In Langston Hughes’ essay “Salvation,” the author recounts how his failure to “see” Jesus and be outwardly saved results in a deeper, more stirring revelation: that only he and not Jesus can save his soul. Although Hughes devotes much of his essay to parodying the salvation experiences and apparent hypocrisy of other church members, and he tells us that the church building is stuffy, uncomfortable, hot and boring, he abruptly changes his tone at the end.
When he describes how he cried in bed from guilt at having lied about his salvation, the reader realizes that Hughes has indeed undergone a powerful spiritual awakening: he has been saved from his own hypocrisy.
Hughes starts off his essay using apparent irony by saying he “was saved from sin when [he] was going on thirteen. But not really saved. ” (Hughes 351). This leads us to believe that he is cynical about Christianity, and we should not believe he is about to undergo any real spiritual transformation.
When he describes having attended Auntie Reed’s Baptist church when he was not even thirteen years old, we get the impression that he is not responsible for taking the experience seriously. At that age, children are impressionable and naive about religion, which they may not understand, because it offers protection at a time when they are already protected and forgiven by their parents for errors they make, or “sinful” acts. Hughes gives the impression that he is being forced to go to church because of social expectations.
He is strongly influenced by his friend Westley, who does not hide his real reason for getting baptized, which is to get out of that hot, stuffy church and get on with his adolescence. Westley tells Hughes “God damn! I’m tired o’ sitting here. Let’s get up and be saved! ” Hughes (351). Westley’s ironic and comical interjection aptly sums up Hughes’ view of how the salvation process works in the mind of an adolescent: just do it and get it over with to make your elders happy, because it’s all a game anyway.
It is only when Hughes’ aunt Reed comes and sobs at his side and is summoned by the minister that Hughes begins to break down Hughes (351). In paragraph 11, Hughes states: “Now it was really getting late. I began to be ashamed of myself, holding everything up so long. I began to wonder what God thought about Westley who certainly hadn’t seen Jesus either, but who was now sitting proudly on the platform…. So I decided that maybe to save further trouble, I’d better lie, too, and say that Jesus had come, and get up and be saved…. So I got up” Hughes (352).
Here, Hughes discovers that the mere physical act of rising in response to his summons has begun to change him internally. He may not yet “see” Jesus, but he certainly sees and feels the effects of what he has done: “Suddenly the whole room broke into a sea of shouting, as they saw me rise. Waves of rejoicing swept the place. Women leaped in the air. My aunt threw her arms around me. The minister took me by the hand and led me to the platform….. joyous singing filled the room. ” Hughes (352). To Hughes, Jesus may as well be in the arms of his beloved aunt as in the “God damn” of his cocky pal Westley.
He finds salvation in the spirit of the moment, and it feels good, if not a little confusing. Towards the end of the story in paragraph 15, Langston begins to notice what he has done wrong and feels emotionally distraught and full of neglect in his actions. He has fooled everyone into believing that he had found Jesus Christ. The only reason why he went up to the podium in the first place was to seek a way out sitting on the pews all day at church being told by the church elders, you’ll be damned if you don’t repent and be baptized! etc.
Later on that night, Langston felt not only pressured into doing this but a sense of self actualization that he wanted to truly find Jesus, but in the end he ended up not only hurting himself, but the rest of his family for lying the whole time about his true feelings and the reason why he was in bed crying that whole night. Hughes writes, “I couldn’t bear the fact that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, and I hadn’t seen Jesus, and that now I didn’t believe there was a Jesus anymore, since he didn’t come help me,” Hughes (352).
This passage provides a vivid explanation of his outlook on those around him and how he betrayed himself into lying for the sake of God. Hughes’ sadness and lack of faith came from those around him who kept on pressuring him to accept Jesus Christ into his heart. In the end, he appears to have turned away from God because he didn’t believe, rather he looked on the outside and not from within being only that he was twelve and naive.
However, the fact that he undergoes such a transformation into self-doubt and remorse at having lied—not just to himself and to everyone else—but perhaps also to that notion of God as presented to him in Church. ] What Hughes sees as his own hypocrisy can also be interpreted as his own salvation: not from a traditional baptism of water and spirit and rebirth, but of his own tears of remorse as he realizes he has been baptized into adulthood and the burdens of truth and consequence that are inescapable for Langston Hughes’ Salvation.