A few chapters into Margaret Deland's John Ward, Preacher, I exclaimed, "Hey, this is a reverse Robert Elsmere." Published the same year as Robert Elsmere, John Ward, Preacher similarly traces how the clash between heterodox and strictly orthodox beliefs affect a marriage--only here with the wife, Helen, the one skeptical of orthodox dogmas and, for that matter, Biblical inspiration. By the end, though, I realized instead that JWP was much closer to Mrs. Humphry Ward's later novel Helbeck of Bannisdale, in which the Catholic Helbeck demands that the freethinking Laura Fountain abandon freethought for his own faith, ultimately leading her to commit suicide. The core of JWP Is that the ultra-Calvinist John Ward, who has married Helen Jeffrey despite her universalism, eventually concludes that their marriage cannot continue until she converts; he insists on a separation that lasts until his own death, neither one of them budging on their core principles. This paradoxically cruel devotion, which the novel emphatically praises, stands in contrast to the novel's other marriages and romance plots, including the tragicomic non-courtship of the lawyer Mr. Denner and two maiden aunts, the unhappily-married Dales, and the erratic competition between Gifford Woodhouse (good) and Dick Forsythe (bad) for the hand of Lois Howe.
The novel unfolds in tiny villages and mill towns, far away from even the hint of urban sophistication; only the visiting Forsythe, a shallow cad with a faint aura of sexual danger, comes close to suggesting the allure of European mores. As a result, the characters are both physically and figuratively imprisoned by their circumstances, with no interest in travel and about as much interest in books (which, when featured, are usually sparse or unpleasant). Thus, the clash between Helen's shocking universalism and John's hellfire-and-damnation Presbyterianism is articulated on her part primarily in terms of affect, conscience, and inner urgings: "Oh, a theological argument seems to me sacrilege, and dogma can never be an antidote for doubt, John" (99). The novel associates this non-dogmatic, instinctive theism with nurturing and charity; it is the spirit to Presbyterian's law. Both John and Helen try to comfort the widow of a dissolute man who died heroically, but John cannot match Helen's assurances that the man is not damned for all eternity, leaving the woman in a state of profound spiritual despair. (The clergyman whose pastoral duties run aground on his theological principles is a classic trope in controversial fiction.) Presbyterianism's associations with the dreaded "theology," and thus texts, suggests that the absence of books from the narrative has a greater meaning: whereas Robert Elsmere's deconversion is bookish, a matter of the mind as well as the heart, Helen's universalism is figured as a kind of commonsense truth (although, by the end of the novel, she admits that she has virtually lost her faith altogether). Equally, Helen's universalism is set against Presbyterian Bibliolatry. This is a novel with remarkably few Biblical quotations, let alone references to the Bible; Helen herself tells John that while she understands his position, she does not share his foundational assumption that the Bible has been divinely "inspired," and therefore the two of them cannot "reason" with each other (308). Helen's point here exemplifies how JWP deconstructs the controversial novel as a form. Most controversial fictions represent theological arguments as entirely one-sided, in which the dice are always loaded in favor of the "right" position, and the person in the "wrong" simply blusters or concedes immediately, whereas Helen raises the possibility that neither side is capable of judging the other. Despite Helen's lack of a wide-ranging education, John never manages to wave his magic wand and persuade her to convert, transforming the controversial novel into a drama of deadlock.
At the same time, JWP offers up a kind of loaded relativism that really isn't one. On the one hand, the henpecked Mr. Dale voices the novel's position on Helen's and John's standoff: "There is something very beautiful to me, Helen, speaking of truth, that you and your husband, from absolutely opposite and extreme points, have yet this force of truth in your souls. You have both touched the principle of life,--he from one side, you from the other. But you both feel the pulse of God in it!" (451) On the other hand, despite Helen's understandable unhappiness towards the novel's end, the narrative accidentally self-deconstructs, as all of its sympathies are observably on Helen's side. The Episcopalians, like Helen's clergyman uncle Dr. Howe and everyone else in her home village, are prissy and hypocritical, with little in the way of any capacity for self-reflection. (Mr. Dale's wife Adele, who bosses him unmercifully, believes that women should be silent and obedient...) When Dr. Howe tries to offer Christian comfort to his old friend Mr. Denner, dying after being run over by a horse, he is entirely inadequate to the task. Meanwhile, when Helen goes off to her husband's mill town, she finds that the Presbyterians are gossipy, censorious prigs who are (once again) hypocrites, with an added dose of bigotry. The fully godless characters, like Dick Forsythe, are of course louche. Only Helen and her friend Gifford, both of whom profess a theism emphasizing kindness, honesty, and self-sacrifice, escape the novel's censure (Gifford's inability to understand Lois notwithstanding). For modern readers, moreover, the novel's attempt to define the morality of an action solely by intention can be hard to take: Helen (and later Gifford) staunchly defends her husband's insistence on a marital separation because it's a sign of his "nobleness" (410), a position that finds about as many supporters in the text as John's argument early in the novel that the South seceded from "a mistaken idea of duty" (9) that, nevertheless, they could not avoid. (Here, John and Helen arrive at the same conclusion from entirely different starting points, signaling their later conflict.) To thine own principles be true, the novel argues, under all circumstances. Yet in the case of John's and Helen's marriage, that principle itself results in tragedy: their mutual heroism destroys the earthly relationship, despite their devotion to one another, and Helen does not really believe that there will be a reward in the afterlife for their sufferings. It's telling that the novel undercuts John's natural spiritual progression towards a "good" evangelical deathbed scene by eliminating that moment altogether--Helen goes upstairs and later comes back downstairs once John is dead, but the scene itself and the necessary language associated with it (witnessing, words of counsel, etc.) have been erased. Unlike Mr. Denner, whose deathbed scene is quite prolonged, although not evangelical in nature, John is denied both hope and triumph. Something about this purity of intention, for all that the novel praises it, proves incompatible with actual human thriving. Tellingly, Gifford and Lois probably do not share this extreme form of passion, but their first moment of true romantic understanding "was only part of the morning, and the sunrise, and Nature herself" (470). Such feeling may not be heroic, but its full harmony with the natural world suggests future possibilities denied to Helen and John.