Christianity is a cornerstone of life for the residents of Yoknapatawpha County. William Faulkner fills his fictional county with religious residents, from pastors to practitioners, much as the actual Mississippi was in his time. Faulkner’s religious characters come from a variety of backgrounds and individual aspects of these particular backgrounds serve as agents of characterization, motivation, and often reveal much about race, class, and family heritage. However, it is not difficult to perceive a considerable amount of societal criticism of Southern religion in Faulkner’s works; his characters are often oppressed by religion, motivated to violence by religion, or use it as means to justify racist thought and behavior. Nevertheless, there is a connection between Southernness and Christianity throughout Faulkner’s works, a connection that mixes cultural identity, history, and personality with the way his characters interpret and practice their faith.

In “William Faulkner and the Southern Religious Culture”, Charles Regan Wilson states, “William Faulkner was born in, grew up in, and wrote about the area called the Bible Belt.” (Wilson 21). Faulkner was raised as a Methodist in a time when church attendance in Mississippi was higher than it had ever been, skyrocketing after the end of the Civil War (Wilson 24). “My life was passed, my childhood, in a very small Mississippi town, and that was a part of my background. I grew up with that. I assimilated that, took that in without even knowing it.It's just there.” writes Faulkner himself, describing the presence and pervasiveness of religious culture of his time in the South (Wilson 27). Faulkner denied the claims that he was an atheist or an agnostic, claiming instead a “broad Christianity” (Wilson 26). Naturally, any realistic depiction of the South at this time would not ignore the overwhelming presence of religion and the hold that Christianity exerts on southern culture. Faulkner himself was often vocally critical of the role that religion, specifically Calvinism and the sects that have an origin in Calvinism, plays in the lives of Southerners; he deemed it a source of Southern evil and an agent that limited the potential of the region as “the absolutism, fatalism, and self-righteousness” hindered its residents (Wilson 22). However, although Calvinism and its descendants often appear as the primary, or even sole, target of criticism in Faulkner’s works, there is a problem created by Faulkner’s religious terminology that does make this sect seem more despised than others.

Identifying the specifics of the religious backgrounds of Faulkner’s characters is often problematic. Faulkner, like other writers of his time, often used words such as “puritan”, “Puritanical”, and “Calvinist” interchangeably, or used them as stand-ins for adjectives connoting the sexually repressed, narrow minded, and anti-intellectual (Wilson 23). As this somewhat ignores the different historical meanings attached to each of these labels, it occasionally creates a challenge in applying a concrete sect to Faulkner’s characters unless the writer himself gives a more direct detail, such as his distinct mention that the Burden family is Unitarian. Although these generalizations perhaps make Faulkner’s personal beliefs on the specifics of the sects of Christianity less clear, nevertheless individualized aspects of the certain variants of religion often shine through. However, there seems to be a largely negative undercurrent surrounding religion in Faulkner’s works, and the disregard to the peculiarities of sect makes the criticism of religion of a larger scale and somewhat universal. Faulkner’s religious characters, especially those of the clergy, are often presented as irreligious figures who cast aside the explicit rules of the faith in favor of more earthly pleasures. Faulkner’s religious leaders are composed of "three heavy drinkers, three fanatics, and three slave traders, two adulterers, and two murderers”, hardly a gathering of role models (Wilson 31). As I Lay Dying’s Whitfield is an exemplar of moral laxity and lasciviousness, disregarding the limitations of his position and robe to engage in a clandestine affair with Addie Bundren. The Bundren matriarch describes Whitfield as “dressed in sin”, as his priestly garb made the affair even more unholily unbecoming (AILD 174). However, despite his own opinions toward religion in the South, not all of Faulkner’s religious characters are depicted as having poor moral grounding, nor is it just the clergy of Yoknapatawhpa whom Faulkner characterizes in respect to their religion, or lack thereof. Faulkner fills his county with an assortment of laypersons wholly driven and affected by their relationship with Christianity.

Simon McEachern of Light in August, one of Faulkner’s most manifestly religious characters, is a practitioner of Presbyterianism, specifically, as the last name McEachern would suggest, the Scottish variation. In the American South, Scottish Presbyterianism was known for its strict adherence to and extreme literalism of the doctrines of Calvinism, the sect from which Presbyterianism developed, and its tenets of predestination, divinely delegated order, and the fear and repression of sexuality (Lind 315). McEachern, as he is so devout, is representative of all of these.

The first descriptions of McEachern and his home life detail his extreme dedication to the faith. McEachern is a devout Presbyterian, passing the nearer churches to attend a Presbyterian institution five miles away. “It would take an hour to drive it” notes the narrator, magnifying McEachern’s devotion to his particular sect of Christianity (LIA 147). His Bible is described as “enormous”, serving as a physical representation of his religiosity (LIA 146). His life and actions are largely governed by the tenets of his faith, which is especially visible in his parenting of Joe Christmas. Presbyterianism, through its adoption of Calvinist tenets, calls for “divinely delegated order” even in secular affairs, motivating McEachern to take a more austere approach in his raising of Christmas as a Christian (Lind 315). Much of McEachern’s dialogue in Light in August is imperative, brief, and undeniably stern; take the book”, “repeat your catechism”, says McEachern in his attempts to impose order on the unruly and young Christmas (LIA 150).

Simon McEachern also tries to impart the Calvinist and Presbyterian ideas on sexual restraint that he himself holds. McEachern’s opposition to the sexual is plainly stated and directly falls in line with the “sexual phobia” of Presbyterianism (Lind 316). After leaving Max’s diner that doubles as a brothel, McEachern tells Christmas, “Maybe you should never have gone there. But you must see such so you will know what to avoid and shun,” warning his adopted son of the dangers of sexuality (LIA 175). Here, tenets of McEachern’s faith have again governed his parenting and motivated his actions. This element of his characterization also presents itself in his late night inquiry into Joe Christmas’s suit, where McEachern deems “lechery” to be the sole purpose of the garment that is an “adjunct to sinning” (201). His religiously motivated disposition to spurn and fear the sexual leads him to follow Christmas into town, an act that leads to his death after a conflict with Christmas’ own “Jezebel” (204). This rejection of the sexual is also found in Faulkner’s characterization of Joanna Burden.

Joanna Burden, also of Light in August, and her Puritanical sexual abstinence represents a facet of a New England religious culture present in Yoknapatawpha. Her family history is centered on a change of sect; Calvin Burden’s conversion from a monastic Catholic to a vehemently vocal anti-Catholic Unitarian is a key moment of the Burden family history and responsible for the societal and mental state of Joanna Burden in the timeframe of Light in August. Calvin Burden leaves the “frogeating slaveholders” of the Catholic church and, at the birth of his son, opts to “imbue the child with the religion of the New England forbears” (LIA 241-242). Faulkner continually refers to Joanna Burden’s northern heritage, shaping her gender with the connotations that her “New England religious education” would conjure (Andrews 9). New England Puritanism and religious culture are very often associated with sexual repression in modern literature and this connection plays a role in characterizing the nature of and providing some of the motivations for Joanna Burden’s sexual awakening with Joe Christmas (Lind 322). A virgin until her tryst with Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden’s rejection of the sexual abstinence associated with New England Puritanism, described by the narrator as “the abject fury of the New England glacier exposed to the New England biblical hell”, is shocking even to Christmas (LIA 258). Faulkner describes her energetic participation in the relationship as an attempt to compensate for years of sexual inactivity, as if she were trying to damn “herself forever to the hell of her forefathers” (LIA 258). The effect of her family’s religion and the connotations that its place of origin would present is responsible for the largely virginal, cloistered existence of Joanna Burden before the events of Light in August, and leads to her explosive sexual persona after meeting Christmas. However, although her relationship with Christmas is far from puritanical, Joanna Burden is nonetheless conscious of the negative sanctions for sexuality in her religion. She recognizes that she, in the eyes of her faith, is sinning, but is so entranced by her newfound sexuality that she begs God not to save her yet: Burden pleas, “Dont make me have to pray yet. Dear God let me be damned a little longer, a little while,” hoping to extend the relationship which she acknowledges as sinful (LIA 264).

