This week we dip into the vast topic of Dickinson and religion, an exploration that is long overdue in an immersion into her life in 1862. In an earlier post in March exploring Fascicle 18, we focused on the theme of Resurrection in that gathering of poems and linked it to the Dickinson family mourning the death of Frazar Stearns, the young son of the President of Amherst College and friend of Austin Dickinson, who died at the battle of New Bern.
Likewise, this week’s exploration of religion is framed by news on September 17, 1862, of the horrific battle of Antietam, which the Springfield Republican reported as “the largest and most destructive battle of the whole war”– to date. Even after two more years of fighting, historians call this battle the “bloodiest day” in American history: 23,100 casualties. It also changed the course of the war and our history: on September 22, President Lincoln capitalized on the South’s retreat across the Potomac and issued “The Emancipation Proclamation.”
The deadliness of the Civil War is an important context for thinking about Dickinson and the consolations (or not) of religion, but there is so much more to explore in Dickinson’s complex attitudes towards and use of religious imagery. Most accounts of her early life report that she grew up in
a Calvinist household [and] attended religious services with her family at the village meetinghouse, Amherst’s First Congregational Church, [ and that ] Congregationalism was the predominant denomination of early New England.
But what doctrines did she hear preached and what did her family, who had all “converted” by 1850 during the frequent religious revivals that swept through Amherst, actually believe? Dickinson is notable for her refusal to convert but her poetry remains saturated with religious ideas, questions and images, many of which we will examine.
“Pray for the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Entire Nation”
Springfield Republican, September 27, 1862
Progress of the War, page 1
“The largest and most destructive battle of the whole war occurred at Antietam Creek, Maryland, on Wednesday last. Not less than a hundred thousand men were engaged on each side; the contest was kept up throughout the day, and at night no less than twenty thousand men had fallen on the field, killed and wounded. The advantage was on our side; we had driven back both wings of the rebel army and held position of the field, and their losses were obviously much greater than our own.”
Christian Women Called to Prayer, page 1
“At a meeting of several hundred women of various denominations, a circular was adopted to the women of the United States, suggesting to them to form circles of prayer throughout the land, and to pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the entire nation; for the president and his councilors; for the officers of the army and navy; for our soldiers and seamen; for their families; for ministers of the Gospel, and for the oppressed of our land; and agreeing to observe Monday of every week as a day of especial prayer, assembling at 10 a.m. and at 8 p.m.; each service to occupy two hours.”
A Fair Estimate of President Lincoln, page 6
“Now that some of those who aided in electing President Lincoln are making a strenuous effort to destroy confidence in him, an occasional word in his favor is only fair. The Washington correspondent of the New York Commercial Advertiser makes the following estimate of the present, and we believe that impartial history will decide that it is not overdrawn:—
His shoulders are fully square and strong enough to bear all the cares of state that may fall to his lot; and he can therefore stand cheerfully erect under the assaults of open enemies and pretended friends. His program is prepared to the end, and he will carry it out, to the very letter.
The Hampshire Gazette, September 30, 1862
Another Proclamation, page 2
“President Lincoln has issued another proclamation of no small importance, and that is eliciting considerable discussion. It is the proclamation suspending the right of habeas corpus. It is contended on one hand that the government is about to restrict free speech and erect a tyranny by which to govern the loyal states. Freedom of political action is to be prohibited and summary arrests and imprisonments are to be the order henceforth. On the other hand, it is said that the new proclamation is not intended to inaugurate any new system of espionage and arrest, but to restrain and refine the operation of a system already in use.”
Atlantic Monthly, September 1862
A Complaint of Friends, p. 359 by M. A. Dodge [Mary Abigail Dodge (1833-1896) wrote under the name Gail Hamilton; she was one of the first female political correspondents in Washington, DC known for writing essays that were particularly harsh on men.]
“Doubtless friendship has its advantages and its pleasures; doubtless hostility has its isolations and its revenges: still, if called upon to choose once for all between friends and foes, I think, on the whole, I should cast my vote for foes. Twenty enemies will not do you the mischief of one friend. Enemies you always know where to find. They are in fair and square perpetual hostility, and you keep your armor on and your sentinels posted; but with friends you are inveigled into a false security, and, before you know it, your honor, your modesty, your delicacy are scudding before the gales.”
Harper’s Monthly, September 1862
Saint Luke’s Hospital, page 504
“The walls of this beautiful [hospital] were hung with charming pictures, such as a child would care to look at again and again. And chief among these was a copy of the well-known picture, more significant to me than any rosy Cherub of Raphael or Dead Christ of Rubens. It represents the Holy Child bearing on his baby shoulder the cross, held fast with dimpled hands; at his feet the crown of thorns and the blood-stained nails; and in his great, pathetic eyes awful shadows of Gethsemane and Cavalry. The Holy Child seemed to lift up a standard in the midst of these little cross-bearers, and to be leading and sustaining them upward and onward to victory.”
