Reading minds, bodies, and souls: Nineteenth century evangelical fiction and its legacy

James M Van Wyck, Fordham University


In “Reading Minds” I argue that the emergence and legacy of evangelical fiction was shaped by evangelicalism’s sacralization of the reading act, and transferred anxieties about the effects of reading from the mind to the body. I also argue that the emergence of a distinct evangelical brand of fiction meant that even popular, respected writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe were forced to choose between evangelical and highbrow literary pursuits. Further, I argue that evangelical fiction was born in a time when evangelical periodicals had a dominant influence on the evangelical mind. These arguments rest on my foundational claim that the legacy of anti-intellectualism within evangelicalism is partly due to the way evangelicals relate to the fictions they read. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, evangelicals continued to value fictions that required readers to form particular kinds of emotional bonds with characters, which saw the bonds not as merely enjoyable, but deadly necessary. Their fictions featured less and less theological and intellectual complexity as their understanding of fiction became informed by a spiritual utilitarianism that distrusted texts that privileged the intellectual and aesthetic over the moral and the utilitarian. Through a steady diet of fiction, evangelicals of the late-nineteenth century learned to privilege heart over mind, experience over intellect.

Subject Area

Religious history|American studies|American literature

Recommended Citation

Van Wyck, James M, "Reading minds, bodies, and souls: Nineteenth century evangelical fiction and its legacy" (2016). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10193779.