- Locating the Sacred and Secular:Organized Religion and the “Holiness of Life” in Eudora Welty’s Novels
Often Southern religion has articulated a strong dichotomy between the sacred and secular. In its Doctrines and Discipline printed in 1922, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, makes this clear in its attempt “to warn against the insidious influence of worldliness, which is one of the most subtle and relentless foes of spirituality” (415). Regularly, however, the church reflects the society around it, and thus, the dividing line between the holy and profane remains unclear. In her novels Eudora Welty continues to blur this relationship. In her memoir Welty confesses, “I painlessly came to realize that the reverence I felt for the holiness of life is not ever likely to be entirely at home in organized religion” (One Writer’s Beginnings 877). While her novels often trivialize organized religion in Southern society, her stories still give deference to personal spirituality and religious practice and stress the sacredness of human experience. Along the way Welty also attunes the reader to cultural and religious variances within different regions of Mississippi. This essay will assess the presence of organized religion in Delta Wedding, Losing Battles, and The Optimist’s Daughter. In these novels, Welty identifies stereotypical representatives of the local denominations and subtly provides alternatives that reflect the “holiness of life” in contrast to the staid institutional religion found in the various settings of her novels, thus inverting the sacred and secular.1
Literary critics have examined Welty’s writing from multiple angles, but have only episodically addressed the place of religion. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw in her essay “Eudora Welty’s Language of the Spirit” considers [End Page 47] mystical experience in Welty’s short stories and also suggests the social gospel mindset of Southern Methodist women may have helped shape Welty’s social conscience (13-22). Stephanie Nicole Johnson likewise focuses on Welty’s short stories and considers the themes of humor and redemption (24-42). Of the three novels this essay considers, Losing Battles has had the best track record when it comes to religious analysis. This novel contains an abundance of religious references, and literary scholars have duly taken note. Karl-Heinz Westarp argues that Losing Battles speaks to an overarching spiritual plot involving sin and forgiveness and reflects a journey similar to that in Pilgrim’s Progress (56-66). Bridget Smith Pieschel considers the elements of the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan (67-83), and Ruth M. Vande Kieft briefly touches on denominational rivalries, biblical references and similes, hymns, and piety (154-56, 162-63). Finally, Jan Nordby Gretlund in his book Eudora Welty’s Aesthetics of Place notes Welty’s “caustic satire” toward denominationalism and Welty’s heavy condemnation of the hypocrisy found within organized religion in all three novels (145-47, 331-32), and he concludes that Welty’s fiction “does not offer religious hope” (332). While literary critics have taken note of religion, especially in Losing Battles, all three novels together speak in great measure on organized religion in Southern culture and the substitutes that Welty provides.
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Most descriptions of the South take it for granted that Baptist and Methodist churchgoers inundate the region and that organized religion is a mainstay of Southern society. The early twentieth century marked a time when denominations, particularly Southern Baptists, expanded their influence and increased their numbers through denominational structures. According to historian Edward Nelson Akin, the early twentieth century witnessed the “maturation of Protestantism” in Mississippi. This rise in organized religion, however, did not fully supplant the folk practices and aversion to denominational centralization of earlier Baptist and Methodist churches already well-established in rural Mississippi (Akin 184, 191-96; Peacock 65-69; Hill 143-44; Harvey 249-71). Despite a strong evangelical composition, Mississippi churches were never uniform. Variances in settlement, geography, class, and race often influenced the religious nature of regions...