• Shawn McNulty-Kowal

Knowledge, Religion, and the Quest for Eternal Salvation

It seems that religion and knowledge are often paired together by devout followers of divine text. That is to say that when discussing religious salvation, one must first aim for acquiring a complete sort of knowledge of words from God. This intersectional relationship is elaborated on in many novels and narratives that incorporate characters who are concerned with spiritual connection. One of these novels is The Bondwoman’s Narrative, written by Hannah Crafts likely in the mid-nineteenth century. The particular religions are not disclosed of all the characters, but it is made excessively clear that the protagonist of the narrative - an enslaved woman, also called Hannah - is a devout follower of Christ. The importance given to the partnership of religion and knowledge is etched out from the get-go - if knowledge is power, then religious belief is too, but is this overriding journey to wed the two easier for some than others? And, if those of whom it might be reached easier help the person who finds it more difficult, then are their intentions purely selfless or just the opposite?


The reader’s first indication of Hannah’s connection to the ecclesiastical is seen in chapter one when she meets a white woman called Aunt Hetty. This interaction is centered around Aunt Hetty promising to teach Hannah how to read and write. It is suggested that Aunt Hetty’s only motivation to follow through with this promise is that she “was thinking of our Saviour’s words to Peter where he commands the latter to ‘feed his lambs’” as this is initially the only reason given by Aunt Hetty to Hannah to teach the latter (Crafts 7). The lack of secular justification ushered by Aunt Hetty is telling of the importance given to reaching religious salvation. After reading about Aunt Hetty’s thoughts on “feeding his lambs,” the skeptic might make inquiries surrounding the sort of food given to the lambs and why God ordered Peter to “feed his lambs” in the first place. These questions are answered by a biblical translation article - “What is this food with which shepherds are to feed the flock of God? It can be no other than the Word of God. Peter declares that Christians are to desire the pure spiritual milk of the Word so that by it, we can mature in our salvation” (GotQuestions.org). By equating her teaching Hannah to that of Peter, one of Jesus Christ’s disciples, spreading the word of God by orders thereof, it is implied that her motives behind taking it upon herself to educate Hannah are not purely selfless or to benefit Hannah, alone. In fact, it seems that Aunt Hetty wants to teach Hannah, not because it would help the latter out in the long run or simply because she has a love for teaching, but because it is God’s orders and it just might make the world a bit of a better place to live in for everyone. This idea is made more explicitly when Aunt Hetty admits her motives, “I will teach you to read in the hope and trust that you will thereby be made better in this world and that to come” (Crafts 8). While the matter of Aunt Hetty’s, perhaps, selfish motives is relevant, it is also crucial to note this sort of marriage between religious beliefs and the acquirement of knowledge wed by Aunt Hetty, along with Aunt Hetty’s notion that in order to be capable of making the world “better,” one must strive to merge knowledge and religious belief together.


The active search for knowledge, it seems, is essential in reaching a state of spiritual fulfillment. This notion is implied simply by Aunt Hetty suggesting that she is doing God’s work by educating Hannah and therefore making the world a better place. By following this analysis of Aunt Hetty’s motivation to teach Hannah, a significant amount of worth is given to the quest for knowledge. Throughout The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Hannah is seen relying on and seeking refuge in religious faith. The ability to read the bible therefore proved almost vital in order for Hannah to stay composed and grounded while making her few escapades. The ability to read the bible provided Hannah with a sort of power that helped keep her sane and alive. Hannah speaks explicitly on this power during her first escape from Mr. Trappe,

I well knew the soothing and comforting influences to be derived from reading portions of the Holy Scripture, in times of trouble and affliction, and so commenced repeating many beautiful passages from the Psalms…’God is our refuge in distress, and ever present help in times of trouble’” (Crafts 55).

The value Hannah admits to religious belief and the influence divine text has on her is of the monumental kind. That is what makes the joining of religious beliefs and the acquirement of knowledge intersectional. Without learning how to read, the comfort Hannah felt from reciting biblical verses would be lackluster or even nonexistent. The reader has reason to believe that her ability to stay grounded and calm in the face of adversity, it seems, would falter. However, the implication that Aunt Hetty is doing God’s work by teaching Hannah how to read and write begs many questions, one being that if it is a case of education being necessary in order to actually attain spiritual fulfillment, then are those who are not granted access to formal or informal teachings due to social limitations, like Hannah before she met Aunt Hetty, permanently denied entrance to eternal salvation?


