“Salvation” is a short narrative by Langston Hughes, the famous Harlem Renaissance writer. The narrative addresses Langston’s childhood experiences with issues of Christianity, faith, and salvation. Langston wrote the short narrative as an adult more than twenty years after this childhood experience. “Salvation” is quite a short narrative and it is biographical in nature. In the narrative, Hughes comments on his childhood frustrations and disappointments in his attempt at gaining salvation. In the narrative, Hughes recalls a time when he was given the chance to be saved during an evangelical revival at his aunt’s church.
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Nevertheless, the tone of the narrative expresses disappointment, criticism, and cynicism towards the church institution and the concept of salvation. It is clear that the essay is meant for a Christian audience that is familiar with the evangelical churches where “there is a lot of much preaching, singing, praying, and shouting” (Hughes and Bontemps 158). The narrative seeks sympathy for the young boy who is disappointed by the ‘inexistence’ of Jesus. However, the young boy’s way of interpreting religion hints at Hughes’ discontent with the interpretation of salvation. The narrative also comments on the misunderstanding between adults and children when it comes to religion. Hughes wrote other religious themed narratives in the course of his careers most of which represent the author’s views about religion. This essay argues that although “Salvation” seems like an innocent commentary on the author’s childhood, it is a blatant criticism of Christianity and religion as a whole.
The author paints himself as a lamb to highlight his consideration of innocence and show how inconsiderate and clueless the church is. In the beginning of the narrative, it is noted that the author is almost thirteen years of age. A twelve-year- child can hardly fit the description of a ‘lamb’. The author uses the concept of innocence to attract the readers’ sympathy to the plight of the innocent children who are sitting at the front bench of the church. The readers are supposed to understand that the lambs of the church cannot be blamed for any evil and they are to follow the actions of the adult members of the church. Nevertheless, the church leadership ignores this state of affairs and calls upon the lambs to repent their sins and ‘let Jesus into their lives’ (Hughes and Bontemps 158).
The readers are supposed to understand the redundancy of the need of ‘innocent’ children to be saved from their sins. However, in reality the author is not an innocent child at twelve years of age. First, the author is able to resist the urge to get into something he does not consider real. This is a sign of maturity on the author’s side. The author only succumbs to the call for salvation because the congregation relentlessly urges him to accept Jesus. The author also says that he decides to move from the mourners’ bench to avoid being the one holding the congregation’s progress. The conversation between Langston and Westley nullifies the concept of the two boys being just ‘innocent children’. On the other hand, the conversation between Westley and the author indicates that the boys are more mature and reasonable than the rest of the congregation. Even though the author clearly expresses his disinterest with salvation, the congregation believes that it has power over the will of the young boy. For instance, the preacher asks for the author’s name to make his appeal more personal. Through the focus on his innocence, the author aims to highlight how the church ignores the views of the same group it considers innocent before God. Furthermore, the authors questioned the drive behind the congregation’s motive when the Christians “prayed for him alone, in a mighty wail of moans and voices” (Hughes and Bontemps 158).
It is clear that Hughes was targeting Christian audiences through his narrative with the intention of criticizing their practices. “Salvation” is a short narrative about a childhood experience that involved the author, his family members, and the church membership. Hughes writes this narrative as a biographical account. However, he does not take the time to explain the scenario and the actions of the other characters in his narrative. Instead, Hughes writes the story in a manner that suggests that the intended readers are familiar with the situation he is addressing. Moreover, the author “explicitly targets any adult readers who have experienced a loss of faith or disillusionment in their lives” (Hatton 27).
The Christian audience that witnessed the events of Hughes’ disappointment is likely to rethink the events after being introduced to the author’s point of view. Therefore, the author’s deep emotions and expression of confusion would make the members of the congregation feel guilty for their alleged ‘torture’ of the innocent boy. On the other hand, anyone who is not familiar with the proceedings of this congregation would hesitate engaging in the congregation’s activities. The criticism of the church and Christianity in general is well packaged for the consumption of the audience. Towards the end of the story, the author emotionally recounts how for the first time in his life and as a boy of twelve years “cried and could not stop” (Hughes and Bontemps 158).
There is no shame in a boy of twelve years crying but the author uses this irony to appeal to his audience’s sympathy. Christianity is associated with social pressure and deceit. The author seems to target other victims of Christianity and mostly those who have experienced societal and religious pressure. The epitome of this pressure is expressed through the narrative; “now it was getting late…I began to feel ashamed of myself, holding everything up for so long…got up to be saved” (Hughes and Bontemps 158).
