view that men are ‘sinful’ is one of the best attested and empirically verified facts of human existence.” Continuing on the same point, Niebuhr declared “the idea of a universal inclination in the human heart or self is not only meaningful but empirically verifiable.”4 The notion of human solidarity in sin had practical implications in modern America largely because it raised the question of how this “universal inclination in the human heart” was transmitted from generation to generation. Should one think, in the first instance, that sin was a flawed inclination of every individual person, or, instead, that it was a systemic bias of human institutions, from whence it shaped personal inclinations? The issue was joined most emphatically in the theological writings and reform initiatives of the Social Gospel movement, beginning in the closing years of the 19th century. The German Baptist minister and theologian Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) effectively represented the movement’s line of thought in A Theology for the Social Gospel (1918). An “individualistic gospel,” said Rauschenbusch, has “taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart,” but it has not provided “an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it.” Nor has it evoked faith in the “power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion.” Progressive social transformation therefore required a “social gospel.” Religious activists must recognize that original sin “runs down the generations not only by biological propagation but also by social assimilation”; Rauschenbusch concluded that “sin is lodged in social customs and institutions and is absorbed by the individual from his social group.”5

Such uses of the concept of sin as a tool of social analysis and critique continued into the middle decades of the 20th century in the writings of public intellectuals such as Reinhold Niebuhr and the sociologist and philosopher Will Herberg (1901–1977), who both articulated an understanding of sin as a reality of human existence that was, paradoxically, intrinsic to human creativity and achievement. “Modern culture does not understand,” Niebuhr observed, “how inextricably the creativity and destructiveness of men are related, so that the capacity for evil rises with the historic elaborations of his creativity.” In an era of great achievements and great illusions, individuals and societies are propelled by “dialectical tensions” that implicate them “in both creativity and destructiveness, in both self-regard and the sense of obligation” to the welfare of others.6 In Judaism and Modern Man, Herberg warned that “the disasters of our time, are somehow the fruit of the fatal Prometheanism” of modernity, which has “tried recklessly to dispense with the transcendental and to fashion . . . life and culture entirely in human terms.” Like Niebuhr, Herberg looked back on a century led astray by illusory pretensions, when “‘Progress’ became the new catchword, replacing the older, now obsolete, notion of salvation.” Herberg declared that “the Jewish ethic is an ethic of decision,” and in light of this he offered the realistic counsel that “the choice we are confronted with is not between a line of conduct that is absolutely good and another that is absolutely evil, but between courses of actions all of which are ambiguous, equivocal and to some degree infected with evil.”7 Writing in the immediate aftermath of World War II, both thinkers found that ancient teachings about sin and evil gave them new purchase on the moral ambiguities of modern scientific, economic, and political achievements.

Theologians and philosophers ponder sin and redemption as part of their effort to set forth systematic models and canonical narratives. But in popular religious culture, sin—the human flaw—quickly moves from model and metanarrative to particular story. When concepts of sin receive particular narrative embodiment, they have long lives in the culture, and American autobiographies have regularly represented specific threats of sin or evil through images derived from scripture and tradition. When Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) wrote a narrative of his life in 1845, he made full use of the biblical metanarrative in his carefully crafted description of Edward Covey, the Methodist class-leader and breaker of slaves to whom Douglass was leased out for one year. “Mr. Covey’s forte consisted in his power to deceive,” Douglass remarked, and “his comings were like a thief in the night. He appeared to us as being ever at hand. He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation.” Having pretended to ride away on horseback, Covey would shortly afterward be seen “coiled up in the corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion of the slaves.” Looking back on that year of his life, Douglass declared of Covey, “Poor man! such was his disposition, and success at deceiving, I do verily believe that he sometimes deceived himself into the solemn belief, that he was a sincere worshipper of the most high God.”8 Covey was simultaneously, and memorably, the coiled serpent and the self-deceived sinner.

Sin, Salvation, and Society

To be saved is not simply to be brought to safety but to be set on a path, to embark on a journey, to reorder everyday life by means of regular, frequently rigorous spiritual disciplines. Throughout, individual experiences and the institutional forms that guide or structure such experiences reciprocally shape this process of transformation. Both as they are occurring and as they are retrospectively interpreted, it makes considerable difference to the form of the narrative whether those who undergo this transformation think they have done so primarily by their own efforts, by disciplined training from a spiritual guide, or through the intervention of a divine power. Beyond the individual and the religious community, changes in the surrounding society will alter the structure, meaning, and objective of the transformative process. A prominent and useful example of these personal, communal, and societal factors is the Protestant conversion experience.

