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The American Christ

July 2024
30min read

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.

The two most popular novels in nineteenth-century America were Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur (1880) and Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps (1896). (In fact, Sheldon’s book remained the dominant twentieth-century best-seller right up until Peyton Place overtook it in the late 1950s.) Although the first of these two books is set in ancient Palestine and the second takes place in the contemporary American Midwest, they are dominated by the same central character, Jesus. Wallace’s Judah Ben-Hur is a wealthy Jew. At first he intends to throw off the yoke of Roman domination by leading an insurrection, but when his mother and sister are healed of leprosy by Jesus, Ben Hur turns from the ways of war to the Christian promise of peace and love. The actions of Sheldon’s characters spring from a scene early in the novel in which a Midwestern minister, Henry Maxwell, pledges that before he makes any decision or takes any action, he will ask himself: “What would Jesus do?” Just as Ben Hur’s life is transformed by Jesus’ message of love, so too is the life of Maxwell’s city. Prostitution, drunkenness, and political corruption are gradually replaced by Christian faith, simplicity, and honesty.


Between them Ben Hur and In His Steps sold more than ten million copies, were translated into twenty languages, and were adapted for the stage and screen. These two novels are the most famous examples of an abundant and well-circulated literature on Jesus written in the United States during the last two centuries. Novelists, biographers, reformers, poets, and businessmen joined theologians and ministers in the attempt to explain what Jesus was really like, hoping that Christianity could be understood in modern terms. Some were sincere, others disingenuous, but they almost invariably described a Jesus sympathetic to their own concerns. Bruce Barton, a businessman, wrote that Jesus was really an early advertising genius and his disciples a group of marketing executives; Eugene Debs, the American Socialist party leader, declared that “Comrade Jesus” was a hardworking carpenter who came to the rescue of the Galilean working class; and Robert Ingersoll, the most famous self-proclaimed atheist of his day, argued that Jesus, like himself, had come to save the world from the tyranny of organized religion. Clearly, most of these self-serving portraits of Jesus tell us more about the lives and times of their American authors than they do about Palestine two thousand years ago.

It is a powerful advantage in a predominantly Christian nation to believe that Jesus approves of one’s way of life. By identifying oneself with Jesus, one stands a good chance of seizing the American moral high ground. The ambiguous character of the four Gospels made it possible for each of these authors to find the Jesus and the idealized vision of themselves that they were looking for. The Gospels are short, they sometimes contradict one another, and they leave a great deal unsaid about the life of Jesus. Two of the evangelists, Matthew and Luke, describe the miracles surrounding Jesus’ birth, but the other two start with his ministry at about the age of thirty. Apart from a single reference in Luke to Jesus as a twelve-year-old boy questioning the priests in the temple, none of the Gospels speak of his early life. But where the Gospels were silent, the American biographers of Jesus rushed in with a spectacular variety of explanations of what he was doing for all those undescribed years.


Biographers continued to differ on the significance even of those portions of Jesus’ life that are recorded in the Gospels. They disputed whether Jesus saw himself as the promised Messiah of the Old Testament and whether his greatest work was his teaching, the healing miracles, or the inspiration he provided for social reforms. The speculation continues today. In 1987 Marjorie Holmes published The Messiah, a novel about Jesus in which his greatest concern is the preservation of the family, while Hannah Wolffs Jesus the Therapist (1987) argues for his great psychological insight.

To judge Jesus simply as a notable historical figure was—and still is—a blasphemy to many Americans.

For American Christians in the colonial era, Jesus’ death and resurrection were more important than the events of his life. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was believed to have redeemed mankind from the sin of Adam and Eve and offered the hope of salvation and eternal life. The missing details of his life as told by the Gospels raised little concern. But in eighteenth-century Germany biblical scholars of the Enlightenment had begun to question the reliability of the Gospels as history. Hermann Reimarus, for example, tried to explain the New Testament miracle stories as naturalistic events that the evangelists had misreported.

