Scriptural "Truth" and the English Novel: Henry Fielding, William Godwin, and Emily Brontë

Judith Stuchiner, Fordham University


I argue that the early English novel was an important link in the transition from a religious to a secular world in eighteenth-century England. More specifically, I claim that contentious religious issues that were ineffectively debated in the pulpit, such as faith versus reason, faith versus works, and scriptural authority, or the extent to which scripture is representative of unequivocal truth, were often more constructively handled in novels. As a new genre that was just as preoccupied with truth as was the Anglican Church, the novel was ideally suited to address divisive religious issues that were taxing the energies of an already demoralized Anglican Church. One of the most important issues with which the Church of England wrestled was scriptural “truth.” Is the Bible a true book? Is it completely true or only partially true? How do we access the “truths” of the Bible, through faith or reason? How do we communicate these “truths,” authoritatively or democratically? How do we think about certain miraculous events that are recorded in the Bible, such as the Resurrection? Do we accept that they happened on faith, or do we “prove” that they happened through reason? I claim that the novels in my study address these questions both explicitly and implicitly. To convince readers that these larger religious themes are in the background of novels, I employ an interdisciplinary methodology. I view the novels as socio-religious and historical texts that draw upon and are influenced by contemporary sermons, religious pamphlets, news circulars and biblical passages. I argue that Joseph Andrews is about Parson Adams’s personal battle between faith and reason; I situate Caleb’s quest for truth in Caleb Williams in the context of Sandemanianism (Godwin’s childhood religion); I treat the plight of the aging Methodist servant, Joseph, in Wuthering Heights as a composite of old and new Methodism. I ask how these novels complicate, and in some cases reject, the moral statements of contemporary religious literature.

Subject Area

Religious history|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Stuchiner, Judith, "Scriptural "Truth" and the English Novel: Henry Fielding, William Godwin, and Emily Brontë" (2017). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10618620.