The conversion narratives that William James would analyze in The Varieties of Religious Experience had much earlier played a crucial role in the piety of the Puritans who settled colonial New England in the 17th century. Their personal narratives of conversion represented salvation as the substance of a transformed personal awareness of self and world, and the genre has had a long and continuing life in America society. The relation of his religious experience composed by the first governor of Massachusetts Bay, John Winthrop (1588–1549), effectively illustrates the form and enables comparisons with later examples.

Writing in Massachusetts early in the year 1637, Winthrop retrospectively appraised his earlier life in England and characterized his adolescence as “very lewdly disposed,” except for “swearing and scorning religion, which I had no temptation unto in regard of my education.” Although he developed an early interest in religion and “betook himself to God” during an illness at age 14, he recovered his health and fell back into his former “dissolute” ways. After his marriage, Winthrop came under the influence of a Puritan minister in Essex, Ezekiel Culverwell, and “found the ministry of the word to come home to my heart with power (for in all before I found only light).” But seeking out stirring sermons, reading devotional treatises, and reforming his conduct only made Winthrop prideful, while leaving his affective relation to God “unsettled.” Struggling to assuage his conscience through rigorous self-discipline, Winthrop “grew very melancholy and mine own thoughts wearied me, and wasted my spirits.” Years had now passed and, at age 30, the time came when “the Lord would reveal Christ unto me whom I had long desired.” God afflicted Winthrop with the recognition that “I could do nothing for him or for myself,” but God did not leave him in this condition.

The good spirit of the Lord breathed upon my soul, and said I should live. Then every promise I thought upon held forth Christ unto me saying I am thy salvation. Now could my soul close with Christ, and rest there with sweet content, so ravished with his Love, as I desired nothing nor feared anything but was filled with joy unspeakable and glorious and with a spirit of adoption.

In years afterward, when difficult circumstances left Winthrop spiritually “drowsy” and inattentive, this “voice of peace” would return, and he would recognize it as the same one he had heard in his conversion.9

The 17th-century Puritans incorporated conversion in a larger notion of the communal nature of religion in which the saving promise of God established a covenant that not only redeemed an individual person but also formed a people. John Winthrop exposited this social dimension of redemption in his most famous writing, a lay sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity,” which he preached aboard the ship Arabella as it sailed toward New England in 1630. Winthrop described the persons embarked with him on this venture as “a company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ,” who were engaged, “by a mutual consent through a special overruling providence,” in establishing a collaborative colony “under a due form of Government both civil and ecclesiastical.” To succeed in this enterprise, “the care of the public must oversway all private respects,” since they were “entered into a Covenant” with God as well as with one another. Winthrop concluded his sermon by admonishing that “we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,” and, if the company failed to observe the covenant, it would give “enemies” the occasion “to speak ill of the ways of God and all professors for God’s sake.”10

Over the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the “due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical” that Winthrop and his contemporaries had presupposed gave place to a plurality of tolerated religions within a civil government that operated independently from a legally established church. In this new, gradually developing religious circumstance, individuals voluntarily affiliated with one religious community rather than another, or none at all. This change in the civil polity did not eliminate the assumptions that personal salvation was a work of divine power or that a redemptive covenant encompassed a people. The plurality of religions did, however, alter the processes and techniques that shaped understandings of salvation at both personal and social levels. These changing processes had important regional variations in America during the 18th and 19th centuries, but continuing with the New England illustration enables an analysis of structural changes in the redemptive narrative.

