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Few features of mid-nineteenth-century American women’s literature seem as foreign and outdated today as the omnipresence of hymns. In countless literary works, hymns are quoted, sung, discussed, and contemplated. Hymns in these texts are rivaled in influence only by the Bible and are potent catalysts of religious experience, sparking conversion in the unbeliever and offering reassurance to the faithful during times of trouble. In the literary world of the American mid-century, the singing of a hymn can bring tears to the eyes of even the most hardened unbeliever. Such scenes pervade fiction of the period. During Ellen Montgomery’s sorrowful trip to live with her Aunt Fortune in Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1850), a kindly stranger ministers to her by inviting her to read a hymn and then gives her his hymnal. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851–52), Harriet Beecher Stowe excerpts the hymns favored by slaves and depicts Tom as such an avid singer of hymns that he is revived on his death-bed only by the recitation of a few lines from a hymn by Isaac Watts. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), the March sisters sing their “father’s favorite hymn” after learning of his grave illness, and, at the height of her own illness, Beth March plays and sings John Bunyan’s hymn “He That is Down Need Fear No Fall.”




Washington State University


Pullman, WA

Publication Information

ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance