Few features of mid-nineteenth-century American women’s literature seem as foreign and outdated today as the omnipresence of hymns. In countless literary works, hymns are quoted, sung, discussed, and contemplated. Hymns in these texts are rivaled in influence only by the Bible and are potent catalysts of religious experience, sparking conversion in the unbeliever and offering reassurance to the faithful during times of trouble. In the literary world of the American mid-century, the singing of a hymn can bring tears to the eyes of even the most hardened unbeliever. Such scenes pervade fiction of the period. During Ellen Montgomery’s sorrowful trip to live with her Aunt Fortune in Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1850), a kindly stranger ministers to her by inviting her to read a hymn and then gives her his hymnal. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851–52), Harriet Beecher Stowe excerpts the hymns favored by slaves and depicts Tom as such an avid singer of hymns that he is revived on his death-bed only by the recitation of a few lines from a hymn by Isaac Watts. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), the March sisters sing their “father’s favorite hymn” after learning of his grave illness, and, at the height of her own illness, Beth March plays and sings John Bunyan’s hymn “He That is Down Need Fear No Fall.” [End Page 294]
For modern readers, these scenes of popular hymnody may seem quaintly old-fashioned and evoke a religious life steeped in homely, wholesome piety. However, to read these novels in the complex history of hymnody in the English-speaking world is to see this fond, warm portrayal of hymnody as a deft literary construction so convincing as to nearly eclipse the genre’s long association with controversial religious radicalism, anti-authoritarianism, and populism. To be sure, the genre’s demotic energies discernibly pulsate in these sentimental novels about the trials of lowly, powerless people seeking relief from the abuses of worldly authority, for in these texts hymns repeatedly enable the dissolution of social hierarchies. However, these depictions often stop short of fully embracing the lively contemporary culture of populist hymnody and manufacture an image of hymnody that is denuded of its unsavory associations and brought in line with conventional notions of propriety and modesty. What emerges in these engagements—both in fictional depictions of hymn culture and in actual forays in hymn writing—is a syncretic compromise that tempers the form’s inherent populism with an insistence on decorum and gentility. In presenting hymnody as fully respectable, this negotiation allayed lingering generic doubts and aided in the acceptance of hymns into the Protestant mainstream. At the same time, the domestication of hymnody enabled mid-century literary women to traverse the very standards of propriety they promoted and to position themselves as figures of substantial religious authority in their own right.
I. The Radical Populism of Devotional Song
While hymn singing today may seem wholly conventional, hymns are a fairly new addition to Anglo-American Christian worship, despite their considerable biblical precedent. The Hebrew Bible amply endorses the singing of religious lyric, as with Psalm 33.3, “Sing to [the Lord] a new song, / play skillfully on the strings, with / loud shouts,” and Paul likewise urged his readers to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with [End Page 295] thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3.16). These explicit endorsements notwithstanding, hymns were often regarded with suspicion because of the idiosyncrasies of their content and composition. Unlike psalms, hymns diverged from the biblical script, and, as the products of authors lacking the august pedigree and divine sanction of the psalmist, hymns were deemed acceptable for private devotional use but inappropriate for congregational worship, for authorities in the Established Church feared that hymns might broadcast ideas of faulty theology. The Protestant Reformation invigorated interest in hymnody because it provided a vernacular forum for common people to recount and celebrate religious experience without the intercession of clerical authority. Martin Luther himself was a prolific hymnist, and the German-language Protestant world enjoyed a...