Colonial New England ministers concerned with religious complacency drew parallels between personal concern for salvation and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a whole community. In the first decades of the 18th century, the phrase revival of religion became an increasingly common designation for “the transformation by grace of a community, a group of people bound together as a single moral entity.” Just as a pattern shaped the personal narratives of John Winthrop and many others, a general narrative pattern also delineated the revival of religion in a community. “Paralleling the conversion narrative,” writes historian Michael Crawford, “the revival narrative emerged as a religious genre.” During the “Great Awakening” of the 18th century, settled congregational ministers and itinerants preached for individual conversions and aimed toward a cumulative renewal of society as a whole.11

By the beginning of the 19th century, this broadly Puritan legacy had become ritualized in periodic revivals in congregations and at colleges, incorporating successive cohorts of townspeople and students into the life of the church through personal experiences of “conviction” of sin, commitment to Christ and his cause in this world, and fidelity to the interlocking moral purposes of church, college, and town. This focus on the civic community as a moral entity is apparent in recollections of an 1850 revival by Aaron Colton, minister of First Church, Amherst, Massachusetts, from 1840 to 1852. Colton remembered the revival as “a work of marked depth and power,” during which prayer meetings were “notably fuller and more solemn” than was usually the case. But despite this sincerity of purpose, there was also a notable absence of conversions. Colton and the congregation’s deacons met to discuss this lack and concluded that the principal impediment to revival could be traced to “the rum places in the village, with fires of hell in full blast.” At a town meeting, Amherst College President Edward Hitchcock stood to proclaim “‘it were better the college should go down, than that young men should come here to be ruined by drink.’” The selectmen (with one dissenting vote) determined to close the “rum resorts,” and shortly thereafter “the heavens gave rain—blessed showers—and there was a great refreshing” of spiritual experience with more than 150 conversions during a revival that continued through the summer.12

This trajectory of New England piety from Puritanism to revivalism sought to maintain, amidst changing social circumstances, a pattern in which the experience of personal redemption incorporated individuals into a church that stood at the heart of the civic community. But neither church nor civic community was stable, and inclusive institutions in the early 19th century and revivals were rapidly becoming instruments of denominational recruitment that frequently thwarted the New England vision of church, college, and town as a “single moral entity.” The religious experiences of another New Englander, William Apess (1798–1838?), a Pequot, aptly illustrate the ambiguities of choice, identity, and supernatural grace in the context of American voluntary religious affiliation.

Apess began his autobiography, A Son of the Forest, by expressing his inner conflict over whom to consider “my brethren.” He puzzled over “the dread which pervaded my mind on seeing any of my brethren of the forest,” which was caused “by the many stories I had heard of their cruelty toward the whites.” But “the whites” among whom Apess lived did not tell him “that they were in a great majority of instances the aggressors.” During early adolescence, Apess was indentured to several different households and attended services of the Baptists, the James O’Kelly Christian movement, the Presbyterians, and the Methodists, hearing some preachers read through “leaf after leaf” of learned sermons while others, by contrast, “depended on the Holy Spirit’s influence entirely.” Eventually encountering a spirited Methodist revival, he “attended these meetings constantly.” The Methodist revival met with great spiritual success, and “the work rolled onward like an overwhelming flood.” But “because the Lord was blessing their labors,” success roused the antagonism of the surrounding denominations, and all who attended the Methodist meetings “were greatly persecuted.” Although the Methodist revival convinced Apess that “Christ died for all mankind—that age, sect, color, country, or situation made no difference,” he still longed for personal “assurance that I was included in the plan of redemption with all my brethren.” Despondent, he “resolved to seek the salvation of my soul with all my heart—to trust entirely to the Lord and, if I failed, to perish pleading for mercy.” Having placed “all my hope on the Redeemer,” Apess experienced scriptural words of forgiveness as a voice directed to him on March 15, 1813: “There was not only a change in my heart but in everything around me. The scene was entirely altered. The works of God praised him, and I saw him in everything that he had made. My love now embraced the whole human family.”13

Comparing the autobiographical accounts of John Winthrop and William Apess indicates that the conversion narrative has retained remarkable continuities through time: the account of a despondent sinner who entrusts his fate to divine mercy and experiences a dramatic change of affective disposition and perception. On the path of salvation, Apess, not unlike Winthrop, encountered spiritual counselors and fervent preachers, read and meditated on scripture, and wrote spiritual autobiography and revival narrative. Winthrop’s conversion ultimately propelled him into exile across the Atlantic. Apess’s embrace of “the whole human family” remained the ultimate goal of redemption, but, in his personal narrative, that ultimate goal directly confronted racial and denominational differences and antagonisms.