Although German scholarship led the way in the attempt to discover the “real, historical Jesus” behind the Gospel narratives, Americans were not far behind, and a controversy over Jesus played a role in the politics of the young Republic. Tom Paine started out as one of the heroes of the American Revolution. His pamphlet Common Sense (1776) inspired the Declaration of Independence, and his magnificent exhortation in The Crisis raised morale during the war. But Paine’s popularity in America declined dramatically, first when he became involved with anticlerical radicals during the French Revolution in the early 1790s and then when his book The Age of Reason poured scorn over orthodox Christianity. The Gospel story, said Paine, “has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it,” starting with the Virgin’s conception: “Were any girl that is now with child to say, and even to swear it, that she was gotten with child by a ghost, and that an angel told her so, would she be believed? Certainly she would not. Why, then, are we to believe the same thing of another girl, whom we never saw, told by nobody knows who, nor when, nor where?” Paine’s principal target was the miracle stories. He praised Jesus as a good man and a moral teacher, but not as the Son of God: “He was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practised was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers, many years has not been exceeded by any.”

To judge Jesus simply as a notable historical figure, as though he were just another man, was—and still is—a blasphemy in the eyes of many Americans, as evidenced by the controversy surrounding Martin Scorsese’s recent film The Last Temptation of Christ. Even a hundred years later Theodore Roosevelt referred to Paine as a “filthy little atheist.” When Paine returned to America from France in 1802 he was no longer a hero, and the new President, Thomas Jefferson, took a risk in greeting Paine cordially and openly.

Jefferson himself was under political attack at the time from the opposition Federalist party, which tried to undermine his political support by accusing him of infidelity to the Christian faith. In an effort to reassure his colleagues that such accusations were groundless, Jefferson wrote A Syllabus of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus and followed it up the next year with The Philosophy of Jesus . Rather than speculate in his own words about Jesus, Jefferson simply went through the New Testament, snipped out the passages he approved of, and glued them together in columns, binding the resulting sheets together. Like Paine, Jefferson minimized supernatural elements; he criticized the evangelists for including so much implausible material in their stories and claimed he could differentiate the true words of Jesus from the additions of later narrators.

Whereas Paine had published his notorious works widely, Jefferson kept this book and his later The Life and Morals of Jesus (1820) within a small circle of acquaintances. Despite his admiration for the man Jesus, Jefferson could hardly have allayed the suspicions of the Federalists about his orthodoxy by publishing them. He believed that Jesus’ life and its moral example were of more significance than his death and resurrection. He also shared Paine’s opinion that Jesus should be compared with the classical Greek philosophers: “Epictetus and Epicurus give us laws for governing ourselves...Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others.”

The pace of critical study of the New Testament increased after 1835 with the publication in Germany of David Strauss’s compendious Life of Jesus. Strauss argued that the Gospels should not be considered historical documents, to be judged historically accurate or faulty. Instead they should be understood as religious myths. While Strauss wrote a heavy and indigestible book for theologians, his French contemporary Ernest Renan wrote a more approachable and romantic biography, The Life of Jesus, in 1863. It became an enormous best seller throughout Europe and America. Renan presented Jesus as a lover of nature, and he speculated lengthily on Jesus’ thoughts and feelings. The publication of Renan’s biography marked the birth of a new subgenre of religious fiction: imaginative novels and biographies of Jesus, filling in the true significance of his life.

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 bookswhich 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.

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 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.

Ben Hur, for all its fame, has many of the faults of its predecessor Julian: its melodramatic Victorian plot is full of unexplained gaps, and the story advances with the help of a series of wildly improbable coincidences and strokes of good fortune. Of these, perhaps the most noteworthy is that the hero, Judah Ben-Hur, has an unrivaled talent for acquiring wealth without working. He survives five years as a Roman galley slave, rescues his admiral in the heat of battle, and receives a fortune as a reward. He then travels to Antioch, where he discovers that the richest man in the world, Simonides, is none other than an old family slave. Moreover, Simonides has made the money not for himself but for his “young master,” and he begs to be allowed to serve as slave to the house of Hur once again, as does his comely daughter Esther (who ends the book as Mrs. Hur).