Like Presbyterianism, Unitarianism is an offshoot of Calvinism, an element of the religion’s history made much more relevant to Light in August by Faulkner’s naming of Calvin Burden. The name “Calvin” naturally connects the religion to its historical origin in Calvinism and some of the tenets of the faith of origin. Calvinist Predestination is certainly at play in the Burden family’s philosophy of race relations. “The curse of every white child that was born and ever will be born. None can escape it” says Joanna Burden’s father, explaining his belief that the white race must bear an ineluctable “burden” to expiate its sins (LIA 252). The inescapability of this curse is a wholly Calvinist notion and motivates the societal mission of the Burden family for generations. Joanna Burden works with the black communities and provides aid for black schools, subscribing to her family’s notion that there is a predestined necessity to help the race they deem “God’s chosen own” (LIA 253). This doctrine of the elect is also a very Calvinist idea (Williams 22). Here, as the Burdens view the black race as “God’s chosen own,” they then view themselves as being eternally yoked to God’s predestined decision of race relations (LIA 253). The Burden family philosophy is centered on a racial interpretation of Calvinist doctrine, a philosophy that Joanna Burden adopts and motivates her actions in not only the professional sphere but also in her relationship with Christmas. Burden’s identification of Joe Christmas as a black man perhaps leads her to her desire to help Christmas, proposing to get him through law school, which would establish him as a figure in the black community. She extends her devotion to helping the black communities, which her family’s interpretation of religion mandates, to Christmas, which despite her insistence, he spurns. However, her reaction to Christmas’s rejection to her marks another characteristic of not only her faith, but of the faiths of several figures in Yoknapatawpha, a facet that motivates several of Faulkner’s characters to violence.

Light in August presents four characters, Simon McEachern, Joanna Burden, Eupheus Hines and Percy Grimm, who are spurred into violence by the “self-licensing to physical violence in the name of righteousness” (Lind 322). Violence for the sake of religion and the maintenance of Christian doctrine in the face of a perceived threat to it occurs throughout the work. When McEachern swings at Joe Christmas at the dance, Faulkner notes “But he could not have been surprised at that, since it was not the child’s face which he was concerned with: it was the face of Satan, which he knew as well” (LIA 205). Here McEachern turns to physical violence to combat what he believed was the abstract figure of Satan made real and personified through Joe Christmas’s unchristian behavior. Joanna Burden takes a similar approach when Joe Christmas refuses to accept her plans of marriage and the role she wishes him to play within the black community. Christmas’s refusal is in direct opposition to her connection with faith; she has engaged in a premarital relationship with him, which she recognizes her New England Puritan values would condemn as sin. She forces Christmas at gunpoint to pray with her, a violent approach to reconcile her faith with her actions. However, although still religious in nature, the motivations for the violent actions of Percy Grimm and Eupheus Hines are somewhat different.

The violence of Grimm and Doc Hines represent a mixture of religion and racism, a kind of “hellfire-and-brimstone white supremacy” (Wilson 29). For these characters, religion serves as not only a justification of racist thought, but also a license for physical violence in the name of upholding a Christian whiteness and pureness. After shooting Christmas, demonizes him even further; Grimm castrates Christmas in an attempt to make him “let white women alone, even in Hell” (LIA 464). Faulkner characterizes Grimm as a carrier of Christian law, utilizing violence to rid the world of Joe Christmas’s unchristian blackness and preventing the perceived unholy, innate consequences of his blackness even after death. Eupheus Hines murders Joe Christmas’s father, whom he believes, in some way or another, “had some nigger blood” (LIA 374) He even attempts to murder Christmas when he is spotted in Mottstown, motivated by his belief that he was conceived in “bitchery and abomination” (LIA 361) and that his face was evident of the “black curse of God almighty” (LIA 374). Hines preaches “the superiority of the white race” in Yoknapatawpha’s black churches, insisting that the subjugation and inferiority of the black community are products of a vengeful and racist God (LIA 344). For Hines, Joe’s unchristian blackness makes him “unfit for existence within a white society” (Krason 45). Faulkner’s descriptions of the racist interpretations of Christianity show a clear connection between racial identity and the practice of religion in the South. Despite the opposition from characters such as Grimm and Hines who believe that race does indeed play a part in the plans and actions of God, there is nevertheless a large community of black Christians in Yoknapatawpha, which Faulkner characterizes as having a different relationship with the religion that stems from their societal standing within the county.

