Since its recovery in the 1980s, Lydia Maria Child’s first novel, Hobomok (1824)—a Puritan historical romance set in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1620s—has been read primarily in terms of how issues of race and gender operate in the novel. However, these readings ignore the fact that the bulk of the novel is committed to representing theological debate, religious fracture, and the turbulent process by which a dissenting state church was established in New England. Child was living in the midst of disestablishment, which naturalized religious voluntarism and gave religious groups space to multiply indefinitely. The experience of a religious landscape this diverse was unprecedented and had profound effects on how religious belief was experienced. This essay uses Charles Taylor’s explication of “secularity” in A Secular Age (2007) to briefly consider how the experience of religious diversity in the United States challenges the binaries out of which European secularity is constructed and to posit American secularity as its New World corrective. Child, the essay argues, was attuned to these conditions, and Hobomok becomes an excavation of a pre-establishment moment of global contact between Indian religion and Protestantism that seeks to represent the phenomenology of secularity, to understand the motives for religious establishment, and to imagine postestablishment alternatives. The novel’s concluding vision of religious toleration achieved through sentimental domesticity—although more inclusive than the Puritan state church—nevertheless excludes Indian religiosity from its Protestant borders. Yet Child still obliquely registers how even a purportedly autonomous domesticity remains caught in processes of mutual fragilization that characterize secularity.
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Grant Shreve; Fragile Belief: Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok and the Scene of American Secularity. American Literature 1 December 2014; 86 (4): 655–682. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2811742
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