Amid a civilisation replete with "ministers" — for we at least knew the word — actively, competitively, indeed as would often appear quite violently, ministering, so little sense of a brush against approved examples was ever to attend me that I had finally to draw my nearest sufficiency of a true image from pictures of a social order largely alien to our own.

Henry James, who seems to have really enjoyed himself when describing his religious upbringing, reports that his family lived so distantly from usual Christian practices that he only learned about clergymen from novels. “I scarce remember, as to all our young time, the crossing of our threshold by any faint shade of an ecclesiastical presence, or the lightest encounter with any such elsewhere.” In fact, ministers and priests of any denomination remained “such creatures of pure hearsay that when late in my teens, and in particular after my twentieth year, I began to see them portrayed by George Eliot and Anthony Trollope the effect was a disclosure of a new and romantic species” (338).

In trying to explain the nature of the religious milieu in which he was raised James continually encounters problems created by his father’s Swedenborgian beliefs, beliefs that produced a spiritual environment that was so pure, so unusual, that other people would not recognize it as religious. Although the household was not religious in ways that people on either side of the Atlantic might recognize, it was permeated by discussions of “that "spiritual world" which we were in the habit of hearing as freely alluded to as we heard the prospect of dinner or the call of the postman” (337). True, occasionally his father and the family followed quite orthodox practices, and James as a young boy reacted in the usual way young boys do. For example, “my father liked in our quite younger period to read us chapters from the New Testament and the Old, and I hope we liked to listen to them—though I recall their seeming dreary from their association with school practice; but that was the sole approach to a challenge of our complete freedom of inward, not less than our natural ingenuity of outward, experience” (336).

Yes, there was “something perpetually fine going on” in the James family, but its idiosyncratic nature forces James to rely on his characteristically layered style filled with qualifications when describing his family’s approach to religion and spirituality. For example, he tells us, “it is not too much to say, I think, that our religious education, so far as we had any, consisted wholly in that loose yet enlightening impression: I say so far as we had any in spite of my very definitely holding that it would absolutely not have been possible to us, in the measure of our sensibility, to breathe more the air of that reference to an order of goodness and power greater than any this world by itself can show which we understand as the religious spirit” (334). James practically stutters with his qualifications–“not too much to say,” “I think,” “so far as,” “to a degree” — but he manages to tell us that his father’s Swedenborgian beliefs and inquiries produced an amalgam of Philosophy and religion so unusual that most of his contemporaries would not, could not, see it as a religion even though it was “as striking an expression of the religious spirit surely as ever was put forth” (335) and in fact “fairly outdistanc[ed] all theologies.” Part of the problem, of course, lay in “the fact . . . that his religion was nothing if not a philosophy, extraordinarily complex and worked out and original, intensely personal as an exposition, yet” applicable “to the whole field of consciousness, nature and society, history, knowledge, all human relations and questions, every pulse of the process of our destiny.” His father had worked out “a religion that was so systematically a philosophy, a philosophy that . . . met by itself the whole question of the attitude of ‘worship’ as well as questions of “education, acquisition, material vindication, what is called success generally. In the beauty of the whole thing, again, I lose myself” (335-36).

Unwilling to force or even try to persuade his children to accept any particular orthodox belief, the elder Henry James gave his children freedom to think for themselves, a freedom that his son confesses created as many problems as it solved. “The freedom from pressure that we enjoyed in every direction, all those immunities and exemptions that had been, in protracted childhood, positively embarrassing to us, as I have already noted, before the framework, ecclesiastical and mercantile, squared at us as with reprobation from other households” (336) For example, family wealth inherited from the grandfather meant that the sons did not have to work, but, as James points out, in an America devoted to work and earning money in which people were proud that they were “in business” that left his children embarrassed because they did not fit in. The same is true about the effects of his father’s approach to religion and spirituality: yes, it freed his children from the various demands many of their contemporaries faced. The boys did not, like John Ruskin, have to memorize the Bible, learn to interpret every detail of the Old Testament as referring to Christ, listen two long sermons at apparently endless services every Sunday, and experience a gloomy day of rest during which one could not read novels or poetry. They did not have to worry about the state of their souls or fear eternal damnation. Their freedom from Victorian religion came at the cost of again making them outsiders. James explains, “I was troubled all along just by this particular crookedness of our being so extremely religious without having, as it were, anything in the least classified or striking to show for it.” In other words, “the measure of other-worldliness pervading our premises was rather a waste” since it didn’t project a “single one of those usual symptoms of propriety.” As a child and young man, he thought “life would under the common equipment be somehow more amusing; and this even though, as I don't forget, there was not an item of the detail of devotional practice that we had been so much as allowed to divine.” Inverting the usual ways of describing Sabbatarian sabbaths, which forbade all indulgence in secular pleasures, James tells us his family “indulged in no shade of an approach to ‘keeping Sunday’” (337).

Related material


James, Henry. in Autobiography. Ed. F. W. Dupee/ New York: Criterion Books, 1956.

James, Henry. Notes of a Son and Brother. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913. Project Gutenberg online version produced by Chuck Greif and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.

Last modified 19 April 2020