In her ultimate escape for freedom, Hannah looked none other than to the word of God for guidance before departure. In opening the Holy Bible to a random page, Hannah symbolically, but by chance, turned to the exact page of the story that describes Jacob’s escape from his twin brother who has plans to murder the former,


I opened it as chance directed but immediately at the place where Jacob fled from his brother Esau… “Yes” I mentally exclaimed. “Trusting in the God that guided and protected him I will abandon this house, and the Mistress who would force me into a crime against nature.” As I have observed nothing but this would have impelled me to flight (Crafts 213).


The story of Jacob and his brother Esau is an important one when read in conjunction with Hannah’s narrative because the characters and their wills correlate with the characters in The Bondwoman’s Narrative quite closely. Jacob, a homebody and momma’s boy, and Esau, a macho man hunter, are two fundamentally different brothers. After Jacob bribed his brother for his birthright to his father’s inheritance and deceived their father, Isaac, into giving him a blessing which previously belonged to Esau, the latter threatened to kill Jacob once his father died. In order to avoid this deadly fate, Jacob and his mother, Rebekah, deceived Isaac once more into giving Jacob permission to flee to Rebekah’s brother’s home in order to marry a woman from a different city and thus evading Esau’s murderous promise. Jacob was later granted his blessing by God, but never returned to his home of which he loved dearly and Rebekah was never reunited with her beloved son (bible.org).


The story of Jacob fleeing from Esau is reminiscent of Hannah’s situation in indirect, but symbolic ways. If Jacob is fleeing from a murderous brother to gain blessings and prosperity, then Hannah is fleeing an abusive Mistress - an active proponent of the institutionalized system of slavery - for the prospect of freedom. The catalyst that prompts Hannah’s escape to the north is Mrs. Wheeler’s promise to marry the former off to another enslaved man, “When she sought to force me into a compulsory union with a man whom I could only hate…it seemed that rebellion would be a virtue, that duty to myself and my God actually required it…whatever…misfortunes might attend my flight nothing could be worse…” (Crafts 212). Where Esau threatened to kill his brother as a form of revenge against his deceit, Mrs. Wheeler threatened to marry Hannah off because this would ensure the latter’s earthly unhappiness. Perhaps the more striking of the three correlations is Aunt Hetty’s character being comparative to that of Rebekah, Jacob and Esau’s mother. Rebekah provided Jacob with clever tricks against Isaac and Esau in order to move Jacob away from danger. Aunt Hetty provided Hannah with the education needed to understand and fully digest biblical scriptures which ultimately granted her with the confirmation and guidance - rather, the power - she looked for and seemingly needed to recognize in order to initiate her escape to freedom. Hannah’s reading of the biblical story coincided with her trust in God’s protective dominion. This marriage of the benefits that come with obtaining a considerable amount of knowledge with religious belief is perhaps ceremonial and it is conclusive of the novel as a whole.


Throughout the novel, Hannah reassures herself by thinking on the divine text she trusts and believes in so deeply, but it is easily forgotten that in order to entirely feel the influence the text has on her spiritual growth and headspace she had to learn how to read first. Religious belief and knowledge is not mutually exclusive in The Bondwoman’s Narrative as it is suggested in Hannah’s readings of biblical stories that the latter is first required in order to feel particularly close to God. Hannah was able to transpose the acquirement of knowledge from mere attribute to a form of power that manifested from within herself. Hannah not only joins together her religious faith with her readings of the bible, she joins together her plan of escape with her knowledge of the dangers that come with enslaved people running away from the control of those who enslave them. She claims that had not this chance flipping of the bible to the exact story of Jacob and Esau happened in the first place, her knowledge and apprehension regarding the dangers of running away would have triumphed over her desire to run away. She communicates this thought process when she writes, “I knew too much of the dangers and difficulties to be apprehended from running away ever to have attempted such a thing through ordinary motives” (Crafts 213). So, it is ultimately the joining of her knowledge concerning her readings of scripture with her very devout trust and faith in God and the protection she feels from God that prompt her escape to freedom.