Wallace mixed high adventure with Christianity by having his chief character act as an alter ego to Jesus. Jesus makes contact with Ben Hur at crucial turning points in the book, once to save the hero from despair as he trudges to the galleys, later to cure Ben Hur’s mother and sister of their hideous leprosy, and finally at the crucifixion, when Ben Hur realizes that Jesus is dying in order that he and all other mortals might live. Between these brief but crucial appearances of Jesus, Ben Hur leads a vigorous and unreflective life. He wins a chariot race against his archenemy Messala, plots the overthrow of Rome by secretly training an army of Jewish malcontents, and almost falls into the clutches of a beautiful but treacherous Egyptian temptress.

While the ostensible theme of the book is that the temptation of worldly affairs is overcome in Christianity, Wallace actually revels in the worldly adventures of Ben Hur. His device for linking the stories of Ben Hur and Jesus together is to have Balthasar, one of the three wise men, appear throughout, giving voice to his religious speculations about the coming Messiah, who will teach a religious lesson that can unite the world. Wallace was not willing to take the chance that anyone might miss his didactic point, and after 250 pages of adventure tales, he paused to remind the reader of his religious purpose: “Our tale begins in point of date not less than fact, to trench close upon the opening of the ministry of the Son of Mary, whom we have seen but once since this same Balthasar left him worshipfully in his mother’s lap in the cave by Bethlehem. Henceforth to the end the mysterious Child will be a subject of continual reference; and slowly though surely the current of events with which we are dealing will bring us nearer and nearer to him, until finally we see a man—we would like, if armed contrariety of opinion would permit it, to add—A MAN WHOM THE WORLD COULD NOT DO WITHOUT....Before His time and since, there have been men indispensable to particular people and periods, but his indispensability was to the whole race, and for all time—a respect in which it is unique, solitary, divine.”


Some Americans of the 1880s still regarded novels as morally corrupting and refused to permit them into their homes. But as the reputation of Ben Hur spread, this book, with its blending of fiction and religious uplift, was admitted to homes previously free of novels. Wallace, in later years, said that the idea of making his novel a vindication of Christianity came to him after a chance encounter on a train with Robert Ingersoll, whose lecture tours in the late nineteenth century delighted freethinkers and scandalized the orthodox. It is remarkable to find that the atheist Ingersoll, no less than his Christian contemporaries, had a great deal to say about Jesus and that, like them, he found a Jesus rather like himself: “For the man Christ I have infinite respect...[and] to that great and serene man I gladly pay...the tribute of my admiration and my tears. He was a reformer in his time. He was regarded as a blasphemer and his life was destroyed by hypocrites, who have in all ages done what they could to trample freedom and manhood out of the human mind. Had I lived at that time, I would have been his friend, and should he come again he will not find a better friend than I will be.” Ingersoll recognized that it was not enough simply to discount the traditional religious interpretation of Jesus. Rather, in a society where Jesus was almost universally honored, he had to show how closely his own views and those of Jesus agreed. He, no less than his Christian rivals, was trying to lay claim to “the real Jesus.”

America was a dynamic, commercially expanding society in the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, and its people must have found reassuring the coexistence of Christianity with immense wealth in Ben Hur. Charles Sheldon, with In His Steps (1896), did little to disturb the picture. At first it seems that the people of the city of Raymond (modeled on Sheldon’s hometown of Topeka, Kansas) are going to be financially ruined by pledging to ask at every turn of their lives, “What would Jesus do?” In the short run there are many difficulties. The citizen who discloses corruption on the railroad loses his job, the newspaper whose editor refuses to print descriptions of a prizefight loses circulation, and the dry-goods merchant who decides to treat his work force as one big happy Christian family surrenders his steady profits. All endure temporary reversals. But as the book moves to its climax, we discover that Christian honesty is the best policy and that the people are thriving commercially as never before.

Sheldon does not remind readers of the Gospel passages in which Jesus commands those who would follow him to give up all their worldly possessions or of his declaration that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Instead, the newspaper editor, Edward Norman, tells himself, “I am very confident that a Christian daily such as Jesus would approve, containing only what He would print, can be made to succeed financially if it is planned on the right lines.” And the Reverend Henry Maxwell notes of the dry-goods merchant, “It is a fact...that while he has lost heavily in some directions, he has increased his business, and is today respected and honored as one of the best and most successful merchants in Raymond.”

