Thinking About Religion
Volume 12 (2016)

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Christianity in Sue Monk Kidd’s Novel, The Secret Life of Bees

Gregory Rich
Fayetteville State University

In Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, The Secret Life of Bees, the Daughters of Mary practice an unusual religion which permeates the story. In this paper, after describing the religion, I’ll try to show how it can be a form of Christianity despite a variety of appearances to the contrary.

At the start of the novel, the Daughters of Mary are made up of a relatively small group of African Americans living in South Carolina during the 1960s.  The members are May, June, and August Boatwright, and seven of their friends (Kidd 106).  August organized the group and is its worship leader.  Worship takes place at the Boatwright home on their honey farm.  As the novel progresses, the Daughters gain a few new members, including a fourteen-year old runaway white girl named Lily.

Worship for the Daughters of Mary is built around a statue depicting a strong, determined black woman whose right arm extends straight out from her body and ends in a tight fist (Kidd 70).  Even though the statue was formerly the masthead of a sailing ship, they think of it as a statue of the Virgin Mary.  The statue, called “Our Lady of Chains,” resides in the parlor of the Boatwright home (Kidd 70).  Its story plays an important role in their religion, so important that it is periodically re-told as part of their worship services. 

The story is set back in the time of the slaves.  The slaves were being mistreated; they prayed to God every night for rescue, consolation, and freedom.  One day a slave named Obadiah found the masthead washed ashore near Charleston.  He remembered the slaves’ prayers for deliverance, and he heard the statue’s voice in his heart saying, “It’s all right.  I’m here.  I’ll be taking care of you now” (Kidd 108).  He and two other slaves brought the statue back to the slaves’ praise house.  The next Sunday he told his fellow slaves that he knew the statue was from God, but that “he didn’t know who she was” (Kidd 109).  Then Pearl, the oldest slave, got up and said, “This here is the mother of Jesus” (Kidd 109). 

They knew that Mary, as the mother of Jesus, had suffered a great deal.  They felt she understood their sufferings, too. They believed as well that she had a loving, constant, strong heart.  Thinking she could help them, they “cried and danced and clapped their hands.  They went one at a time and touched their hands to her chest, wanting to grab on to the solace in her heart” (Kidd 109).  Touching her heart inspired them with strength to endure and a spirit of resistance.  Some made bold escapes from bondage, and those who remained behind lived with “a raised fist in their hearts” (Kidd 109). 

When the master found out what she meant to them, he tried to chain her away in the carriage house.  Despite his many attempts to chain her away there, she would always break free and return to the praise house.  For this reason, they called her “Our Lady of Chains,” not because she wore chains, but because she broke them.

The statue and its story passed from generation to generation until finally May, June, and August Boatwright, became their guardians.  The statue and its story had inspired their mother to become a Catholic while their father remained an “orthodox eclectic” (Kidd 90).  May, June, and August, nicknamed “the calendar sisters,” took something from each parent to make their own religion (Kidd 90).

How do the Daughters worship?  Nightly the calendar sisters kneel before the statue and say Hail Mary prayers (Kidd 191).  On Sundays, all the Daughters (and some Sons) come for worship, which includes reading from the Bible, particularly Mary’s Magnificat prayer (Kidd 107), crossing themselves, playing traditional Christian hymns, such as “Amazing Grace and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (Kidd 110), dancing in a conga line, and touching the heart of the statue.

Like many Catholics do, they celebrate an annual Feast of the Assumption, which commemorates Mary’s rise to heaven.  Near the beginning of this two-day celebration, the Daughters have a communion-like ceremony, where they feed each other a piece of honey cake while saying “This is the body of the Blessed Mother”(Kidd 226).  Then they re-tell and re-enact the story of Our Lady of Chains. 

The Daughter’s worship practices raise a number of questions.  Given these practices, can they reasonably be considered Catholics?  August says that the religion of the Daughters is part their “Mother’s Catholicism” and part their “own ingredients”(Kidd 90).  Their religion does include Catholic elements, such as, kneeling before a statue of the Virgin Mary, crossing themselves, and reciting the Hail Mary prayer.  Their religion, however, is not an orthodox Catholic religion because, unlike orthodox Catholicism, none of its worship services are built around a Eucharistic feast in which bread and wine are consecrated by an ordained priest.

Are they worshipping the statute itself then?  There is no clear indication that they are.  They may simply regard the statue as a representation of Mary, as a window through which she receives our concerns, and as a result, may intercede on our behalf with Jesus.  From this point of view, then, they are asking her to pray for them.  Kneeling before the statue does not necessarily mean worshipping it; it could just be a way of venerating or showing respect for what the statue represents. 

