The Influence of Religion and Spirituality in Emily Dickinson's Poetry

Categories: Emily Dickinson


Religion and spirituality have a profound impact on individuals' lives, shaping their beliefs, values, and even their creative expressions. In the case of the renowned American poet Emily Dickinson, her religious upbringing and spiritual perspectives played a significant role in influencing her poetry. This essay explores the ways in which religion and spirituality influenced Emily Dickinson's life and writing. Through an examination of two of her poems, "Some Keep the Sabbath going to Church" and "Because I could not stop for Death," we gain insight into the intricate relationship between her faith and her poetic expression.

Early Life and Religious Background

Understanding the influence of religion on Emily Dickinson's poetry requires insight into her early life and religious upbringing. Born on December 10th, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson grew up in a community deeply influenced by religion, particularly due to the presence of Amherst College. Her family, well-known in the community, often hosted visitors in their home, which served as a meeting place for intellectual and spiritual discussions.

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Emily's childhood was characterized by both pleasant and strict aspects. Her father, while providing a comfortable life, imposed strict rules and censorship on the types of books allowed in the household. This censorship prompted Emily to sneak books into the house secretly. She described her father as having a "pure and terrible" heart, evoking a mix of love and fear. Despite the strictness, Emily held immense respect for her father, which was typical of the societal norms of her time.

Her formative years revealed her intelligence and creativity, as she displayed remarkable storytelling abilities, composing rhymes that entertained her classmates.

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Her love for reading and diligent work ethic became evident during her school years. Emily's education and upbringing set the stage for the complex interplay of religion and spirituality in her life and poetry (Tejvan par. 2-4).

Isolation and Familial Connections

Following her childhood, Emily Dickinson chose a life of relative isolation, an unusual path for a woman of her time. Despite her remote lifestyle, she maintained connections with her family and selected individuals who held significance in her life. Her brother, Austin Dickinson, who attended law school and married, moved next door to her, allowing them to maintain a close bond.

Similarly, her younger sister, who followed Emily's example, lived in a state of near isolation within her own home. These familial bonds provided Emily with companionship and connection throughout her life. The presence of her siblings and brother's spouse allowed Emily to navigate the challenges of her secluded existence.

Religious Landscape of the Time

During Emily Dickinson's lifetime, there was a resurgence of evangelical Christianity, which significantly influenced the societal and religious landscape. The prevalence of this religious revival made it challenging for individuals like Emily to openly express their unorthodox spiritual views. Despite her reluctance to conform to societal expectations, Emily rarely denied her Christian identity when asked about her religion.

However, her personal spiritual beliefs diverged from traditional Christian doctrine, leading her to define herself as a pagan. Raised as a Calvinist, Emily was instilled with the belief that humanity was inherently sinful, with only a select few destined for salvation. The pressure to declare oneself among the saved individuals grew during this period, but Emily never made such a declaration, resulting in her isolation from her religious peers (Tejvan par. 2-5).

Emily Dickinson's Spiritual Views

Emily Dickinson's spiritual views were complex and often at odds with the prevailing religious sentiments of her community. While her attendance at church was regular, her interpretation of faith and spirituality was nuanced. She did not adhere to conventional religious doctrines such as original sin and often demonstrated a lack of inclination toward spiritual dogma.

Despite these deviations, Emily's poems reflect her belief in a personal and intimate connection with the divine. Her faith was grounded in her own spirituality, and she approached God with a sense of humility and reverence. While she did not claim full comprehension of God's ways, she lacked the fear of divine retribution or damnation that plagued many of her contemporaries. Her unique spiritual perspective allowed her to stand apart from the religious fervor of her time (Sumangali par. 1-10).

Exploring Religious Themes in Emily Dickinson's Poetry

Emily Dickinson's poetry provides a window into her complex relationship with religion and spirituality. Two of her poems, "Because I could not stop for Death" and "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church," offer insight into the interplay of faith, mortality, and the afterlife in her work.

"Because I could not stop for Death"

"Because I could not stop for Death" is a prime example of how Emily Dickinson's religious and spiritual beliefs shaped her poetry. In this poem, she personifies Death as a kind and patient entity that comes to accompany her on a journey beyond the grave. The poem's title reflects her belief that she was too absorbed in her earthly life to be deterred by the inevitability of death.

Through the poem's stanzas, Dickinson navigates the transition from life to death. The first stanza describes death as a courteous escort, picking her up in a carriage with "just Ourselves / And Immortality." This portrayal of death as a companion reflects her belief in an afterlife and the continuation of the soul's journey.

The subsequent stanzas explore her detachment from the material world and her realization of her own mortality. The transition from life to death is symbolized by the passing of the setting sun, marking her departure from the known world into an unknown realm.

The poem's final stanza provides a profound insight into her spiritual outlook. She describes how, even though centuries have passed since her death, it feels like only a day. This concept of timelessness suggests her belief in the eternal nature of the soul and an existence beyond earthly constraints (Cullina, Chainani, et al par.7-14).

"Some keep the Sabbath going to Church"

In "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church," Emily Dickinson delves into the theme of faith and spirituality in a more direct manner. The poem explores various ways in which individuals maintain their religious practices. While some attend church services, the poet herself adopts a different approach.

The first stanza presents a contrast between those who attend church to observe the Sabbath and the poet's personal choice to keep the Sabbath by staying at home. This decision reflects her belief that her spirituality can thrive outside the confines of a church building.

The second stanza delves into the concept of outward displays of faith, as some individuals wear their religious robes as symbols of their righteousness. In contrast, Emily Dickinson asserts that true faith does not require external validation. Those who are genuinely faithful do not need to prove their devotion through outward displays.

The final stanza of the poem emphasizes the omnipresence of God's preaching. It conveys the idea that God's presence and guidance are not confined to the physical space of a church. Regardless of where one chooses to observe the Sabbath, God's teachings remain constant and ever-present (Exposing the Hypocrisy of Religion in Emily Dickinson's "Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church" par. 1-6).


Emily Dickinson's poetry is a testament to the profound influence of religion and spirituality on her life and creative expression. Her unique spiritual perspective, shaped by her upbringing and personal beliefs, set her apart from the religious fervor of her time. Through poems like "Because I could not stop for Death" and "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church," she explores themes of mortality, faith, and the afterlife.

Emily Dickinson's poetry invites readers to contemplate the intimate and personal nature of spirituality, emphasizing the idea that one's faith need not conform to societal norms or outward displays. Her work continues to resonate with those who appreciate the depth and complexity of the human soul's journey toward understanding the divine.

Updated: Oct 31, 2023
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The Influence of Religion and Spirituality in Emily Dickinson's Poetry. (2016, Mar 23). Retrieved from

The Influence of Religion and Spirituality in Emily Dickinson's Poetry essay
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