In His Steps is a fascinating guide to the social reform priorities of American Protestants in the depression decade of the 1890s. It is, above all, a temperance novel, arguing that the woes of poor Americans spring principally from the temptations of drink. The middle-class characters in the novel devote themselves to contesting the political privileges of the saloonkeepers and to rescuing the “fallen women” who lurk in the shadows of these taverns. “Was not the most Christian thing they could do to act as citizens in the matter, fight the saloon at the polls, elect good men to the city offices, and clean the municipality?”

Sheldon was also interested was the settlement-house movement. In the slums of Chicago and New York, progressive reformers like Jane Addams and Lillian WaId had established settlements of middle-class volunteers to help poor immigrants adapt to urban life and to improve conditions of public health and sanitation. One of the characters in In His Steps, Felicia Sterling, relinquishes her soft and privileged existence to do likewise, and Sheldon remarks of the settlementhouse movement: “It was not a new idea. It was an idea started by Jesus Christ when He left His Father’s House and forsook the riches that were His in order to get nearer humanity and, by becoming a part of its sin, helping to draw humanity apart from its sin. The University Settlement idea is not modern. It is as old as Bethlehem and Nazareth.”

In His Steps was so popular throughout the early twentieth century that in 1950 Glenn Clark attempted a sequel, What Would Jesus Do?, “wherein a new generation undertakes to walk in His steps.” The action begins when the minister of Raymond, grandson of the original Henry Maxwell, hears a victory sermon to celebrate the Japanese surrender in 1945. When a Japanese visitor commits suicide in the church, the younger Maxwell realizes that he has failed in his charitable mission, and he takes the pledge once again after rereading his grandfather’s narrative. Just as In His Steps was a reliable guide to the social concerns of the 1890s, so What Would Jesus Do? concerned itself with the great issues of the late 1940s, above all the struggle against war and communism.

In His Steps and What Would Jesus Do? are different from Ben Hur and the Jesus biographies in that Jesus himself never actually appears but is, rather, contained within the minds of the characters. Another literary sensation of the 1890s using the same device of an implicit Jesus was William T. Stead’s If Christ Came to Chicago (1893). Stead was an English urban reformer with a particular ardor for stamping out prostitution, and he scandalized Chicago by printing a list of all the businessmen and local dignitaries who were implicated in the prostitution trade. He went on to claim that Jesus would do the same thine were he to reappear in Chicago. “If Christ came to Chicago, it seems to me that there are few objects that would more command His sympathy and secure His help than efforts to restore the sense of brotherhood to man and to reconstitute the human family on a basis adjusted to modern life.” Stead, more than Sheldon or Wallace, preached a hard lesson on the basis of Jesus’ example, and he exhorted his readers and fellow reformers: “Be a Christ. The more you disbelieve in Christianity as it is caricatured, the more earnestly you should labor to live the life and manifest the love and, if need be, to die the death, of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Eugene Debs argued in 1914 that Jesus “organized a working class destroy class rule.”

Many late-nineteenth-century reformers believed that cities threatened the republican spirit of the American people, and they looked with suspicion at the Italians, Jews, Slavs, and other immigrants flowing into them. For biographers of Jesus living in these surroundings, it became highly significant that Jesus lived in the country village of Nazareth, gathered his disciples in the countryside of Galilee, and came to grief only when he went to the big city of Jerusalem.

The title of Mary Austin’s biography of Jesus, A Small Town Man (1915), emphasized this point. She presents a Jesus who would have been at home in upstate New York or downstate Illinois in the early twentieth century: “One finds him going about with other householders, decent folk owning their own businesses, employing hired servants, paying their own scores, and obliged to ask no man’s leave if they chose to lay aside their work for a season and go a-proselyting.” It was no surprise to Austin that Jesus should be destroyed by the wicked leaders of the big city of Jerusalem. She believed that Jesus was crucified because he was in danger of breaking up the corrupt city and temple oligarchy, which was as brazen in its administration as the Tweed Ring of New York or the cases that Lincoln Steffens had recently exposed in The Shame of the Cities. “The constant flow of tribute into Jerusalem had begotten a ring of grafters as invincible and corrupt as ever controlled a modern municipality....Altogether the temple rake-off amounted to forty thousand dollars yearly.”

