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271 Religion as Comfort Versus Religion as Justification
The Female American interacts with religion in a far more tasteful, tactful, and better way than I’ve seen any other text of its time. It shows religion not as a desperation, a saving grace that the guilty cling to for a sense of salvation, or a vestige of unwitting hope for people looking for justification, but as it, I hope, was intended at some point – a comfort to the soul, nourishment for the spirit in a way unattainable by other means. The strength that Eliza takes from her beliefs is obvious and powerful, and every time she calls to it for reinforcement, she finds herself rejuvenated not by specific passages or a phrase that does not apply to her, but to her faith as a whole, complete subject to which she’s devoted. On page 65, Eliza closes her prayers with the sentiment that she was filled with “a serenity by no means to have been expected.” Despite her desperate situation, she finds comfort in the prayers she leaves on the empty beach. With this in mind, let’s descend into the passage from page 68, not long after this example.
I took out my Greek Testament… I opened accidentally in the epistle to the Hebrews, and the first words that offered to my view were these: [And be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee (Hebrews 13:5)]. I cannot but say they gave me great comfort, and thought myself, in that moment, equal to all the difficulties I foresaw and had to encounter with, through the divine protection: though I very well remembered the caution my pious and judicious uncle gave me. “Beware,” said he, “of the practice of some enthusiasts of our times, who make the word of God literally an oracle, by opening it at particular times, and on particular occasions, presuming that where-ever they open, they are to apply the passage to themselves, or to the business they are about; because many have thereby been led into spiritual pride, and others into despair, as they opened to a promise, or a curse; whilst others have but too often, in the same manner, pleaded a warrant from scripture to perpetuate wickedness, or to propagate error. Though,” added he, “happy is the christian who by a prudent and rational use of the scriptures procures comfort to his soul. For as the apostle says, Whatsoever things were written aforetime, were written for our learning, that we through patience, and comfort of the scriptures, might have hope.”
Winkfield, Unca Eliza. “Chapter V”. The Female American, edited by Michelle Burnham and James Freitas. Broadview, Ed. 2. p 68.
It’s easy to draw a connection (not a parallel) between Eliza’s words and Rowlandson’s Narrative. At every opportunity, Rowlandson sneaks away with the scripture, treating it as her guide, her oracle, and feeling as though she is beside the people quoted therein, or perhaps, who it was written specifically for. At the same time, we are shown a place in the text where Eliza could easily have done the same, but then remembers a speech her uncle gave her, relating it to us so that all are clear on the importance of avoiding exactly Rowlandson’s practice (a practice which gives Rowlandson, as Eliza’s uncle wonderfully puts it, a kind of misplaced “spiritual pride”). Telling Eliza of the importance of reading the text as a whole and not in pieces like bite-sized chunks of one-religion-prophesizes-all, he uses the phrase, “happy is the christian who by a prudent and rational use of the scriptures procures comfort to his soul” (Winkfield 68). This is where Eliza is able to regain her mental footing, so to speak, and uses the text as he tells her; a comfort to her soul. Examples of this are seen scattered throughout the text, where she quotes the scripture occasionally, but more often finds significance in her life around large parts of its narrative and values. This is a long way of saying that religion plays the role of her comforter and keeper throughout the text, guiding Eliza, as she allows, to being a stronger human, both mentally and emotionally, giving her the strength to continue even when she assumes she has none. Religion is important in the text as it gives Eliza a guide to which she sets her moral compass. As her religion is viewed through the lens of her uncle’s experiences and sermons, she finds that it is easy to focus on the larger picture of the text as a whole, and is better able to use her knowledge for spiritual enrichment rather than justification for morally grey actions (as Rowlandson did in her text). Though it is not nearly as obviously prominent as in Rowlandson’s writing, Eliza’s mentions of her religion are not mere throwaway references to demonstrate her religious beliefs are still held, but rather, are references to her need to be in conversation with the scriptures she finds genuinely comforting.