Are they worshipping Mary then?  If they are worshipping Mary, then their religion is not a form of Christianity, since within Christianity, Mary is not considered to be divine.  There are three pieces of evidence that they are worshipping Mary, but each piece is dubious because it is open to other possible interpretations.

Here is the first piece of evidence.  Lily, a fourteen year old runaway white girl who is intrigued by the religion, asks August why the label on the honey jars shows a black Madonna.  August answers that when the other Daughters first saw the label, “it occurred to them for the first time in their lives that what’s divine can come in dark skin”(Kidd 140-41).  This suggests that the Daughters regard Mary as divine.  But another interpretation here is that the phrase ‘divinity in dark skin` need not be referring to Mary at all; it could just be referring to her son Jesus.  In that case, the thought that was dawning on the Daughters for the first time in their lives could have been that Jesus, divine son of the black Madonna, was Himself black, not that Mary, His Mother, was herself a divinity.

The second piece of evidence comes from the Daughters celebrating a communion-like meal based on the body of Mary instead of the body of Christ (Kidd 226). Each of them feeds a piece of honey cake to another, and says, “This is the body of the Blessed Mother”(Kidd 226).  This suggests that they worship Mary instead of Jesus.  Another interpretation is possible here, though, because it is not really clear what this rite means to them.  For all we know they are just honoring Mary as the first believer, the loving Mother, or the model Christian.  If the Daughters are honoring Mary as a model Christian in her complete faith in Christ, then when they take honey cake as her body in a communion-like rite, that could just be a way of expressing their resolve to become more like her in their devotion to Jesus. 

The third piece of evidence is based on August telling Lily that Mary is inside of us and that she is enough (Kidd 289).  Saying that Mary is enough suggests that there is no need for Jesus.  A problem with this interpretation, however, is that it takes August’s comment out of context.  August is discussing whether Mary could stand in for Lily’s real mother, Deborah, who has passed away.  She says that Lily doesn’t need to touch Our Lady’s heart to get strength but can get it by touching her own heart, since Mary is inside of us.  August says, “This Mary I’m talking about sits in your heart all day long, saying `Lily, you are my everlasting home.  Don’t you ever be afraid.  I am enough.  We are enough’” (Kidd 289).  But given the context of whether Mary could stand in for Lily’s mother, Mary’s words can mean `Lily, don’t ever be afraid.  If you ask for my help, I can help due to my special relationship with my son.  Because of this relationship, I am enough to make you feel loved and protected as a child’.  In that case, August’s statement that Mary is enough does not have to mean that Mary, even leaving Jesus out, is enough.  

Thus, all of this evidence that the Daughters are worshipping Mary can reasonably be interpreted in other ways, and as a result, it does not provide good evidence that they are worshipping Mary.  Is their religion then a form of Christianity?

Even with the longstanding and ongoing disagreement about the character of Christianity, one way to characterize it is by looking for its core beliefs.  A good place to look for a consensus of opinion about its core beliefs is the World Council of Churches (WCC).

When the World Council of Churches formed in 1948 as an ecumenical group, it faced the question of core beliefs squarely when it aimed to develop criteria for membership.  The Council’s question was “What would a church need to affirm in order to qualify as Christian?” At that time, its one-hundred and forty-seven member churches adopted an answer in a description of the council as “a fellowship of churches which accept the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior” (

Soon thereafter, however, critics advocated amending these criteria to include reference to the scriptures and the Trinity.  As a result, in 1961 the Council revised its description of itself to “a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to the scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (  The member churches approved the revision by a vote of 383 in favor, 26 against, and 7 abstaining (  The revised version still stands today. 

The WCC encompasses a wide cross-section of the world’s Christians.  It has church members from “more than 110 countries and territories throughout the world,” and it represents “over 500 million Christians and include(s) most of the world's Orthodox churches, scores of Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed churches, as well as many United and Independent churches. At the end of 2013, there were 345 member churches.” (

This WCC description of itself suggests a core-beliefs standard (cf. Olson 30) for determining whether the religion of the Daughters of Mary can reasonably be considered a version of Christianity.  According to this standard, Christians affirm that Jesus Christ is God and Savior as described in the Bible and that there is one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I think this is a reasonable standard to use.  It is not so lax that almost any religion can count a Christian.  For example, an Adoptionist belief system which denies the divinity of Jesus (Olsen 234) cannot satisfy the standard.  At the same time, the standard is not so strict that only one’s own denomination can meet it.  Episcopalians and Baptists may disagree about the meaning of communion without either one being classified as non-Christian.  The WCC’s widely accepted description of Christians is the basis for the standard, and it highlights distinctive Christian doctrines such as the incarnation, the atonement, and the Trinity. 

