- Historic Sites
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
Turning aside for a moment from what Jesus actually did, Beecher argued: “Had Jesus, living in our time, beheld the wide waste and wretchedness arising from inordinate appetites, can any one doubt on which side he would be found? Was not his whole life a superlative giving up of his own rights, for the benefit of the fallen? Did he not teach that customs, institutions and laws must yield to the inherent sacredness of man? In his own age, he ate and drank as his countrymen did, judging it to be safe to do so. But this is not a condemnation of the course of those who, in other lands and under different circumstances, wholly abstain from wine and strong drink, for their own good and for the good of others.”
By making this argument, Beecher established one of the techniques that have persisted in the Jesus literature ever since. If Jesus did something of which an author approves, he is cited as authority for doing likewise. But if Jesus did the opposite of what the author requires, an argument about changed social context can always explain away the difficulty: Jesus would have acted this way had he been alive now.
Beecher’s sister Harriet Beecher Stowe was already one of the most famous women in America; her best seller of 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had done much to arouse antislavery sentiment in the North in the years before the Civil War. In 1877 Stowe wrote a life of Jesus, Footsteps of the Master. The degree to which Jesus was malleable in the hands of different authors becomes apparent when we find Stowe arguing that Jesus was “one of those loving, saintly mothers.” Although she doubted some of the miraculous stories in the Gospels, Stowe was determined that the virgin birth of Jesus should not be rationalized away; so long as it was preserved, Jesus remained exclusively the child of a woman, and thus more capable of sympathy toward women than any other famous man in history.
The Reverend Thayer explained that there were two different s kinds of wine in the Bible; what Jesus drank was really grape juice.
From that time on many women writing about Jesus made the same case. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps wrote, in The Story of Jesus Christ (1897), that Jesus had an unrivaled sensitivity to the needs of sick and elderly women. She described Jesus as a reforming visionary in his treatment of women as the equals of men: “He seemed almost unconscious of the social revolution of which he was laying the foundations. He went straight on with serene and beautiful indifference, always treating women with respect, always recognizing their fettered individualism, their force of character...their undeveloped powers, their terrible capacity for suffering, their superiority in spiritual vigor. He boldly took...the stand...that...men and women stood before God upon the same moral plane, and that they ought so to stand before human society.”
In the case of Phelps, an autobiographical element entered into her description of Jesus. She made a considerable fortune by writing sentimental novels, the most renowned of which, The Gates Ajar (1868), told of the Heaven to which dying Victorians could aspire. Her husband, younger than she, lived off her earnings, refused to comfort her in a long sickness, and failed to return from a yachting trip when she lay dying. Phelps’s Jesus is the sort of caring husband she would doubtless have preferred.
Phelps, Stowe, and many other women of the late nineteenth century depicted a nurturing and feminized Jesus. But all other Jesus literature of the era was overshadowed by Ben Hur, Lew Wallace’s hymn to muscular and manly Christianity. Wallace himself was a colorful man: a major general in the Union Army during the Civil War, a state senator in his home state of Indiana and later governor of the New Mexico Territory, a part-time novelist, and ultimately America’s minister to Turkey. He finished Ben Hur during his tenure at Santa Fe, breaking off at one point to pursue the Apache rebel Victorio. At first Ben Hur was not particularly well received. One San Francisco reviewer wrote: “Governor Lew Wallace is a ‘literary feller’ chiefly given to writing novels of an uncertain sort. He is following up The Fair God with Ben Hur: A Story of the Christ. I protest, as a friend of Christ, that He has been crucified enough already without having a Territorial Governor after Him.” After a slow start Ben Hur ’s popularity and sales began to soar, and translations and adaptation for the stage soon followed. After reading an Italian translation, Pope Leo XIII commended Wallace for his contributions to Christian understanding.