Piety and Dissent: Race, Gender, and Biblical Rhetoric in Early American Autobiography.
The perceptive student of American autobiography William L. Andrews has observed that American autobiography is fundamentally a hybrid, at once confession and memoir, self-revelation and self-celebration. In many ways in her probing excursion into late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American religious autobiographies, literary scholar Eileen Razzari Elrod follows that lead. But in her close examination of six individuals who were "outsiders" in the social, cultural, and political Anglo-American world ruled by white men, she also charts a new course by insisting that we read religious autobiography especially from multiple perspectives and through the critical lenses of feminism, border theory, critical race theory, and postcolonialism. To show the way, she parses the narratives of Samson Occom, Olaudah Equiano, John Marrant, Abigail Abbot Bailey, Jarena Lee, and William Apess, all of whom were converts to Anglo-American Protestantism, strong witnesses to their faith, and challengers of conventional authority, even as, and sometimes even because, they suffered from the strictures of race and gender inside and outside their respective churches. As Elrod shows, the writers used different vehicles to relate their stories of redemption--for example, the Indian captivity narrative, the slave narrative, the narrative of an abused woman--but they adopted the shared language and theology of the religious revivals, from the Great Awakening and after, to make experiential religion the true test of salvation, faith, and authority.
Importantly, even as these narrators sometimes stood against, or outside, their Anglo-American Protestant churches, they never abandoned them. These writers crafted their life histories within traditions of conversion narratives but also with a keen sense of their "outsider sensibility." As such, Elrod argues, the narratives offer sometimes contradictory messages of oppression and liberation but in the end attest to the power of saving grace and the need to have one's own say about God's place in shaping one's life and worth.
Elrod makes the important point that historians and literary scholars are often embarrassed in reading the unashamed religiosity of such writers and that they wrongly dismiss such witness by socially and economically "marginal" people as being only a disguise or a coded language of social and political protest rather than understanding its deeply personal, honest expression of belief. She takes them at their word. She insists that the narrators' biblical voices were authentic because they were grounded in scripture and experience and because the narrators cared about the religious fates of their churches and their people. She rightly reminds us that spiritual and religious impetuses pushed these pilgrims toward piety and dissent, with the one necessarily begetting the other. That Elrod recognizes that these blacks, Indians, and women accepted, even sought, the fullness of an Anglo-American Protestantism while standing as critics of it further recommends her work, for their stories run against the historians' commonplace that such outsiders had no place within that religious framework. Indeed, the narrators' very willingness to examine their own faith and life and to criticize conventional Christianity in the context of the dominant New England narrative adds to their interest as examples of dissenters working within established institutions.
If Elrod's thicket of theoretical apparatus sometimes obscures her arguments, her reasoned and respectful reading of these texts should encourage scholars to consider how and why, in an American context of proliferating religious choices, "outsiders," like those Elrod discovers, chose to claim Anglo-American Protestantism for themselves. These narratives of piety and dissent further suggest that the pulls and obligations of faith were not only or simply decided by race, gender, class, or circumstance, potent and pervasive though they be; nor were they simply reiterations or adaptations within the conversion narrative genre. The rhetorical strategies that these narrators used made their life histories all of that and more. The narratives became and remain plain-speaking personal life histories addressed to all people seeking the truth and purpose of God's saving grace.
Randall M. Miller
Saint Joseph's University
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|Author:||Miller, Randall M.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2009|
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