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The role of religion according to James Fenimore Cooper

by SeekJesus, April 20, 2014

6 out of 8 people found this helpful

I am sad to see that here it is indirectly and wrongly suggested that Cooper diminishes the role of religion, or that he regards it as a "useless" in the wilderness. You're not being fair to Cooper since he is not using the character of David Garmout to criticize the role of religion in general. To assume such interpretation would be to neglect Cooper’s own position towards religion.
It's worth stating that James Fenimore Cooper was actually a religious man, and not only the great support he gave to his Episcopal Church is a testimony of it (Phillips, 1913: 6-7), but also some of his literary works and novels in which he plainly describes how his Christian faith was an important element in his life (See Cooper 1824, 1842, 1847, 1848, 1849).
You cannot be biased and generalize. Cooper is not censuring religion; what he does is to censure Calvinism. He mentions the calvinist doctrine of predetermination in the Chapter 12: as that idea that “he that is to be saved will be saved, and he that is predestined to be damned will be damned.” But in opposition we have Arminianism, the theological teaching that rejects the Calvinist views, and reassures a God-given free will. This has a historical relevance because it had been a topic of lively discussions among prominent theologians just decades before the writer’s birth (e.g. Wesley vs Whitefield).
Cooper takes the side of the Armianists who reaffirmed the role of free will and it can be clearly understood in the light of one of his later novels where he deals with the reasons why he dislikes Calvinism so much. He states: “The high-wrought and dogmatical Calvinist, in the midst of his fiery zeal, forgets that love is the very essence of the relation between God and man; the Quaker, seems to think the cut of a coat essential to salvation; the descendant of the Puritan, whether he be Socinian, Calvinist, Universalist, or any other "-ist," appears to believe that the "rock" on which Christ declared he would found his church was the "Rock of Plymouth"; and the unbeliever, in deriding all creeds, does not know where to turn to find one to substitute in their stead.” [The bee-hunter (184, Chapter XI]
You can see there that he not only is against calvinism, but also against other sects and against unbelief itself. In plain words, Fenimore sees Calvinism as a sect that forgets the true meaning of religious experience; in his words: God’s love. For Cooper, God shows no partiality towards his Creation, and people must do it neither. In one his non-fiction writings, for example, Cooper openly manifests his regret that America had failed to put into practice the Christian principles, and had instead been divided because of sectarianism:
“In America the taint of sectarianism lies broad upon the land. Not content with acknowledging the supremacy as the Deity, and with erecting temples in his honor, where all can bow down with reverence, the pride and vanity of human reason enter into and pollute our worship, and the houses that should be of God and for God, alone, where he is to be honored with submissive faith, are too often merely schools of metaphysical and useless distinctions. The nation is sectarian, rather than Christian.” [The American Democrat (183, On Religion]
All that leads us to an important topic in the novel, which has to do with equality. In another Leatherstocking Tale, (the sequel of TLOTM), Cooper would write that “God has given the salt lick to the deer; and He has given to man, red-skin and white, the delicious spring at which to slake his thirst” (The Pathfinder, 1840). We humans, Cooper states, have received a different and diverse physical appearance, but we are still intended to have equal treatment. Cora poses a question in this way: “should we distrust [a] man because his manners are not our manners, and [because] his skin is dark?” (Ch. 2). To support this, read Cooper in the American Democrat (183, where he firmly advocates for equality of rights assuring that “with an equality of civil rights, all men are equal before the law.”

Actually, the topic of equality of rights is addressed by Cooper since the beginning of the novel, when he states that the English and the French powers “robbed…the native right” to even name the place where the Mohican ancestors had lived for years. It is so grievous that Europeans fought the Natives to take the land as they pleased that in chapter 3, Chingachgook says: “we were one people, and we were happy. The salt lake gave us its fish, the wood its deer, and the air its birds. We took wives who bore us children; we worshipped the Great Spirit”." Cooper assures that european powers shouldn’t have taken that free-will away from the Natives, and through Chingachgook, he wrote: "let God judge the matter between us."
One can see, then, that some extent of recognize religious experience in the wilderness is recognized, and Cooper advocate religious experience that takes into account human's free-will, as he himself would delve a decade later: “Obstructing the progress of other nations… causes us to undervalue the high blessings we so peculiarly enjoy, to render us ungrateful towards God and to make us unjust to our fellow men, by throwing obstacles in their progress towards liberty” [A letter to His Countrymen (1834)]. But in the Last Of The Mohicans, Cooper mentions the case of the famous arminian Quaker William Penn, founder of the colony of Pennsylvania where people were treated equally, and religious freedom being promoted and the liberty of minor groups being respected. Cooper wrote of him as someone who "was termed Minquon by the Delawares, and, as he never used violence or injustice in his dealings with them, {that] his reputation for probity passed into a proverb."
In conclusion, by no means Cooper diminishes the role of religion in the wilderness. He actually revindicates it on the recognition of freedom of will and the hopes of equality of rights before God, 'The Great Spirit'. It is in this way that he begins Chapter 6:
"Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide;
He wales a portion with judicious care;
And 'Let us worship God', he says, with solemn air."—Burns
And in the same line of thought, that in the closing of The Last Of The Mohicans, Cooper shows a beautiful thought declaring that “the gifts of our colors may be different, but God has so placed us as to journey in the same path." If Cooper's religion is thus understood, it is as if he would be "a voice in the wilderness", shouting to 'make straight the ways' of equality and freedom of rights in the path where we have been found before God.


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