Langston Hughes is one of America's foremost storytellers. In the short story, Salvation, (Hughes, Smythe, and Smythe, 1960)Hughes paints a picture that has comic overtones as well as a deeper commentary of the religious, social and cultural sentiments of the time. Hughes portrays himself as the protagonist in the story. He is a little boy who is brought to his Aunt Reed's church so that he might be "touched by the Lord" and experience Jesus as the apostles and early Christians did at the Christian feast of the Pentecost. (SundaySchoolessons.com, 2004) Aunt Reed describes in great detail how being touched by Jesus would feel. "And Jesus came into your life! And God was with you from then on! She said you could see and hear and feel Jesus in your soul." This is the experience that young Langston feels when he sits in the hot church on that summer day.
In order to understand the point that Hughes it trying to make it is important to summarize the story. African-American worshippers attend the church. The children, all approximately Langston's age, have been lined up in the front pew. There is knowledge of inevitability. The inevitability is that all the children will eventually be touched. Chairs have been lined up at the altar so that every child who is touched can occupy a place at the altar with the preacher. As the service commences, Hughes is naturally drawn to the activities. People around him pray and sing. The choir's voices rise to the heavens. The preacher mesmerizes the crowd with the power of his voice and the cadence. All this is designed to provoke Jesus into coming down into the hearts of the children.
Unfortunately, for Langston, none of this creates the feelings of being touched by Jesus as described by his aunt. To his consternation, he realizes that some of his friends, some of the girls, are indeed touched and take their appointed places at the altar. Try as he might, he does not feel touched. As more of the children move up to the altar, Langston begins to panic that the service is not having its desired effect on him. Finally, only he and his friend, Westley remain on the "mourner's bench." Westley finally realized that this had gone on long enough. He realizes that being touched is merely an inconvenience. So he says to Langston, " 'God damn! I'm tired o' sitting here. Let's get up and be saved.' So he got up and was saved." Langston now becomes the center of attention. He is caught between Westley's dishonesty and the fear that perhaps Jesus has rejected him. The preacher now identifies him by his name; and his Aunt weeps and prays and the whole congregation makes saving Langston's soul its sole purpose.
The entire congregation prays for Langston. Yet, nothing happens. Jesus does not touch Langston that day. The young boy is clearly uncomfortable. He also realizes that even though some of the girls might truly have been saved, there were perhaps some who were merely being disingenuous, like his friend Westley. He also noted with some relief that no untoward harm had befallen any of his friends who had been dishonest. So he decides to join them. As the congregation breaks out in joyous celebration that all the children brought to the church that day had indeed been saved, Langston gets up and slowly makes his way to the altar.
Langston's aunt is very proud of him. But he is racked with guild on account of his dishonesty. There is also an overriding fear that he would have to go on a lead a Christian life as a hypocrite -- not having truly been touched by Jesus. All these emotions come to a boil that night. Langston weeps loudly enough that his Uncle asks Aunt Reed what the matter is. Aunt Reed merely dismisses it as, " ... was crying because the Holy Ghost had come into my life, and because I had seen Jesus."
An initial reading of the story demonstrates its comedic undertones. One cannot help but smile if one can picture several uncomfortable children, dressed in clothes they were not used to wearing sitting in a church filled with screaming, weeping, praying and singing worshippers. To an outside observer, seeing the congregation coax, cajole and threaten the children to be touched by Jesus on penalty of facing the fires of Hell as the preacher describes in graphic detail might seem funny. One cannot also help be very sure that not one of the children was truly touched by Jesus. One can also be sure that perhaps not even one of the older members of the congregation and even the preacher was touched by Jesus as described by Aunt Reed. The story reads as a criticism of the hypocrisy of the entire congregation that day. On reading the story, one also realizes that this criticism should stop at that. The level of criticism should remain mild and not escalate into a condemnation of the players in the story or the Christian doctrine.
This is because though the story takes place in a church, it is not merely about religion and Christian values. After all most organized religion today and for a long time has been about society. The story is also a commentary of the social and cultural times in the country. It is also about human character. Consider the former, this story was perhaps set during the Jim Crow era. For almost one hundred years after slavery was abolished, the African-Americans remained segregated from mainstream America. Some of the effects of that still linger today. They were not allowed to drink from the water fountains or sit in the front of the bus, until Rosa Parks changed that. Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech helped show Americans that everybody was equal in the eyes of God. (West & MacRae., 1994) During those times, African-Americans were relegated to the outskirts of society. Very few could rise about menial jobs and most lived in extreme poverty. Religion was a balm. Being touched by Jesus, even if they were not really touched, gave them a feeling of belonging and participating. Hughes describes the "gnarled" hands of one of the worshippers for a reason. They presented the plight of the African-American man and woman during those times. In a world where the black man and woman only experienced hate, Jesus or even the idea of a loving Jesus was a beacon of hope. Who would fault that congregation for demanding equality in worshipping a just God?
As has been mentioned above, the story is also about character. Even among the children, and one can be assured that none of them were really touched that day. The children who were "touched" earlier were not necessarily dishonest. They were conformists. They knew what was expected of them and they did it. They wanted to feel loved and accepted. And their little dishonesties got them just that. Langston and Westley present a contrast of characters. Both the boys were the last to get up and move to the altar. This means that both of them did want to be touched. Both lied. But both handled it differently. Westley used a profanity. Langston did not. Westley was "touched" because he wanted to rid himself of an inconvenience. Langston was afraid and guilty. One might also surmise that, later that night, Westley slept peacefully. Langston, on the other hand, wept through the night. He was more sensitive to his shortcomings.
Langston was taken to church that day so that he could be "touched by Jesus" and be saved. Was he really saved? One might argue that he was, though not in the spectacular manner described by his aunt.…