Thus, as the examples of Winthrop, Colton, and Apess suggest, even though the conversion experience focused on a story of personal transformation, it situated this individual event within a host of social institutions: congregations and denominations, townships, and taverns. The variations among specific conversion narratives resulted not from merely personal idiosyncrasies but from the relationship of a particular convert to surrounding social institutions. Was conversion a rite of passage that conveyed the individual into responsible participation within the regnant social order, or did conversion reveal a new order and set the individual in opposition to what was now perceived as a “fallen” society? Furthermore, as William Apess recognized, cultural presuppositions suffused these various institutions, in his case racial theories, but also expectations based on social class or gender norms. Thus, when the Methodist holiness teacher Phoebe Palmer (1807–1874) began her weekly meetings in New York City, she held them in her parlor, a residential space designated for women’s hospitality in 19th-century America, and she denied that her edifying devotional remarks had any connection to sermons, a domain of religious rhetoric set aside for male clergy. The personal conversion experience is, in sum, a social practice. Individual examples need to be interpreted in light of the convert’s social purposes and the social norms and contexts within which those purposes are enacted.

Redemptive Journeys and Their Goal

The relationship of salvation to an ultimate goal not only establishes the basic direction of the redemptive narrative but also places it within a general worldview. Since the goal may range from social transformation of this world to a soul’s liberation into another world, the narrative possibilities are vast. Whereas redemptive narratives that focus on conversion, such as the experiences of John Winthrop and William Apess hinge on the sinner’s rescue by divine mercy, redemptive narratives oriented toward the fulfillment or culmination of life—what Josiah Royce had envisioned as “the Beloved Community”—emphasize how present events and experiences prefigure that ultimate goal. The religious history of the United States during the 20th century, with its permeable boundary between the religious and the secular, provides a richly suggestive variety of prefiguring narratives: from experiences in social activism to imprisonment to monastic solitude to the gradual formative power exerted by the regular practice of religious ritual.

In 1907, Jane Addams (1860–1935) wrote a slender volume entitled Newer Ideals of Peace, which combined experience from her advocacy for international peace with her pioneering settlement house work among the immigrant communities of Chicago. She linked her two passions through the observation that an antagonistic tribalism beset modern societies by building sharp boundaries, both between nations and between a nation and its recent immigrants. Surprisingly, Addams found “active and dynamic” ideals of peace emerging from “social conditions” among immigrant communities in the modern, industrial city. Although she cautioned that one could not speak too confidently of tribalism being supplanted by “cosmopolitan” relationships, she was encouraged that “a foundation is, in fact, being laid now—not in speculation, but in action.” Among the immigrant communities of American cities, she saw promising signs of hope for “the discovery of a new vital relation—that of the individual to the race—which may lay the foundation for a new religious bond adequate to the modern situation.”

While acknowledging that the modern city seemed “to stand only for the triumph of the strongest” and “the successful exploitation of the weak,” Addams described dramatically changing attitudes among the “various peoples who are gathered together in the immigrant quarters of a cosmopolitan city.” Immigrants “have many times sundered social habits cherished through a hundred generations, and have renounced customs that may be traced to the habits of primitive man,” in order to gain “the fundamental equalities and universal necessities of human life itself.” In this daily struggle, Addams believed, they were discovering “the universal characteristics” of humanity and recognizing “in this commingling of many peoples” a certain balance and concord of contending forces, “a gravitation toward the universal.” Perhaps, Addams reflected, “we are surprised simply because we fail to comprehend that the individual under such pressure, must shape his life with some reference to the demands of social justice, not only to avoid crushing the little folk about him, but in order to save himself from death by crushing.” In short, the new immigrants were “really attaining cosmopolitan relations through daily experience,” and Americans of longer pedigree, such as Addams, “must be willing to surrender ourselves to those ideals of the humble, which all religious teachers unite in declaring to be the foundations of a sincere moral life.”14

In her autobiography The Long Loneliness (1952), the journalist and social activist Dorothy Day (1897–1980) recalled a protest demonstration in Washington, D.C., during World War I that evoked a powerful sense of human solidarity. “A committee to uphold the rights of political prisoners had been formed,” and Day’s friend Peggy Baird persuaded her to travel to Washington to picket the White House with the suffragists, many of whom had been jailed and “given very brutal treatment.” Refusing to desist from their picketing, Day and her compatriots “were put in the House of Detention for the night,” and, after being sentenced to thirty days in jail, the group determined to go on a hunger strike. “I lost all feeling of my own identity,” Day recalled, as she reflected in her cell “on the desolation of poverty, of destitution, of sickness and sin. That I would be free after thirty days meant nothing to me. I would never be free again, never free when I knew that behind bars all over the world there were women and men, young girls and boys suffering constraint, punishment, isolation and hardship for crimes of which all of us were guilty. The mother who had murdered her child, the drug addict—who were the mad and the sane?”