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People who have experienced this form of pressure would relate to the author’s experience. Nevertheless, religion is on the receiving end as the source of pressure. For instance, the author does not take the time to consider the ideological motivations behind the actions of the congregation. Instead, the author conveys only the actions of the congregation and their effects. If the author was just interested in the commentary about his life, he would have taken a moment to explain the background of Christianity and the motivation behind the congregation’s actions.
Hughes’ narrative tells about a succession of disappointments without redeem and they are all attributed to claims of religion. According to the narrative, the young boy has great expectations that end in bitter disappointment. Moreover, the narrative presents these expectations in a sequence that leads to the grand disappointment. In the second paragraph of the narrative, the author expresses the promises of being saved “…and Jesus came into your life! And God was with you from then on!” (Hughes and Bontemps 158).
The next lines in the paragraph indicate that the young Hughes is consumed by the thought of the rewards that come with salvation. The author recalls that he kept he kept “waiting serenely for Jesus, waiting, waiting, but he didn’t come…Nothing!” (Hughes and Bontemps 158). The author further expresses his agony by noting that he wanted something to happen to him but unfortunately, his expectations did not materialize. At the end of the narrative, it is clear that the disappointment had a lasting effect on the young boy because he cannot stop crying. The author’s emphasis on the disappointing nature of religion is meant to be observed using the point of view of a twelve-year-old boy. Therefore, the author can successfully distance himself from the views of the younger version of himself. For instance, the boy interprets his aunt’s accounts about ‘feeling’ and ‘seeing’ Jesus as literal actions. Nevertheless, the author’s disappointment with religion is unconcealed because his narrative continues with the path of disappointment without a change of tone (Chinitz 193).
A change of tone would have indicated that the author considers the naivety of his twelve-year-old version. On the other hand, maintaining the tone of disappointment suggests that the disappointment persisted until the author’s adulthood. The source of Hughes’ disappointment is the unattainable promises of salvation. The expectations of salvation apply to both children and adults. The author only addresses the disappointment of Christianity from a child’s point of view. Nevertheless, the author’s focus on his childhood experiences is enough testament of his criticism of salvation and Christianity in general.
It can be argued that the criticism expressed through the little Hughes’ disappointment is reflected in the adult Hughes. “Salvation” is more of an anecdote than it is a short story. The narrative lacks some of the fundamental components of a short story such as the usual components of a plot (Hatton 27). In addition, the focus on a single character makes the story seem like it is part of a bigger story. The story’s beginning is packed with humorous moments such as the moment when Westley gets up to be saved so that he can go home early. The humor continues with the reaction of the congregation when the narrator gives in to salvation. However, the author leaves the readers with a more realistic image of a dejected and deeply disturbed young boy. This disappointment and disillusionment is a reflection of the author’s feelings about religion. Hughes’ was growing up in the 1920s when most African Americans were experiencing the Civil Rights Movement. In his other literary works, Hughes has decried the African Americans’ religious escapism during the Civil Rights era (Rampersad 17).
In addition, readers can assume that the event in the narrative is not Hughes’ first encounter with Christianity. Therefore, Hughes’ cannot be thoroughly surprised by the events at his aunt’s church. Consequently, the narrative is supposed to trace the roots of the adult Hughes’ disillusionment with religion. Hughes’ other biographical materials indicate that he was an atheist in a period when most African Americans turned to Christianity for comfort (Rampersad 39).
“Salvation” is a narrative that was supposed to reflect on the authors’ early experiences with religion but ended up being an all out criticism on the popular religion. Hughes uses a deeply emotional narrating technique to sway the readers’ point of view on the institution of religion. The author relies on his audience’s sympathy and does not pause to reconsider the opposing point of view. Eventually, the author successfully highlights the inconsiderate, naïve, and disappointing nature of Christianity and religion in general.
Chinitz, David E. Which Sin to Bear?: Authenticity and Compromise in Langston Hughes, Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.
Hatton, Nigel. “James Baldwin: Poetic Experimentators in a Chaotic World.” The Anglophone world 12.1 (2013): 27-28. Print.
Hughes, Langston, and Arna Bontemps. The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949, New York, NY: Doubleday, 1949. Print.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes, Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.