It's time for our first bad religious novel of the year!
[pauses for applause]
Unlike most of the authors I discuss on this blog, Annie Fellows Johnston actually has name recognition for something entirely different: the "Little Colonel" novels, set in turn-of-the-century Kentucky (and the inspiration for the Shirley Temple film of the same name). In League with Israel (1896), published right after the first of the Little Colonel series, is, by contrast, the sort of thing I tend to read, set at an exceptionally specific moment in time: in and around the second (not the first, but the second!) International Conference of the Epworth League in Chattanooga, TN at the end of June, 1895. The still-extant Epworth League is a Methodist organization, and, not surprisingly, In League with Israel is a brief for Methodist activism, both in terms of philanthropy and proselytization. Specifically, this is a philosemitic novel invested in Methodist missions to the Jews, although it also takes on such issues as hymns (really not vulgar at all!) and professional women (not always unfeminine!).
The plot, to the extent that there is a plot, is simple. A young Jewish lawyer, David Herschel, member of a Reformed congregation (like most evangelicals, Johnston doesn't like Reform Judaism), goes off to get his sister, whom his rabbi fears may be falling into the hands of...gasp...Christians. He travels in the company of Frank B. Marion, a big, booming Methodist shoeseller (but emphasis on the Methodist part), and, among others, the beauteous (albeit not yet truly converted) Bethany Hallam, complete with "halo" of "golden hair" (21). There are hints of romantic tension between David and Bethany, none of which go anywhere (he's engaged, she's being pursued by a Methodist preacher, and the novel ends without wrapping up the characters' futures). As a result, David sees part of the Epworth League conference, where he is struck (psychologically, I mean, not physically) by a converted Jew, Isaac Lessing. Lessing had been converted by a predictably annoying--er, I mean, angelic--little girl, whose prayers in church led to him "joyfully confessing the Christ he had been taught to despise" (67). David does not quite repeat that experience, although Bethany's disabled brother Jack, a proud member of the Junior League, certainly influences him. Bethany, meanwhile, has a different cross to bear: a formerly wealthy girl, the death of her father has left her virtually penniless, and she must resort to stenography in order to earn a living. As she discovers, though, trusting to God brings her a job and renters in short order, promptly alleviating her financial worries. (After reading so much Victorian Catholic fiction of late, where divine providence is just as likely to reward you with more suffering as it is more bread, it's hard not to notice that God's will works awfully...conveniently...here. Sure, her father is dead, but she gets over it, as does Lee, another orphan later on.) It is Bethany whose urgings finally lead David to read the New Testament closely, as an earnest inquirer, and prompt his final conversion to both Methodism and a self-sacrificing life as a missionary to other Jews.
As always, it's possible to find at least a couple of things worthy of note. First, the novel's relentlessly domestic vision of Methodist community (which speaks in part to the arguments recently made by Claudia Stokes, among others). This domesticity is not simply spatial, linked to the oh-so-familiar concept of a private sphere, but potentially global; it is a quality of affect and joint belief. Frank B. Marion, the oversized Methodist, offers a "warm welcome" (180) to all his visitors, incorporating them into his nuclear family; similarly, when David attends a Methodist service, he feels as though "he had stumbled by mistake onto some family reunion" (257). The Methodists are marked throughout by their homeliness, their willingness to incorporate almost random people into their community, and their love of all forms of productive home labor (farming, candy-making, sewing, etc.). Moreover, drawing on earlier nineteenth-century theories of female influence, the novel detaches home-making from any one space--hence its praise for the Deaconesses, women who go out to nurse in some of the region's most horrifying neighborhoods, as well as for Bethany's belief that "we carry our own atmosphere with us" (121). In League with Israel thus makes both genders instrumental in shaping a potentially global Christian community that has, as it were, no "outside."
In theory. In practice, the reader notices that the novel's vision of Methodist community excludes African-Americans entirely, even though they were in fact present at the Chattanooga conference. Whether the novel notices that is another issue. What the novel does notice is that Methodists insist on constructing Jews as racial and religious Others who are "outside" their otherwise domestic spiritual community. (It also notices in passing that converts face "Christian distrust"  alongside their rejection by the Jewish community, an acknowledgment found more commonly in narratives by converted Jews than those authored by Christians.) Like most philosemitic texts, In League with Israel defines prejudice in terms of some combination of ignorance of Jewish history and general dislike for Jews as a race, but nevertheless relies on a supersessionist understanding of religious history. Significantly, the prejudiced characters redeem themselves by undertaking a thorough study of Jewish history, even somehow backdating Zangwill's Children of the Ghetto to "the early days of the century" (141). To the extent that Judaism has a current function, it is as what Stephen Haynes calls a "witness-people": the existence of Jews proves that there is a God and that the Biblical prophecies are true. Frank tells David that Rabbi Barthold is "trying to rekindle the pride and zeal and hope of an ancient day" (187), resuscitating an effectively dead faith, while clergyman George Cragmore, attending a service, has a sudden vision of "the Old Temple" in the "modern" synagogue (192). Modern Judaism can thus at best embody the past in the Christian present, but Jews are disbarred from full "presentness" until they turn to Christ. According to Lessing, the convert, Jews apparently regard Christian disinterest in their conversion as a "glaring inconsistency" (75)--which, I fear, made this Jew sigh and say, "oi gevalt."