Dorothy Day had first written of these experiences in 1938 in From Union Square to Rome, a memoir describing her conversion to Catholicism. At that time she had written even more strongly of her identification with those around her:

I was that mother whose child had been raped and slain. I was the mother who had borne the monster who had done it. I was even that monster, feeling in my own breast every abomination. Is this exaggeration? There are not many of us who have lain for six days and nights in darkness, cold and hunger, pondering in our heart the world and our part in it.

In The Long Loneliness, Day interpreted her protests in light of her subsequent conversion and founding, with Peter Maurin, of the Catholic Worker movement. Reflecting on that keenly felt “sense of solidarity” in prison had, with time and further experiences, made Day “gradually understand the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ whereby we are the members one of another.”15

Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983), a Lithuanian immigrant who was educated at the Jewish Theological Seminary, became a rabbi in New York City, and founded Reconstructionist Judaism, perceived the goal of salvation at the intersection of modern social life and ancient ritual observance. In The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, Kaplan argued that it had become impossible in the modern world to sustain belief in an otherworldly salvation. Considering this impossibility, Kaplan observed that “the intensity of the Jew’s devotion to the Sabbath” was derived from the experience of its sanctity. The Sabbath, he proposed, prefigured the most comprehensive spiritual purpose of Judaism and “came to function in the Jewish consciousness as a symbol of salvation.” However different modern conditions of life have become and however different the modern view of the cosmos, “the vanity and futility of human life remains with us.” God, whom the Jewish people honored in the sanctity of the Sabbath, was “the power that makes for salvation,” and this salvation had both a personal and a social significance. At the personal level, salvation was “faith in the possibility of achieving an integrated personality,” while social salvation, was “the pursuit of common ends in a manner which shall afford to each the maximum opportunity for creative self-expression.”16

Thomas Merton (1915–1968) was born in France, raised in a secular household, and converted to Catholicism in 1938 while he was a student in the United States. He later entered the Trappist monastic community at the Abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky. In the course of his life, Merton developed a complex public profile as both a solitary mystic following a monastic spiritual regimen and a commentator on nuclear arms, race issues, and the Vietnam War. His life as a solitary prompted him to study the religions of Asia, especially Zen Buddhism. For many decades, students of religion had contrasted Christian doctrines of sin and salvation with Buddhist teachings of liberation from ignorance. Merton, however, became interested in dialogue between Christian and Buddhist practitioners not in order to conflate the two but instead to deepen and clarify the traditional practices of each.17

Merton found the paradoxical key to human destiny in the deeper meaning of solitude. “Every man is a solitary,” Merton wrote, and death made absolutely clear “the inexorable limitations of his own aloneness,” since each person “dies alone.” When friends gather around the bed of a dying person, they are united in the mystery of death and, at the same time, united in the mystery of living in solitude: “It paradoxically unites them while reminding them acutely—and beyond words—of their isolation.” Very few persons, Merton thought, were able to confront the inescapable fact of human solitude. This discomforting fact presented a distinctive vocation to “certain ones who dedicate their whole lives to wrestling with solitude.” For those whose vocation is solitude, the course of life requires them “not to leave society but to transcend it.” The illusory connections of social life divert human attention from the reality of existence, according to Merton’s philosophy of solitude, and the vocation of solitude prefigured the attainment of “union on a higher and more spiritual level—the mystical level of the Body of Christ.” In sum, Thomas Merton argued that the solitary “has a mysterious and apparently absurd vocation to supernatural unity.”18

These four 20th-century accounts suggest some of the ways in which Josiah Royce’s idea that there is “a central aim or crucial end of human life” could shape the redemptive narrative by representing human life—both personal and social—as a movement toward its “crucial end.” Human possibilities for cosmopolitan diversity are projected from the everyday experiences of immigrant life; reflection on a traumatic imprisonment discloses a mystical solidarity with other prisoners and with humanity; ritual observance instills an understanding of each person’s search for integrity and fulfillment as a religion’s comprehensive purpose; and deeply experienced solitude transcends the ephemeral diversions of this world to portray a paradigmatic life of “supernatural union.” Ethical quandaries, the rhythms of ritual, or the personal encounter with death exhibit an accumulating power in these narratives, in which the journey itself becomes the subject of reflection and the source of enlightenment. This concern to consider deeply the overarching purpose of a life is suggested in the progression of titles Day gave to the three parts of her autobiography: “Searching,” “Natural Happiness,” and “Love Is the Measure.”


