There have been a lot of fictional religious communities. The Children of the New Revelation in my running serial Prophecies and Penalties are hardly the first. So I thought I’d take a look at four examples, two from the 19th century, two from the 20th.
Just as they founded some of the earliest religious communes, so, too, the Shakers figured in some of the earliest American fiction about such places. All the way back in 1824, Catharine Sedgwick (1789 – 1867) wrote a novel, Redwood, that featured an evil Shaker elder, driven by lust and greed, who intended to carry off an unwilling young woman and loot the Shakers’ bank account. Sedgwick didn’t know it, but she had formulated the most common story line about a religious commune: that hypocritical leaders mislead their followers to satisfy the leaders’ own passions. Sometimes, as in Redwood, the bad leader is an exception, but in other stories the entire community is corrupt.
Sedgwick’s own purpose in writing Redwood was to contrast good religion, meaning mainstream religion, with unhealthy enthusiasms and atheism. The Shakers get to be the people of excessive religious enthusiasm, while the title character is a man who abandoned God out of disappointment with the world. As you might expect, Mr. Redwood regains his faith at the end, and I don’t mean the faith of the Shakers.
In Sedgwick’s day, the Shakers appeared to be a threatening group, growing powerful and buying more land. By 1880, they were in decline, and seen as quaint, not threatening. In that year, William Dean Howells (1837 – 1920) wrote The Undiscovered Country. He used the fictional Shaker community of Vardley (a combination of the names of the genuine Shaker communities in Harvard and Shirley) as an Arcadian paradise, and yet one flawed because its denial of sexuality is a denial of life. And like Sedgwick’s story, Howells’s story became the prototype of many such stories celebrating religious communes as temporary refuges from the world’s cares.
In Howells’s story, a doctor and his daughter, whom he uses as a spiritual medium to communicate with the dead, find themselves stranded in a Shaker village. The daughter, who has been fading away under the unnatural effects of trying to communicate with the dead, regains her vigor in the Shaker community, and then falls in love with someone from back in Boston. In contrast, the father dies, and presumably finds out what the afterlife is firsthand, not that his daughter tries to reach him!
Both evil leaders and the commune as a refuge feature in Iain Banks’s Whit, or Isis Among the Unsaved (1995), a novel about a contemporary religious commune in Scotland. However, Banks (1954 – 2013) is writing satire, so the commune has a mix of common and outlandish features. For example, the Founder committed “self-heresies” in the early days, and the members are allowed to use telephones, but not to talk over them, only to ring another party in code. The protagonist is the outlandishly named The Blessed Gaia-Marie Isis Saraswati Minerva Mirza Whit of Luskentyre, Elect of God, III, heir-apparent to leadership of this commune because she was born on February 29. For Isis, the commune is a paradise, until someone in the leadership tries to deprive her of her position. She has to go out into the world to find the clues that will reveal the truth about the Luskentyrean faith and restore her to her former position. Not that the outside world escapes Banks’s satire. The Luskentyreans think the outsiders are too busy to be fully human and spiritual, and Banks shows that they’re often right. Which, coming from an atheist, as Banks is, is quite an unusual criticism. Toss in a room filled wall-to-wall with a bed, an illegal London squat with paid utility service, a Texas grandmother armed with lawyers, and haggis pakora among many other amusing things to make this a light-hearted adventure with a warped perspective and a serious bite.
Probably the oddest of religious communes I’ve ever encountered in fiction is by the always troubling Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965), partly because it’s a borderline example. In The Sundial (1958), one member of a family living in a mansion hears her dead father warn her that the end of the world is coming, and that only people living in the mansion will escape destruction. What happens when the rest of the family decide to believe her, and as some of the predictions come true, forms the plot of this novel. The characters, who at first seem normal, become increasingly grotesque, both because they are adjusting to the idea of the world ending, and as they jostle for their position in the family and in the future world order. Readers of her other novels, including Hangsaman, which I reviewed in an earlier blog post, will find the transition from the normal to the disturbing feels familiar, even though it takes a different form in each novel.
Those of you following Prophecies and Penalties will notice I’ve borrowed a bit here and a bit there from these books. I admit it. There will even be a touch of Sharon Falconer from Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry (1926) showing up. But the design of my story is my own.