A Congregationalist by choice and a Calvinist by tradition, Marilynne Robinson has a theological background that significantly influences the development of her fictional characters, especially in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead. Much has been written about Robinson's particular brand of Calvinism—by both Robinson herself and other literary critics—which tends to be far more hopeful about grace, agency, and the beauties of the natural world than traditional interpretations allow. Little, however, has been written about how the trajectory of Congregationalism as an organizational force in the national narrative influences the decisions of and relationships between her fictional characters. Gilead depicts three generations of Congregationalist ministers whose personalities, preaching styles, and interpersonal relationships reflect and parallel the history of Midwestern Congregationalism in the United States from the abolitionist period to the mid-twentieth century—at which point, Robinson claims, Congregational influence all but disappeared. Robinson develops these characters in ways designed to dramatize and critique Congregationalism's various responses to the cultural and historical pressures of slavery, war, denominationalism, and the proper relationship between a minister and his congregation. In the novel, John Ames III becomes a reconciliatory figure in a tradition fraught with interpretational extremes: the scriptural literalism of John Ames I and the scriptural relativism of John Ames II. He is not, however, a perfect balance of such interpretations, but rather exemplifies characteristics of "both and neither." In depicting the three ministers this way, Robinson critiques, defends, and reshapes contemporary understanding of Puritan influence on American history just as she demonstrates how that history shapes the relationships among the characters. Ultimately, Gilead is both a supplement to and an extension of Robinson's nonfiction writing (The Death of Adam, Absence of Mind, and When I Was a Child I Read Books), which also attempts to revise current interpretations of Calvinist thought and rekindle contemporary interest in early American religious influence.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Steiner, Makayla Camille, "Saints in Gilead: Robinson's Revisionist Calvinism and John Ames as a Reconciliatory Figure in American Congregationalist History" (2013). Theses and Dissertations. 3773.
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, Congregationalism, Calvinism, Abolitionism