Whether they are organized around the decisive turning point of the conversion experience or an engrossing vision of humanity’s ultimate goal, narratives of redemption concur that the fundamental course of a life is shaped not primarily by conscious decisions but by that person, event, inheritance, or problem that captures human attention and engages human energies. The two narrative patterns further agree that, in the ordinary course of life, human attention will be diverted and energies misapplied in ways that are superficial, unworthy, and destructive. Narratives of redemption respond—to return to the phrasing of William James and Josiah Royce—by giving an account of how “higher powers” may capture human attention, and a “central aim” may engage human energies in order to reorient, in some fundamental way, the disposition of persons and societies toward the world they inhabit. This is the domain of experience that language about sin and salvation attempts to appraise, order, and illuminate.

Review of the Literature

Although the language of sin and salvation has permeated American religion and society since the first decades of colonization, scholars of religion in America have seldom engaged in sustained, historically contextualized analysis of these terms and the religious practices and sensibilities they represent. Instead, scholarly interpretations of the redemptive narrative are typically embedded in two classes of books that pursue a somewhat different purpose. First, general histories of specific religious traditions or religious thought in American society often include some commentary—frequently, quite astute commentary—on concepts of salvation. Scholars investigating sin, salvation, and redemption as significant keywords for the study of religions in America may productively mine these more general studies of Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, or Buddhism in America.19 Second, a large and significant body of scholarship has examined spiritual exercises, meditative disciplines, evangelistic techniques, and patterns of religious leadership that have served as mediators of redemption. Studies of prayer, autobiographic writing, revivals, rituals of healing, religiously motivated social reforms, and missionary endeavors vividly illuminate underlying presuppositions about sin and salvation.20

With regard to method, students investigating redemption and related categories in the American religious context are approaching phenomena that have very long histories. For some sense of this history, relevant articles in the Encyclopedia of Religion, the Encyclopedia Judaica, and similar reference works are an indispensable first step.21 In addition, perhaps the most sustained investigation of the topic is the massive research on the “religions of salvation” in late antiquity. Given the complexity of making comparisons or drawing analogies in America’s pluralistic religious marketplace, scholars of the multiplicity of religions in late antiquity are important guides to methodological strategies of comparison.22

Since the 1970s, scholars of religions in America have turned to anthropology for theoretical approaches to the rituals, social movements, and images of the future that are associated with the language of salvation. Anthropological models for understanding rites of passage, revitalization movements, and so-called cargo cults have influenced perspectives on redemptive narratives in American history. In particular, such models have usefully mapped the place and function of personal redemption in larger social movements. For example, William G. McLoughlin, in his book Revivals, Awakenings and Reform, used the theory of revitalization movements set forth by Anthony F. C. Wallace, in order to develop a hypothesis about the generative influence of Protestant revivalist “awakenings” on eras of social change in America from the 17th century to the 20th.23 In another case, Joseph Jorgensen’s study of the Sun dance religion among the Utes and Shoshones of the Rocky Mountain region pursued an interpretive distinction between transformative social movements and redemptive movements. In Jorgensen’s schema, transformative movements organized groups of people who sought “a transformation of the social, even natural, order in their own lifetimes.” Redemptive movements, by contrast, sought “total change to the individual. It is the person, not the social order, therefore, that is transformed.”24

Finally, the religious ideas and practices encompassed in the redemptive narrative participate in a wider cultural dialogue about human nature. Since these broader assumptions about human nature evolve over time and include elements that are independent of explicitly religious ideas, scholarly interpretations of sin and salvation necessarily require attention to the reciprocal relations between these ideas and general concepts of “the human” in a given social and historical context.25

