This dissertation examines four bestselling Christian novels published in the United States between 1850 and 1900: Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Gates Ajar (1868) by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Ben-Hur (1880) by Lew Wallace, and In His Steps (1896) by Charles Sheldon. These four books reached millions of readers in a time when many Christians refused to read novels at all, helping to launch what is today a $4B Christian merchandise industry. More importantly, amid what Nathan Hatch has called the “democratization of American Christianity,” popular Christian novels offered a measure of cultural unity, despite splintering churches and increasing skepticism.
To explain these novels’ literary popularity and religious impact, I approach them as what I call “surrogate Scriptures.” Just as surrogates are both representatives and substitutes, in a sense these novels can both replace the Bible and point readers back to it. All four novels confirm the Bible’s centrality and authority in Christian theology and practice, but they also showcase changing attitudes toward reading, understanding, interpreting, and applying Biblical content. The four novelists I study here stake out very different positions on these issues, but they all contribute to a vibrant and fascinating Christian literary culture.
Each of my four chapters evaluates one or more of three related theological concepts: revelation, hermeneutics, and exegesis. Chapter 1, on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, examines the role of Bible reading in Augustine St. Clare’s conversion. I show how Stowe transforms the “take and read” scene from St. Augustine’s Confessions to link Bible reading to social action. In Chapter 2 I evaluate intertextuality in The Gates Ajar, in light of the novel’s diary-like structure. I track several of Phelps’ allusions and quotations, and show how she uses a range of artistic and theological resources to offer her readers both comfort and creativity. Next, in Chapter 3 I analyze the Magi’s origin stories in Ben-Hur, in light of doctrines of Christian supersessionism. These narratives, I argue, promote the idea that the Magi’s respective cultures and religions must inevitably give way to Christianity. Finally, Chapter 4 examines the role of writing and ethics in In His Steps. I contend that even though the characters ask “what would Jesus do?” to inform all their ethical decisions, they actively avoid studying or even reading any texts, especially the Bible.
Overall, my study contributes to the existing scholarly literature by enriching and complicating our understanding of Christian bestsellers, and of 19th-century attitudes toward reading and applying the Bible. These four novels, though only representing a small portion of 19th-century Christian fiction, demonstrate diverse and sophisticated ideas about reading, faith, and imagination. Christian readers, writers, and publishers approached cultural engagement cautiously, especially with art forms that could distract or even mislead believers. Evaluating their strategies in terms of Biblical authority, not just doctrine or content, gives us a flexible and sophisticated framework for understanding a range of Christian fiction, both historical and contemporary.