Given this standard, I believe that we can reasonably say that the religion of the Daughters is a version of Christianity.  Their stories, hymns, and prayers provide reason to think so.  For instance, one of their hymns, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” says that Jesus is our savior, and “God sent us salvation that blessed Christmas morn” (The Hymnal 1982).  In this hymn, then, Jesus is the one savior and redeemer.  In another one of their hymns, “Amazing Grace,” Jesus, the bearer of grace, relieves our fears.  We no longer fear punishment for past sins, since his death on the cross has fully atoned for them.  We no longer fear death because we are promised eternal life if we believe in Him(Smith 316).  Hence, the hymn says, “how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed” (The Hymnal 1982)!  This hymn shows the Daughters’ allegiance to God the Father, who sent Jesus to atone for our sins.  It also makes it clear that it is Jesus, not Mary, who reconciles us to God and delivers us.

One may question whether the Daughters actually sing these hymns, and so question whether they know their lyrics enough to believe in them.  I think, however, that because of the widespread popularity of these hymns, it is reasonable to assume that the Daughters understand their messages.  For instance, whether they are singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” or not, I think it’s reasonable to assume that they’ve heard this hymn sung enough to have a joyful understanding about why they should be going to tell it on the mountain.  In playing the hymns, they worship God and Jesus.

One might also question whether they regard God as Father, since their worship does have a feminist focus.  It seems to me that they could still believe in a triune God even if they do not regard the Creator God as male. 

According to feminist scholar Rosemary Radford Reuther, the problem with the image of God as Father “is not simply that it is male, but rather that it is based on a certain construction of fatherhood or male parenting, as the paterfamilias, an all-powerful rule that keeps us, as women, children and servants, in a state of permanent dependency” (141).  Elizabeth Johnson, Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University, puts the point this way:  “patriarchal naming of God in the image and likeness of the powerful ruling man has the effect of legitimating male authority in social and political structures” (1). 

It’s not clear, however, that the Daughters would give up the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit formula.  Even if the Daughters would reject a paterfamilias Father, they would not necessarily have to reject all references to God the Father.  They could take it instead as a convenient way to refer to an incomprehensible yet loving being.

Without rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, the Daughters could also broaden its interpretation.  Though Jesus did pray to “Abba” or “Father,” they might ask whether he should be taken literally.  Johnson cites it as a rule for interpreting expressions about God that “no expression for God can be taken literally” (7).  If she is right, then what can the expression mean?  It could be metaphorical, comparing the relationship between Jesus and God to that between a child and a parent (cf. Reuther 141).

Can the Daughters be Christians if they don’t take the Trinitarian formula literally?  It seems so.  While claiming to hold the Trinitarian formula dear, Johnson says, “it is not a literal formula, nor was it ever intended to be the only way that Christians name God” (19).  One may say that tradition should be followed in naming God, but it may be traditional primarily because of the patriarchal nature of the society in which the Bible was written.

Further, there are other cases in the Bible where God is not referred to in male terms.  For instance, God is compared to a woman giving birth (Isaiah 42:14) and to a woman looking for a lost coin (Luke 15:  8-10).  Given such cases, religion scholar Bradley Hanson concludes that scripture “itself suggests that we should use female as well as male images for God” (42).

Unhappiness with the language of “God the Father” or its consequences would not force the Daughters to give up belief in a non-literal reading of the Trinity.  They do not have to subscribe to a strict patriarchal belief system to be Christians.

Their Hail Mary prayer, which plays such a big role in the Daughters’ worship, also provides support for the claim that they are Christians.  It goes like this: 

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with you;
blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.  Amen(Kidd 90 & 191; Lawler 570).

In this prayer, Jesus is specifically referred to as God, and Mary is honored because of her relationship to her divine son, not because of any divinity of her own.  She is a special woman, but nonetheless a woman, not a god.  As the Mother of God, she is close to Him, and because of this, she can help us.  Thus the Daughters believe in Jesus as God and Savior.

The Daughters also use scripture in their worship, particularly the Magnificat prayer from Luke 1: 46-55.  In it Mary praises God as her Lord and Savior.  She says,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for He who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is His name” (Kidd 107 &267; Lawler 575-76).