While there are several instances during The Bondwoman’s Narrative where the union between knowledge and religious belief is made more explicitly than others, that merging of aspirations is a recurring theme throughout the novel as a whole. Hannah is not representative of every enslaved woman from the mid-nineteenth century - she is only representative of a likely fictionalized enslaved person’s narrative. Hannah is someone who finds solace in reciting and hearing the word of God and if Aunt Hetty’s educating Hannah on how to read and write never occurred, then the audience could only be skeptical in contemplation of whether or not Hannah’s religious faith would make her feel as bold and protected in escaping as many times as it did. Hannah’s character within the context of the novel is one that is grounded, (more often than not) calm, reserved and solitary. These characteristics of hers are for the most part unwavering and she often thanks the influence the word of God has on her for this. However, when looking at the accomplishments of the students, the education provided by the teacher should be analyzed as well. Aunt Hetty was a white woman who took direction from her religious studies to spread the word of scripture. Looking at the grander scheme of things, the reader might be inclined to think that Aunt Hetty was a prime example of the white ally - a woman who was truly after the good of humankind. However, even making note of it herself, she looked at educating Hannah simply as a means of enacting God’s will and adhering to his orders - a one way route to eternal salvation. It seems that, with a critical eye, Hannah could represent the student to a teacher who was prototypical of a fabricated version of religious connectedness to God. While Hannah was eventually able to join knowledge with sincere religious belief to form her own special sort of power, she used this power to receive earthly salvation. On the contrary, Aunt Hetty taught Hannah plainly to obey God’s will.


The weight given to the acquirement of knowledge by enslaved people during nineteenth century United States of America should not be underestimated. The power that is inherently enclosed within gaining knowledge when otherwise prohibited against doing so is an act of rebellion in and of itself. For enslaved people who followed and put their faith into a religious order to join that with knowing how to read and write is revolutionary. This discussion of knowledge and religious belief, however, is rooted in institutionalized racism and a time when slavery ran rampantly and violently. As mentioned above, Hannah was only granted access to education because she was in the right place at the right time in the presence of a literate white women who vehemently sought after spiritual enlightenment and eternal salvation for life after death. This goes to say that Hannah’s reading and writing lessons, while they were as much spiritual as they were educational, were products of racism. Aunt Hetty chose to teach Hannah, not because she fervently objected slavery, but because she chose to obey God’s will, it seems, in hopes of ridding herself of any moral responsibility living as a privileged white woman among enslaved people and privileged white men.


While the practice of a white woman teaching an enslaved person how to read and write should be appreciated and applauded, the ethics of it all, nevertheless should be questioned. Looking at the education of Hannah through this critical lens is important when discussing racism on the whole, but should readers look at the experience through as critical of lens when analyzing The Bondwoman’s Narrative in its singularity? Essentially, does it matter, in the end of it all, how the more socially vulnerable (enslaved people, such as Hannah) get the help they need for escape if it ultimately brings them to freedom? Perhaps not. But for those who subscribe to a religious doctrine, to deny them admittance to education is to deny them a different sort of religious experience. While feeling religiously devout is not dependent on your ability to read, it certainly helps when considering the refuge that is more often than not found in reading biblical scriptures. Throughout the novel, Hannah, on numerous occasions, spoke on the power she feels when reading the Holy Bible and the protection she feels as a result. When analyzing Hannah’s character and the power she helped bring to fruition by joining religious belief with knowledge, it might prove interesting to contemplate on the effects social hierarchies have on religious salvation and whether or not the journey towards that after-death reward is tailored especially for members of first class society - the members of society who never have to perform the marriage of knowledge with religious belief in the first place, those who perform it naturally and subconsciously.





Works Cited

“13. Jacob Flees (Genesis 27:41-30:24).” Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/13-jacob-flees- genesis-2741-3024.

Crafts, Hannah. The Bondwoman’s Narrative. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York, NY: Warner Books, 2002. Print.

GotQuestions.org. “What was the story of Jacob and Esau?” GotQuestions.org, 4 Jan. 2017, www.gotquestions.org/Jacob-and-Esau.html.




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