Date of Award

Winter 2001

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Lisa MacFarlane


Faith Positions is a study of the ways in which various modes of nineteenth-century religious belief are intertwined with the strained threads of an "American" national narrative. Specifically, I focus on the texts of four nineteenth-century American women---Jarena Lee, Rebecca Harding Davis, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Frances Harper---to consider the ways in which religious belief, and the narratives shaped by belief, respond to experiences defined by gender and race.

As Jenny Franchot and Carolyn Haynes (among others) have noted, contemporary American literary scholarship tends to evade concerns of religion and belief. "About those who 'had it' [religious belief] in the past," Franchot writes, "scholars often write either 'around' the belief (as if belief stays bottled up within a denominational container and never tinctures a person's greater reality) or isolate it as a deviant element to be extracted for diagnostic analysis." Within the specific field of nineteenth-century American literature, Haynes identifies a similar trend among scholars "either to view Protestantism as a purely debilitating or a merely utilitarian force, or, to ignore its presence and effects altogether."

Faith Positions is designed to address this "studied neglect" of religion (as Franchot labels it) on several levels. By focusing on African- and Anglo-American women writers, I am able to examine the nature of belief as a dynamic positioning force that intersects directly with other positioning forces, particularly those determined by gender and race. And, by organizing my study across a range of these "faith positions," I am able to work beyond the usual binaries---assimilation vs. resistance, for instance---to explore the varied and complex roles of religious belief in shaping personal, social, and even national identities. Perhaps not surprisingly, each of these writers exposes in her text(s) the limitations of a dominant narrative of white, middle-class, male Protestantism. Still, as a careful examination of their work reveals, each in turn engages and repositions the theological foundations of that narrative. Read together, they raise intriguing questions about the role of religion in transforming cultural ideas (and ideals), and in constructing an identifiably "American" national identity.