Like many progressive reformers, Mary Austin had an optimistic view of humanity and believed that if the corrupt ringleaders of the government could be removed, decency would be restored. Once again, the parallels between her own times and those of Jesus were apparent: “The difficulty was that the chief reason why Jesus must be put out of the way—his interference with the temple trafficnobody dared mention. Evidently not all the Sanhedrin shared or approved of the buying and selling within the sanctuary. Here we have a thoroughly modern situation: a representative body in the main well-intentioned, manipulated by a group within the group whose spring of action was illegitimate profit.”

This theme of conflict between country and city persisted well into the twentieth century. In Fulton Oursler’s bestselling biography of Jesus, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1949), there is again a juxtaposition of the simple, honest country folks going into the lion’s den of a corrupt city and trying to preserve their independence and pride as they go: “Oh yes, he [Joseph] knew that in Jerusalem sophisticates looked down on the countrified Nazarenes, yokels with a ridiculous northern accent....But Joseph, with all his fellow townsmen, felt that the people of Jerusalem were unnatural and overcivilized. Anyway, he was proud of his home town.”

Joseph and his fellow villagers are impressed by the magnitude of the city despite themselves: ” ‘I think Nazareth is a very much pleasanter place,’ Mary answered. With this the others agreed. They said that Jerusalem was a great place to visit but they would never want to live there.”

Although the development of giant cities gave rise to this literary protest, few Americans wanted to abandon the source of their growing prosperity. An alternative solution was offered by American socialists, who accepted industrialization but sought a more equitable distribution of its profits, putting their faith in the future rather than in the past. Just as the advocates of rural simplicity had found a Jesus to their liking, so too did the socialists.

In Europe the socialist movement was anticlerical and usually hostile to religion as an “opiate of the masses.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote that “Christ was a man as we are, a prophet and a teacher, and his Eucharist is a mere commemoration meal wherein bread and wine are consumed without any mystic garnishing.”

Inclined to revere Jesus and to see in his ministry a precursor of their own struggle, American socialists were often more sympathetic to religion than their European counterparts. After all, Jesus was a carpenter, sprung from the simple working people, and a man who detested exploitation of the weak by the strong. Socialist magazines such as The Masses ran cartoons of Jesus, wearing overalls and carrying his carpenter’s tools, speaking at union meetings and participating in the life of the working class.

The Socialist party leader and perennial presidential candidate Eugene Debs was also a biographer of Jesus. In Jesus, the Supreme Leader Debs argued that Jesus “organized a working class movement...for no other purpose than to destroy class rule and set up the common people as the sole and rightful inheritors of the earth.” The heroic days of the early church, said Debs, had been true to Jesus’ message, but then Christianity was co-opted by the Roman Empire and became the religion of the oppressing classes: “The dead Christ was then metamorphosed from the master revolutionist who was ignominiously slain, a martyr to his class, into the pious abstraction, the harmless theological divinity who died that John Pierpont Morgan could be ‘washed in the blood of the lamb.’ ” Another socialist depiction of Jesus was Upton Sinclair’s They Call Me Carpenter (1922). Lew Wallace and Charles Sheldon had smoothed over the awkward matter of Jesus’ teaching against great wealth; Sinclair seized on it. “Mr. Carpenter,” a modern transfiguration of Jesus, lives with strikers, socialists, and the impoverished Mexican inhabitants of Los Angeles. Sinclair emphasizes Jesus’ wrathful sermons against hypocrites and Pharisees (updated as Hollywood entrepreneurs and the established churches) and has Carpenter declare: “The days of the exploiter are numbered. The thrones of the mighty are tottering, and the earth shall belong to them that labor.”


