Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year imagined the Great Plague of 1665 so vividly that the first readers thought it a genuine record. One of the religious “enthusiasts” inspired by the calamity is “the famous Solomon Eagle”, who “went about denouncing the Judgement on the City in a frightful manner; sometimes quite naked, and with a Pan of burning Charcoal on his Head”.
In James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, a satire on Calvinism, Robert Wringhim’s religiously dogmatic guardian convinces him that he is one of “the Elect” – those pre-selected by God for salvation. He is then befriended by the charismatic Gil-Martin, who convinces him that they should murder anyone who has strayed from the path of righteousness.
St John Rivers
Rivers is persuasive as well as repellent. The heroine of Jane Eyre is hypnotised by this cold and saintly missionary, who proposes that they marry and go to India together to convert heathens (and perish doing God’s holy work). Jane chooses blind, sensual Rochester, but Charlotte Brontë gives the last words of the novel to the dying Rivers.
The apparent victim in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is the young woman ostracised by her Puritan community for having a child outside wedlock. The true victim is the devout religious minister who is her secret lover who seems to have burnt an “A” (for “Adulterer”) into his own chest. Eventually he publicly confesses his faults and falls dead.
The disgusting religious sage in Dickens’s Bleak House is “a large yellow man with a fat smile and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system”. He cultivates circles of admiring old ladies and lives off their largesse.
The hellfire preacher of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm ministers to the congregation at the little-known Sussex-based Church of the Quivering Brethren. “Ye know, doan’t ye, what it feels like when ye burn yer hand . . wi’ a match when ye’re lightin’ one of they godless cigarettes? Aye. It stings wi’ a fearful pain, doan’t it? And ye run away to clap a bit o’ butter on it . . . Ah but there’ll be no butter in hell!”
Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit gave us the truly memorable character of Jeanette’s Bible-quoting fundamentalist mother. Never has scorn for Darwin been more amusingly phrased. “The family life of snails, it’s an Abomination, it’s like saying we come from monkeys.”
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible tells how this fanatical Baptist missionary takes his family to the Congo in the 1960s. The women gradually realise that the locals are fine without Jesus, and, as Nathan’s “mission” leads to one disaster after another, they abandon him to his fate.
In Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, Nathan Zuckerman tells several mutually contradictory stories of his brother Henry, a dentist. In one of these Henry has upped sticks to join an ascetic community in Israel, renamed himself Hanoch and become “a real Jew”. Nathan thinks he can talk sense into him . . .
John Updike’s post-9/11 novel Terrorist attempted to imagine the formation of an American Islamist suicide bomber. Ahmad is cultivated by a smooth-talking imam and commits himself to religious purity. His one sexual experience convinces him that righteous self-destruction is the best course.