The fourth and final chapter of The Sound and the Fury details an Easter Sunday sermon delivered by Reverend Shegog in one of Yoknapatawpha’s black churches, a scene that reveals much about the black Christian experience in the South during Faulkner’s time. Reverend Shegog’s sermon is largely oral and not based on the reading of any specific scripture, an element of the black church that reflects the prevalence of illiteracy in the African-American community in Yoknapatawpha and in the actual American South that existed for decades after the Civil War (Hein 563). Here, as it is a “non-liturgical” sermon for a rural, illiterate community, Faulkner reflects the power of the spoken Word. The lack of scriptural readings does not soften the impact that Shegog’s preaching has on its audience; “Dilsey sat bolt upright beside, crying rigidly and quietly in the annealment and the blood of the remembered Lamb” notes Faulkner (TSAF 297). Also, Reverend Shegog begins his sermon with a more formal dialect than the one with which he ends his sermon. “I got the recollection and the blood of the Lamb” (TSAF 294) says Shegog near the beginning of his sermon, but as the sermon progresses, the same phrase is said again in a dialect seen more frequently in Faulkner’s black characters: “I got de ricklickshun en de blood of de Lamb” (TSAF 295). This abandonment of a “more formal delivery in favor of a black dialect” brings together Shegog’s congregation together where all members are bound by the same voice and suffering, a scene in which Faulkner demonstrates the transformative quality of language (Hein 561). The change in dialect serves as a means of commiseration, a unifying tone that brings together the shared suffering of the black community in a religious setting. This scene is also illustrative of Baptist practice at this time. Although it is not explicitly stated, “all internal and external evidence suggest it is a Baptist” institution (Hein 561). Preaching, and not the taking of the Lord’s Supper (the taking of the Eucharist and the drinking of the wine representative of the body and blood of Christ) would be found in Baptist Easter celebration, and Shegog’s explosive sermon certainly reflects this Baptist tradition of celebration through orality.

For better or worse, Christianity and its various sects motivate the residents of Yoknapatawpha, acting as a moral cornerstone around which much of the daily life circles. There is some obvious societal criticism of the role religion plays in the South in Faulkner’s works, but its presence and cultural pervasiveness is undeniable and multifaceted. The role of religion in Yoknapatawpha perhaps is best encapsulated in this scene of Light in August, where Faulkner details Reverend Hightower in the pulpit, preaching his sermon with the “religion and galloping cavalry all mixed up again” (LIA 64). Religion is so woven into the cultural fabric of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha that it has left the church and entered its notions of race, identity, history, and family.


Works Cited

Andrews, Karen M. "The Shaping of Joanna Burden in Light in August." Pacific Coast Philology 26.1-2 (1991): 3-12

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Faulkner, William. Light in August: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Hein, David. "The Reverend Mr. Shegog's Easter Sermon: Preaching as Communion in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury." Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures 58.3-4 (2005): 559-80.

Krason, Tim. "The Power of Religious 'Law' in Faulkner's Light in August." Publications of the Mississippi Philological Association (2005): 44-50

Lind, Ilse D. "The Calvinistic Burden of Light In August." The New England Quarterly 30.3 (1957): 307-29.

Wilson, Charles Reagan. "William Faulkner and the Southern Religious Culture." Faulkner and Religion. Ed. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991. 21-43.