By 1922, however, the American Socialist party’s greatest days were over. The socialist movement had been split by the Russian Revolution and the question of whether to remain committed to an indigenous socialist program or to join the Communist Third International, with its headquarters in Moscow. American socialism also suffered because of its resolute opposition to the First World War. In 1915, before the Americans became active participants in the European war, The Masses ran a cartoon captioned “The Deserter.” It showed Jesus, his back to a wall, facing a firing squad made up of soldiers from the principal belligerent powers.

Once America had entered the war, in 1917, many Christians came to believe that in their place Jesus, too, would have gone off to fight. A New York minister named Wesley Johnston, for example, declared that “Christ was the greatest fighter the world has ever seen...the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” Another minister, Harold Bell Wright, agreed that “a thirty centimeter gun may voice the edict of God as truly as the notes of a cooing dove....The sword of America is the sword of Jesus.” The socialists who continued to hold out against American participation in the war, and the clerical minority that joined them in the name of Christ’s message of peace, found themselves persecuted, their journals forced to close, and their leaders, including Eugene Debs, imprisoned.

It was not only the war and the Russian Revolution that led to the decline of American socialism, however. The vitality of American business during the 1920s also played a part, and it is no coincidence that two biographies of Jesus from that decade are celebrations of capitalism. The more flagrant is Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows (1924). Barton was a partner in the advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn, and it seemed to him that he was doing for the twentieth century what Jesus had done for the first. His lead quotation, “Wist ye not that I must be about my father’s business,” sets the tone for the book, in which Barton presents Jesus as an advertising genius.

The hard-hitting, straightforward language of the parables, the bluntly effective managerial style, and the man’s sheer energy won Barton’s praise. Some people think of Jesus as effeminate and weak, said Barton, but in fact, he was “a great outdoorsman,” “the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem,” and an unrivaled entrepreneur. “Every one of his conversations, every contact between his mind and others, is worthy of the attentive study of any sales manager.” What were his twelve apostles but a marketing organization that set forth and conquered the world? Why were they so successful? Because they believed in the quality of the product! The Man Nobody Knows sold half a million hardback copies, and it is still in print, not just as a historical curiosity but as an inspirational guide.

Defenders of capitalism usually emphasize that theirs is not solely a system designed to facilitate the piling up of fortunes. They stress instead that it provides money for the protection of families and a higher quality of workmanship than can be found under any other economic system. These themes are stressed in another capitalist-Jesus biography from the 1920s, Robert Norwood’s The Man Who Dared to Be God (1929). Solving the mystery of what Jesus did up to the age of thirty, Norwood tells us that he was a successful boatbuilder on the Sea of Galilee. On leaving home, he tells his mother: “Let me go to Capernaum and build boats. It is a good business. The lake towns are prosperous....There ought to be a fine chance for a handy man to lead some of that prosperity hither to Nazareth.”

Norwood writes that Joseph has died young, leaving the family threatened with poverty. Jesus steps in and builds up his boat business for his brothers and acquires money for his sisters’ dowries before setting out on his mission: “He had toiled to lift the shadow of poverty from the door of his father’s house. He had left nothing undone. His brothers were prosperous. His mother was happy.”

If lives of Jesus were one route to acclaim in American popular writing, another good bet through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was attacks on Catholicism. Before Uncle Tom’s Cabin the most popular book in America was Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures (1836). It purported to describe the sexual degradation suffered by a novice in a Catholic convent. A hundred years later anti-Catholicism was still widespread in America, and Upton Sinclair found a way to combine the themes of Jesus fiction with anti-Catholicism. In Our Lady (1938) Sinclair made wicked fun of the Catholic cult of the Virgin.

The ad man Bruce Barton thought he was doing for the twentieth century what Jesus had done for the first.