“I do not Feel that I could Give up all for Christ”
Dickinson’s religious upbringing is well documented, though scholars differ on how this upbringing influenced her thinking and writing. The Dickinsons traced their ancestry to Nathaniel and Anna Dickinson, who came over with John Winthrop on the Arbella in 1630 in order to establish a Puritan commonwealth in North America. They were Protestants, who rejected the Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope, and Congregationalists, who believed each congregation should govern itself independently. They were called “Puritans,” somewhat derisively, because they wanted to further purify the Church of England, which had undergone Protestant reformation under Elizabeth I. But they soon moved to the colony of Connecticut under the more liberal leadership of Thomas Hooker, and then to Hadley in the Connecticut River Valley, an area that bred some very famous Puritan leaders: Solomon Stoddard (a reformer) and his grandson, the famous philosopher and “last of the Puritans,” Jonathan Edwards.
The early Puritans held to the principles formulated at the Synod of Dort in 1618, a meeting of Protestant theologians to settle the controversy over Arminianism, the belief that humans could prepare for divine grace. In what is quaintly known as the TULIP theology, the Synod rejected Arminianism and affirmed the following doctrines:
Total Depravity: since the Fall, humanity is depraved and lacks the means to salvation
Unconditional election (predestination): Despite total depravity, God has elected some people for eternal glory; the rest are condemned to eternal damnation
Limited Atonement: Christ’s sacrifice on the cross made possible the divine election of specific people predestined to salvation by God’s unknowable plan
Irresistible Grace: For the elect, God’s grace is inevitable and irreversible even for the sinner
Perseverance of the Saints: The elect, or “Saints,” persevere as individuals or groups.
Fairly tough stuff and seemingly obscure, but we will see elements of these doctrines in Dickinson's work. The one key innovation of the New England Puritans, an extreme attempt at “purity” which earned them their mocking epithet, was their desire to restrict church members to those they deemed were “elected” (or predestined to Heaven), who then became what they called “visible saints”– people who made a creditable public confession of faith.
Although Jonathan Edwards tried to hold the line against reform, by the 1830s, this austere belief system had softened into something more genteel, though its basic outlines and dispositions remained, especially in rural areas like Amherst, MA. Edwards’ grandson, Timothy Dwight, a Congregational minister and president of Yale, stressed Christianity’s social usefulness and moral improvement of the self. Similarly, in his speech on the dedication of Amherst College in 1820, Noah Webster echoed the millennial and imperial imagery of his Puritan forebears, casting the College's purpose as similar to the work of
the apostles themselves, in extending and establishing the Redeemer’s empire—the empire of truth. … to aid in the important work of raising the human race from ignorance and debasement; to enlighten their minds; to exalt their character; and to teach them the way to happiness and glory.
As Roger Lundin observes, Protestant evangelicalism adopted the secular idea of progress to create the republican ideal we now identify as “Whig”:
a means of securing the social order for divinely appointed ends … the ideal faith for men of the rising professional class in the early nineteenth-century New England village.
Dickinson's father Edward epitomized this ideal, subscribing to the conservative social and gender ideologies of rationalism, responsibility and order that went along with it, and imposed his beliefs on his family. Not only did they attend services at the First Congregational Church in Amherst, hearing sermons on faith and salvation (which Dickinson commented on profusely in her letters) and singing hymns (which influenced her poetic form), but he led them in daily family prayers and Bible readings (the Bible being a crucial source of imagery for Dickinson).
Though a Puritan and Yankee spirit (see Richard Sewall for the distinction) pervaded rural Amherst society, in 1833 Massachusetts disestablished Congregationalism as the state church, which made it dependent on revivals to populate its pews. This prompted a series of revivals that swept through the Pioneer Valley. Dickinson’s mother converted in one of these revivals in 1830 and in 1846, Dickinson corresponded with her friend Abiah Root about her struggles over “becoming a Christian.” She eventually told Abiah:
I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die (L13).
She also resisted the revival at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847-48. The rest of her family converted in 1850 and by the late 1850s Dickinson’s attendance at church and at the associated women’s benevolent society circles began to drop off.
Dickinson’s refusal to convert and participate in collective worship did not prevent her from absorbing and recasting many of the ideas and predispositions of early Puritanism. She thoroughly embraced the central Protestant doctrines of the importance of self-examination in solitude through writing, of requiring personal evidence of spiritual beliefs, and of having a direct, experiential relationship with God. In pursuit of these activities, she created a poetic discourse that makes ample use of technical terms such as grace, faith, election, ordinance, sacrament (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), seal, glory, spirit, crown, throne, savior, Calvary, crucifixion, resurrection, and immortality, but often layers these concepts with secular and highly personal meanings.