Further Reading

  • Bacon, Hannah, Wendy Dossett, and Steve Knowles, eds. Alternative Salvations: Engaging the Sacred and the Secular. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.
  • Brooks, Joanna. American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of African-American and Native American Literatures. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Chidester, David. Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown (rev. ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
  • Crawford, Michael J. Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Degler, Carl N. In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Delumeau, Jean. Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th to 18th Centuries. Translated by Eric Nicholson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
  • Elie, Paul. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
  • Fessenden, Tracy. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • Griffith, R. Marie. God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
  • McAdams, Dan P. The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • McLoughlin, William G. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607–1977. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
  • Morone, James A. Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.
  • Orsi, Robert A. History and Presence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.
  • Pettit, Norman. The Heart Prepared: Grace and Conversion in Puritan Spiritual Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966.
  • Smith, H. Shelton. Changing Conceptions of Original Sin: A Study of American Theology Since 1750. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955.
  • Tuveson, Ernest Lee. Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.
  • Winston, Diane. Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.


  • 1. Josiah Royce, The Sources of Religious Insight (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 12.

  • 2. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Longmans, Green, 1902), 508, 31; Royce, Religious Insight, 8–9, 205; Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, intro. John E. Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 125; italics deleted from all quotations.

  • 3. I borrow the phrase from Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (New York: Verso, 2006).

  • 4. Reinhold Niebuhr, “Sin,” in A Handbook of Christian Theology, Martin Halvorson and Arthur A. Cohen, eds. (New York: Meridian Books, 1958), 348–351.

  • 5. Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: Macmillan, 1918), 5, 60–61.

  • 6. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Self and the Dramas of History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), 157–159.

  • 7. Will Herberg, Judaism and Modern Man: An Interpretation of Jewish Religion (New York: Farrar Straus and Young, 1951), 7, 109–110, 113.

  • 8. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in Autobiographies (New York: Literary Classics of the United States/Library of America, 1984), 57.

  • 9. John Winthrop, “Relation of His Religious Experience,” in The Winthrop Papers, ed. Allyn Bailey Forbes and Stewart Mitchell, 5 vols. (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1929–1947), 3: 338–344; with spelling modernized.

  • 10. Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” in Winthrop Papers, 2: 282–295; with spelling modernized.

  • 11. Michael J. Crawford, Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 4, 19–20, 165, 180, 195.

  • 12. Aaron Merrick Colton, The Old Meeting House and Vacation Papers (New York: Worthington, 1890), 164–168; italics deleted.

  • 13. William Apess, On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot, ed. Barry O’Connell (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), 9–21.

  • 14. Jane Addams, Newer Ideals of Peace (New York: Macmillan, 1907), 10–30.

  • 15. Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness: An Autobiography (New York: Harper, 1952), 72–73, 78–79, 147.

  • 16. Mordecai Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (New York: Behrman’s Jewish Book House, 1937), 40–103.

  • 17. Richard Hughes Seager, Buddhism in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 222–224.

  • 18. Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1960), 177–207.

  • 19. Jay P. Dolan, In Search of American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); E. Brooks Holifield, Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003); Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); Richard Hughes Seager, Buddhism in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

  • 20. Examples from this extensive bibliography would include Umar F. Abd-Allah, A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992); Catherine A. Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013); Candy Gunther Brown, The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789–1880 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Joseph Fichtelberg, The Complex Image: Faith and Method in American Autobiography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989); R. Marie Griffith, God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Robert A. Orsi, History and Presence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016); Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); Jeff Wilson, Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  • 21. Encyclopedia Judaica, 2d ed., ed.-in-chief, Fred Skolnik (Detroit: Macmillan Reference in association with Keter Publishing House, 2007); Encyclopedia of Religion, 2d ed., ed.-in-chief, Lindsay Jones (Detroit: Macmillan Reference, 2005); New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2d ed. (Detroit: Gale in association with The Catholic University of America, 2003); Peter C. Hodgson and Robert H. King, eds., Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994).

  • 22. S. G. F. Brandon, ed., The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation Presented to Edwin Oliver James (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1963); Eric J. Sharpe, and John R. Hinnells, eds., Man and His Salvation: Studies in Memory of S. G. F. Brandon (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1973).

  • 23. William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607–1977 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

  • 24. Joseph G. Jorgensen, The Sun Dance Religion: Power for the Powerless (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 6–7.

  • 25. Merle Curti, Human Nature in American Thought: A History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980); Carl N. Degler, In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).