Dark and Stormy
Unitarian Theology in Gothic and Ghostly Literature

Susan J. Ritchie

A Review
By Frank A. Mills

April 29, 2024
Book Cover

Dark and Stormy: Unitarian Theology in Gothic and Ghostly Literature 1789-1912, Susan J. Ritchie. (2022, Harvard Square Library). ISBN: 9798357965523. 380 pages, including bibliography.

I have to admit that Dark and Stormy was not what I expected. With the sub-title, Unitarian Theology in Gothic and Ghostly Literature, I was expecting much more theology, sort of an exposition of the Unitarian theology found in the various literature of the period.

Oh, I did get theology, but in a different way than expected. The author, Susan J. Ritchie starts off with a “Critical Introduction,” and it is here that the Unitarian theology that was behind much of the Gothic and ghostly literature between 1789-1912 is found. But even here, it is not the theology of Unitarian monotheism, but rather the “theology” of the Unitarian mindset. That’s not a bad thing. It actually opens up the passages that follow in a more profound manner than would have a traditional theological treatise. Although not theology per se, Ritchie explores in depth the Unitarian theological mindset of the period.

Unitarian theology of the period was not a study of God in the theoretical sense, rather it was an enlightened quest for the numinous. In this quest, religion, empiricism and aesthetics composed a single divine science. A divine science that, according to Ritchie, intentionally and freely mixed with empiricism and aesthetics with an intentional divine quest for the numinous (p.10). The value of the quest is that it upholds reality while melding it with imagination and full participation in sublime. Such a quest is more than merely mysticism or reason, it is the melding of the two into one. Perhaps if more of us took to heart this quest there would be less deconstructing of religion.

The premier example of such thinking during this period was Joseph Priestly, a Unitarian minister and a scientist. Ritchie delves into Priestly’s ideology, as well as his influence upon his contemporaries both in England and in America. His thinking was, “God in everything, and everything in God (p. 12).” Ritchie, in her exploration of Priestly suggests that conventions such as the Gothic haunted mansion may have had its roots in the heated rhetoric that circled around the minister-scientist. Priestly himself never gave any inclination toward the Gothic or ghostly. He even debunked John Wesley for claiming that the Wesley family grew up in a haunted rectory.

Still, Ritchie reminds us that such conventions were part of a larger theological dispute that was taking place between Unitarians and Trinitarians. This was a time when real-life ghost stories were taken seriously. The Trinitarians used the lesser-spirits to support the existence of the Holy Spirit.

How Priestly’s thinking became connected to the Gothic is fully developed in the “Critical Introduction.”

Following her “Critical Introduction” Ritchie takes us on a journey through excerpts of Gothic and ghostly literature from both the English and American traditions. Each excerpt is preceded by a brief essay about the author, and essay that speaks to mindset of the author.

A reader does well not to pass over the “Critical Introduction,” for it is this introduction and the individual essay on the author that provides the astute reader with the hints needed to see in each passage the connection to the Unitarian “theological” mindset. As we read it is important to remember that each author explored in the book was part of the Unitarian Enlightenment that valued reason and human nature, yet each was able to explore in their writing the sublime darker depths of the imagination and in so doing take the reader along for adventure. A journey that combines reason with soul-felt religion, matter with spirit and head with heart. But most importantly tempers optimism with the reality of sin and evil.

All in all, an enchanting book about Gothic and Ghostly enchantment from the Unitarian perspective.

Susan J. Ritchie, PhD, is the Minister of the North Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Lewis Center, OH. She serves as the Director of the House of Unitarian Universalist Studies and faculty at the Methodist Theological School of Ohio. Her previous works include, Children of the Same God: The Historical Relationship Between Unitarianism, Judaism and Islam and How the Unitarians and Universalists Invented Christmas: An Anthology of Unitarian Christmas Stories.

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