Some of the more extreme Puritan doctrines she thoroughly rejected: for example, the notions of original sin, fallen nature, predestination, and damnation. Richard Sewall concludes:
Confronting that tradition squarely, she appropriated its components selectively and shrewdly, revered it, but never capitulated to it.
Dickinson has also been linked to other religious traditions, like Daoism, Buddhism and Catholicism. She was also profoundly influenced by Emerson’s and Thoreau’s Transcendentalism (a reaction against Puritanism), which moved the site of religious or spiritual communion out of the church and into nature. While Protestantism has a strong tradition of what it calls “Imitatio Christi,” the believer’s identification with Christ’s life, struggles and sacrifice, Dickinson’s focus on imagery of crucifixion, especially in the 1860s, seems downright Catholic. We know that she owned a copy and read the fifteenth-century devotional book, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. Furthermore, her emphasis on the sacraments evokes a Catholic view of the physical world as profoundly enchanted and miraculous. The Protestant church reduced the sacraments to two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper and rejected the Catholic doctrine of the “Real Presence” of God for the notion of a “Spiritual Presence” apprehended through symbols.
As Emily Seelbinder notes in her short essay on Dickinson and Religion,
She has been claimed as both Catholic and Protestant, Calvinist and anti-Calvinist, firm believer and lifelong skeptic. She has been identified as a mystic, an antinomian, and an existentialist. Some critics argue that she rejected the religious practices of her day or at least seriously questioned them. Other counter that she was always a deeply religious person or that she gradually become one as her life progressed. Still others assert that her “religion” was poetry. … While Dickinson’s belief system may be impossible to codify, her exploration of religious subjects is rich and diverse.
I remember my father bringing home a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems from a library book sale—or maybe it was a yard sale? He went to these regularly and returned home with books on religion and history for himself and poetry for me. He was not familiar with Dickinson, but he explained to me that he chose this book because she wrote poems like mine, by which he meant poems written predominantly in hymnal stanzas. I grew up steeped in Protestant hymns and poems, and that was naturally the first poetic form to which I was drawn, writing my own hymns before I realized that I was writing poetry and not music. It was shortly after this introduction to Dickinson that I stopped writing in hymnal stanzas (probably not a coincidence), but this poetic and spiritual upbringing is still a presence in my writing decades later.
Reading Dickinson as a young girl was a shock. I felt so attuned to the hymn that her gestures within and against that form jolted me—her emphatic dashes, her slant rhymes, her heady wielding of meter and contrary play against it. I felt her turning toward and against possibilities at every syllable (or, more accurately, at every moment—the dashes and silences marking dynamic opportunities, even without syllables). I also responded to Dickinson’s careful self-inquiry and her respect for the authenticity of doubt. Even before reading her biography, I sensed that she would consider it hypocrisy to espouse beliefs with which her soul was not wholly in accord. A few years later, this would resonate strongly with my teenage sense that heretical thought demonstrated a more attentive engagement with the divine than obedience. I argued to my father that a gentle flock follows without question, but she who shapes her own relationship to God must remain attentive to that relationship at every moment (I perhaps perceived this vigilance in Dickinson’s form before seeing it in her poems’ themes).
Some leap of time later, I approached related questions concerning autonomy, whether belief allows the self its own domain, and the pulsing connection between refuge and peril. These themes are taken up in “Hymnal Essay,” a poem/personal-essay hybrid about my own experience of that form. Dickinson is not the subject, and I want to stress that I make no claims to knowledge of her religious beliefs. However, her poetry is a touchstone, and I hope readers will feel its presence in this work.
Have a read—and a listen:
To read “Hymnal Essay,” download a PDF document.
To listen to “Hymnal Essay,” visit our Video and Media page.
Bio: Anna Morrison's poetry has appeared in journals such as BOMB, Interim, Puerto del Sol, Shampoo, and Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women. Her poems won the LUMINA and Prism Review poetry prizes and have been finalists for prizes from Omnidawn, The Iowa Review, and Ahsahta Press. Passionate about small-press publishing, she’s helped make some beautiful books as an editor for Kelsey Street Press, and currently works as an Editorial Consultant and Marketing Associate for Omnidawn Publishing. She is an MFA candidate at Saint Mary’s College of CA and lives with her partner in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“Antietam/Sharpsburg.” American Battlefield Trust.
“Emily Dickinson and The Church.” The Emily Dickinson Museum.
Atlantic Monthly, September 1862
Hampshire Gazette, September 30, 1862
Harper's Monthly, September 1862
Springfield Republican, September 27, 1862
Gilpin, W. Clark. Religion Around Emily Dickinson. Penn State University Press, 2014.
Eberwein, Jane Donahue. “New England Puritan Heritage.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 46-55.
Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Second ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004, 10-12, 49-59.
Seelbinder, Emily. “Religion and Religious Criticism.” An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 245-46.
Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 19-27.