The popular Christian novel in America, 1918-1953
The purpose of this study is to explore a phenomenon which is both literary and social: the popularity of didactic Christian novels in twentieth-century American literature. Specifically, the study is restricted to a consideration of best-selling Christian novels and an examination of the attitudes of American readers over a time of extreme social change in America, 1918-1953. Nineteen such novels were best sellers over the thirty-five years encompassed by the study. One was popular between World War I and the Depression, five were best sellers between 1929 and 1939, and the remainder were best sellers between 1939 and 1953. The data suggest that within the period 1918-1953, public interest in Christian novels increased during times of national stress but waned in times of prosperity.The popular Christian novels mirrored the concerns of the reading public, for subject matter, theme, and characterization of the novels tend to reflect the era in which a given novel is published. The one novel popular between the end of World War I and the Depression was Ralph Connor's The Sky Pilot in No Man's Land (1919), an unabashedly anti-German propaganda novel incorporating elements of Christian thought. Between 1919 and 1929, Americans were preoccupied with social change and the prosperity of the times, and thus demonstrated little interest in fictional piety.In the Depression, five novels by Lloyd C. Douglas were immensely popular: Magnificent Obsession (1929), Forgive Us Our Trespasses (1932), Green Light (1935), White Banners (1936), and Disputed Passage (1939). All were contemporaneous in setting, and paradoxically stressed the practice of altruistic self-giving along with the promise of material rewards for the follower of Christianity. Clearly, Douglas appealed to the public because his works were optimistic and because they offered to the reader the hope that Christianity might provide relief from economic distress.From 1939 through 1953, thirteen Christian novels became best sellers. Seven were historical Christian novels: The Nazarene (1939), The Apostle (1943), and Mary (1949) by Sholem Asch; The Robe (1942) and The Big Fisherman (1948) by Lloyd C. Douglas; The Song of Bernadette (1942) by Franz Werfel; and The Silver Chalice (1953) by Thomas B. Costain. The historical novels tended to become more conservative and restrained than Douglas' novels of the Depression. Their popularity points to tendencies in Americans to look to the past and to ancient values in search of answers to contemporary problems.Six Christian novels published 1939-1953 were generally contemporaneous in setting. Significantly, four were either by or about Roman Catholics: A. J. Cronin's The Keys of the Kingdom (1941), Russell Janney's The Miracle of the Bells (1946), Henry Morton Robinson's The Cardinal (1950), and Francis Cardinal Spellman's The Foundling (1951). Two by Agnes Sligh Turnbull were Protestant: The Bishop's Mantle (1947) and The Gown of Glory (1952). Four of these novels depicted clergymen as protagonists. The popularity of these novels indicated widespread concern for religion and curiosity about churchmen. The acceptance of Roman Catholicism in popular fiction is of major significance, for no popular Christian novels before 1939 were distinctly pro-Catholic. A more tolerant mood is clearly indicated for the American novel-reading public.It is clear from this study that almost all popular Christian novels widely accepted between 1918 and 1953 advanced a simplistic and rewarding Christianity. Inevitably the theology is uncomplicated, and most of the works adapt Christianity to the needs of the day. Religious attitudes are emphatically this-worldly. Little eschatological content is apparent; readers and writers alike were apparently more concerned with a religious faith which provided strength and guidance for living well in the present, rather than providing a means of preparation for a heavenly afterlife.