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The American Christ
He was a capitalist. He was an urban reformer. He was a country boy. He was “Comrade Jesus,” a hardworking socialist. He was the world’s first ad man. For a century and a half, novelists have been trying to recapture the “real” Jesus.
November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
Perhaps the earliest American novel in which Jesus plays a role is Julian: or, Scenes in Judea (1841) by William Ware. Ware, the son of a Harvard divinity professor, was a Unitarian. Julian is interesting both for its treatment of Jesus and as a precursor of Ben Hur, many of whose themes derive from Ware’s plodding narrative. Julian, the central character, is a Roman Jew who returns to Israel, where he meets his relatives, discovers his real Jewish “roots,” and becomes involved in a Jewish conspiracy against the Roman occupation. News of Jesus’ miraculous ministry diverts the course of the action and the attention of the conspirators. Ware, the coolly rational New England Unitarian, shows Julian admiring Jesus immeasurably but is careful to avoid making Jesus divine. When, after five hundred pages of preparation, Julian finally comes face-to-face with Jesus, he tells us: “Awe and dread...were the feelings that would have alone prevailed, were it not that, however wonderfully I felt he was united to God, I saw that the language of his countenance was not that of an angel, nor of a God, but of a man, bound like myself by the closest ties to every one of the multitudes who thronged him.”
Even at the novel’s conclusion, when Jesus has cured the leprosy of some secondary characters, Julian remains in doubt about following Jesus and holds back from the people who have begun worshiping him. The message of the novel for Ware’s own time was that the orthodox Christians had been mistaken in turning this great man, Jesus, into a god.
Books about Jesus, written by men and women with no pretensions to biblical scholarship, showed up with increasing regularity in the 1860s and 1870s. At first many authors hoped to combine full descriptions of Jesus’ life with strict historical accuracy. They regarded their books—which appear fictitious to us—as biographical. For example, Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most eminent clergymen of his day, wrote The Life of Jesus, the Christ in 1871. He said that he was worried about the scholarly controversy in Germany. Although modern New Testament studies “may lead scholars from doubt to certainty, they are likely to lead plainpeople from certainty into doubt and leave them there.”
Beecher, who came from a distinguished theological family, had been deeply influenced by reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species soon after its publication in 1859. Some ministers regarded Darwin’s evolutionary theory as a terrible threat to their faith, but Beecher welcomed it. He came to believe that religious thought was subject to the same evolutionary processes as were human beings themselves and that, accordingly, the Gospels needed to be rewritten to take advantage of recent progress: “There are reasons deeper yet why the Life of Christ should be rewritten for each and every age. The life of the Christian Church has...been a gradual unfolding and interpretation of the spiritual truths of the gospels. The knowledge of the human heart, of its yearn- ings, its failures, its sins and sorrows, has immensely increased in the progress of the centuries....”
Beecher declared that his advantageous position down the evolutionary chain from the evangelists made it possible for his life of Jesus to be better and more illuminating than theirs. It is no surprise after this preparation to find that Beecher’s Jesus turns out to be an evolutionary theorist: “ ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.’ Jesus would reform the world not by destroying but by developing the germs of truth already existing. He accepted whatever germs of truth and goodness had ripened through thousands of years. He would join his own work to that already accomplished, bringing to view the yet higher truths of the spiritual realm.”
By the 1870s tensions in America were becoming aggravated by the rise of the industrial cities, and Beecher’s Life of Jesus, the Christ refers to several social problems of the day, including the issue of temperance. Evangelical Christians were then at the forefront of a campaign to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol. What were they to do with passages in the New Testament that describe Jesus drinking wine, or the first miracle at Cana, where he changed water into wine? The Reverend William Thayer had tried to solve the problem by arguing, in Communion Wine and Bible Temperance (1869), that the Bible actually spoke of two different kinds of wine, of which Jesus drank only the type that was an unfermented grape juice. Beecher, in his narrative of Jesus’ life, spent several pages discussing the merits of Thayer’s view but finally rejected it, though he did note that the wine of Palestine was “light,” not at all the “fiery spirits” that caused such havoc in American city slums.