American Catholics themselves began writing lives of Jesus only in the mid-twentieth century, much later than Protestants. Their sacramental tradition made the details of Jesus’ life and ministry less significant to them than to those Protestants who regarded him as a personal savior. Catholics used lives of Jesus principally as vehides of moral education. Father Madden’s Life of Christ (1960) is a fine example of the type, full of exhortations about going to confession regularly and avoiding lust, hypocrisy, greed, or pride, and reminding children of the need to follow Christ today, in absolute obedience, just as his disciples followed him long ago. “Yes, Christ called Peter, just as He calls the youth of today. His wanderings no longer take Him along the edge of the sea but into the schools and the drugstores. His call is the same. Follow Me!” As a child, says Madden, Jesus “was obedient to his parents. He never gave His parents any lip. When they sent Him to the store, He went happily.” And he was diligent, too: “He consecrated labor by the touch of His hand to a tool. This was the way He would support Mary when Joseph died. Christ was not a free-loader.”

Concern about juvenile delinquency in the 1950s and 1960s led Madden to emphasize how rigorously Jesus had avoided “the dead-end kids of Palestine,” but his jaunty prose, peppered with contemporary slang, was designed to show that there was nothing unfashionable or prissy about following Jesus: “Without having to resort to barbells, He was in top physical shape all His life. As a boy, nobody kicked sand in His face down on the beach.”

Concern over juvenile delinquency was shared by Catholics and Protestants alike in the fifties and sixties, and it is reflected in other parts of the Jesus literature. Karl Burke’s God Is for Real, Man (1964) sold briskly among the Christian counterculture groups of the sixties. While Madden spoke from the outside, warning against the temptations of delinquency, Burke spoke from the “inside”: he was a prison chaplain, ministering to young criminals. God Is for Real, Man consists of a retelling of many Bible stories by the juvenile offenders in his care. Burke noted that the language of the King James Version and the agricultural setting of the parables meant little to adolescents from city ghettos. The hip language and urban settings with which he replaced them were designed to emphasize the universal relevance of the stories when they are properly translated: “After Jesus busted outa the grave, He met two of his gang on the road. Man! Were they ever spooked and surprised....Thomas’s eyes almost bugged out when he saw Jesus. He just looked and looked. And he says to himself, How about that? They did level with me!”

Even today new lives of Jesus roll from the presses every year. In 1987 Marjorie Holmes published the last installment of a fictional trilogy on the life and times of Jesus, The Messiah. Echoing contemporary American concerns about the decline of the American family, Holmes has adopted the tactic of telling the principal incidents in Jesus’ life through the eyes of a woman and of placing all the Gospel characters in family settings. Indeed, Jesus’ mother and Simon Peter’s wife accompany the wandering disciples around Palestine. The family’s loyal pet dog, Benjamin, is there, too, trotting along beside his master and lying whimpering at last by the foot of the cross.

The Messiah appears in the aftermath of the “sexual revolution,” and Holmes is blunt about sexuality where many of her predecessors gave only veiled hints. Simon Peter’s wife, Adah, now has a physical reason for following Jesus: “She could not bear the thought of having Peter’s great body apart from hers another night.” Jesus himself is shown as having been in love with Tamara, a shepherd girl, and as having the same sexual urges as other men: “His humanity coursed through him, unleashing a pain and longing he had thought he would never feel again. He wanted to confide in Lazarus, to speak of it at last, for never had he felt closer to any man. But he knew he could not, dared not, for once the name of Tamara crossed his lips he would be undone....”

The Messiah is anything but a manifesto for the sexual revolution, however. Rather, it is part of the evangelical counterattack, and Holmes emphasizes that sex is fruitful within marriage but degrading outside it. Her Mary Magdalen is a victim of incest who fled from home and was forced into prostitution for the sake of survival. Mary Magdalen welcomes the protection and continence of the Jesus entourage as a relief from a demoralizing life of sexual trading. Jesus himself, meanwhile, has conquered the sexual temptations that Tamara represented in order to set out on his redeeming mission.

The question of race has been intertwined with many issues in American history, and the search for the real Jesus is no exception. The physical descriptions of the Virgin Mary and Jesus given by each author are themselves clues to their racial ideals and the influence of prevailing race theories. In Europe Houston Stewart Chamberlain, one of the creators of the anti-Jewish Aryan philosophy that was to culminate in the Nazi movement, argued in the late nineteenth century that Jesus was not Jewish but a pure-blooded Aryan. Many American biographers and novelists of Jesus seem to have agreed, and descriptions from that era give us a blue-eyed, fair-skinned Jesus, as though a perfect Saxon had wandered unawares into Palestine. Henry Ward Beecher admitted in 1871 that we have no idea what Jesus actually looked like, but not so Lew Wallace. In Ben Hur Wallace introduced Mary: “Her complexion more pale than fair...the eyes were blue and large, and shaded by drooping lips and long lashes; and, in harmony with all, a flood of golden hair, in the style permitted to Jewish brides.”


