Langston Hughes’ “Salvation” is apparently an account of how he lost all faith in God after taking part in a religious ceremony when he was about thirteen. I find it to be a very sad story, particularly because of the despair that Langston feels when what he expected to happen does not. However, I appreciate and admire the artistic use of grammar and picturesque descriptions he employs to bring this narrative to life.
The setting of the event is as follows. Hughes describes a revival at his aunt’s church with much “preaching, singing, praying, and shouting,” as well as many conversions, and (most importantly for the purpose of the story) the ceremony in which any children not yet “saved” are brought to Jesus.
In relating his aunt’s description about the heavenly nature of the ceremony, Hughes omits direct quotations but maintains the exclamation points that would have naturally accompanied such an account. These are followed soon after by a very short but weighty sentence stating simply “[he] believed her.” This interesting manner of isolating thoughts for emphasis is repeated twice more in Hughes’ work, and to good effect.
Next he describes the ceremony itself which begins with a sermon characterized by “moans and shouts and lonely cries and dire pictures of hell.” The preacher then exhorts and begs the children to walk up to the front of the hall, that is, to come to Jesus. This continues for a while with the children making the significant action one or two at a time until only Hughes and one other boy, named Westley, remain. The preacher is joined in his prayers and pleadings by the congregation until “the whole building rocked with prayer and song.”
Then cmes another staccato and dramatically short sentence. This time, it is made a paragraph of its own: “I still kept waiting to see Jesus.”
Hughes is shocked by Westley’s decision to pretend that the blissful spiritual renewal had happened just so that he would not have to wait any longer. Ultimately, however, Hughes decides to do the same out of shame for dragging things out so long. The execution of this decision is marked by the third and final short but not-so-sweet sentence: “So I got up.” After an eruption of joyous shouting, there was a “hushed silence” while the children were blessed.
Hughes concludes the narrative with a dramatic explanation of the real reason for his crying in bed that night. Instead of tears of joy because ‘the Holy Ghost had come into his life’ as he could hear his not so discreet aunt conclude nearby, the tears are due to a deep-seated shame for having lied to the whole congregation—having taking the Lord’s name in vain—and, worst of all, the soul-shattering despair because “[he] didn’t believe there was a Jesus anymore.”