Wallace’s Jesus has the full benefit of Mary’s genetic advantages, and as a young man his face is “shaded by locks of yellowish bright chestnut hair; a face lighted by dark-blue eyes, at the time so soft, so appealing, so full of love and holy purpose, that they had all the power of command and will.”

A couple of decades later the Holy Family was even paler. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps described Mary at the moment of the Annunciation: “She had a fair complexion, blonde hair and bright hazel eyes. Her eyebrows were arched and dark, her lips ruddy, and full of kindness when she spoke.”

In The Man Nobody Knows Bruce Barton emphasized a different aspect of Jesus that he thought had been too long overlooked—not his complexion but his soldierly physique: “His face was tanned by the sun and wind....He was an energetic outdoor man. The vigorous activities of his days gave his nerves the strength of steel. As much as any nation, ever, Americans understand and respect this kind of man.” Barton also emphasized the physical superiority of Jesus to his Roman judge, Pontius Pilate: “In the face of the Roman were deep unpleasant lines; his cheeks were fatty with self-indulgence; he had the colorless look of indoor living. The straight young man stood inches above him, bronzed and hard, and clean as the air of his loved mountain and lake.”

Robert Norwood’s The Man Who Dared to Be God followed Barton in presenting a Jesus who was “broad-shouldered, sturdy, tall for his years, full of vital fire, magnetic, golden...[with] a body which was beautiful in its strength and symmetry of line.” Norwood, writing in 1929, also offered a racial portrait which showed a few degrees of darkening since 1900: Jesus’ head is now “a billowing of russet gold hair.”

The passage of another twenty years made the Holy Family slightly darker again, but still more plausible as Western European Protestants than as Middle Eastern Jews. The Mary of Fulton Oursler’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, in 1949, is “very young....Dark hair framed the pale face above the light blue mantle and the intense blue eyes set so wide apart.” Oursler’s Jesus, in this telling, is “on fire with a dangerous purpose. He had reached sturdy manhood; His hair was long and soft and golden brown and hung around His shoulders; He had His mother’s glorious dark eyes; His muscles were strong from hard work. His face was paler than the skin of most men.”

It took until the 1970s and 1980s for white American authors to give up the pale-faced Jesus. In The Messiah Marjorie Holmes writes of “those dark, liquid eyes” and “his dark curls.” But if American whites were reluctant to relinquish a Jesus after their own image, so too were American blacks. One of the most impassioned preachers of black pride in the 1960s was the Reverend Albert Cleage of Detroit, and in Black Messiah (1968) he exploded the white Jesus myth in one stark paragraph, in favor of what seemed to him a much more congenial alternative: “For nearly 500 years the illusion that Jesus was white dominated the world only because white Europeans dominated the world. Now with the emergence of the nationalist movements of the world’s colored majority, the historical truth is finally beginning to emerge —that Jesus was the non-white leader of a non-white people, struggling for national liberation against the rule of a white nation, Rome....Jesus was a revolutionary black leader, a Zealot, seeking to lead a Black Nation to freedom.”

The gradual change of race and physique in Jesus can be traced not only in the novels and biographies but also in the Jesus movies of the twentieth century —the three Ben Hur films, King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Robe, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Last Temptation of Christ—though there has yet to be an American black Jesus movie.

Lives of Jesus have been one of the principal forms of religious and popular literature in America for 150 years. Many of the great political and social issues in recent history have been interpreted through the mirror of the Jesus story. The constant flow of Jesus books in each generation shows that whatever particular form he is given, Jesus retains a strong hold on the religious and imaginative lives of American Christians and that they would like to think that Jesus is with them wherever they go and in whatever tasks they undertake.

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