Praising God as her Lord and savior, Mary is not on the same level as God.  She is not a divine being, but a creature like us, yet the handmaiden of God.  Henceforth all generations will call her blessed because of her special relationship to Jesus, not because she herself is a divinity. 

There is reason to believe that the Daughters also believe in one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as well.  August, their leader, claims that she has an intuitional gift.  From listening to a bee hive, she says that she can hear deep within herself “silent things,” such as the Christmas story (Kidd 144).  In this narrative, God the Father sends the angel Gabriel to announce to Mary the virgin birth, the Holy Spirit brings about her conception, and the fruit of her womb is Jesus.  Does August believe in what she claims to hear with her special gift?  Given her beliefs about the importance of Mary, as shown by her daily prayers, it’s reasonable to think that she believes in the Christmas story and that it will be part of the Daughters’ worship during the Christmas season. 

Thus the Daughters’ hymns, prayers, and stories provide good evidence that they are honoring Mary as the Mother of God, not worshipping her.  Instead, they, along with her, worship one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and take Jesus to be God and Savior.  The view that they worship one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and take Jesus to be God and Savior makes better sense of their words and deeds than the view that they worship Mary.  Therefore, the religion of the Daughters of Mary can reasonably be interpreted as a form of Christianity.

Not everyone will agree with me about this.  I want to end the paper by considering some criticisms of my point of view. First, one may say that the Daughters’ prayers are not good evidence for their Christianity, since they may just be saying them without meaning them.  If they are, then their prayers don’t show that they subscribe to Christianity.  It is possible that they are just going through the motions, but it is unlikely that this religion that includes much of their own making would include prayers that are meaningless to them.  For instance, if I say the Lord’s Prayer every day, it is likely that it means something to me and that I mean it.

Another possible criticism is that the religion of the Daughters is not Christian since it is really an African-derived religion, and such religions are not Christian.  But this criticism fails because there is not good reason to believe that the religion of the Daughters is an African-derived religion.  According to Elias Bongmba, African-derived religions are those “religions transplanted to the Americas with the enslavement of Africans …” (Bongmba, Religion - African Disapora).  Examples include Vodou in Haiti, Santeria in Cuba, and Candomble’ in Brazil.  The traditions of such religions are traceable to West Africa and Western Christianity.

Bongmba says, “African-derived religions worship a divine being and several divinities”(Bongmba, Religion - African Diaspora - Divinity).  If belief in a supreme deity and lesser deities is part of being an African-derived religion, then the religion of the Daughters of Mary is not an African-derived religion unless they consider Mary to be a god.  We saw before, however, that there is not good reason to think that they consider Mary to be a god.  What they say and do shows that they consider her holy but not divine.  Her holiness is derivative from her relationship to Jesus, her divine son.

Dianne Stewart has a somewhat different idea of an African-derived religion.  She says that such religions “exhibit six major features that have distinguished them from Western Christianity:  1) a notion of the divine as a community (communotheism), 2) ancestral veneration, 3) divination and herbalism, 4) ritual food offerings and animal sacrifice, 5) possession trance as essential in worship, and 6) a belief in neutral mystical power which can be accessed by humans” (Stewart 21).  Nearly all of these features are absent from the religion of the Daughters of Mary.  They do not worship the community, venerate ancestors, use divination, sacrifice animals, or go into trances during worship.  Their religion does, however, contain something like the last feature, the feature regarding spiritual power.

August tells Lily that Mary’s “spirit is everywhere”(Kidd 141), that Mary’s “something inside you … a mother inside yourself”(Kidd 288).  She further says, “And whatever it is that keeps widening your heart, that’s Mary, too, not only the power inside you but the love … “(Kidd 289).  All of this suggests that Mary is some kind of spiritual power of motherly love.  Even so, that does not mean that their religion is non-Christian.  There is no conflict between Christianity and the view that Mary is inside us, as the mother of all (Warner 286), a spiritual power ready to intercede on our behalf with her divine son.  Therefore, not only is it not clear that the religion of the Daughters of Mary is an African-derived religion, but also even if it includes elements of African-derived religions, it can still reasonably be interpreted as a form of Christianity.

A third criticism is that the religion of the Daughters is syncretic and so cannot qualify as Christian.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “syncretism” is almost always used in a derogatory way.  It means “attempted union or reconciliation of diverse or opposite tenets or practices, especially in philosophy or religion.”  The Daughters’ bringing in a diverse belief or practice, however, would not mean that they could not be Christians.  That would seem to depend on whether the diverse belief or practice would conflict with a core belief of Christianity.  For instance, if Lutherans believe that only the Holy Spirit has a role in humans’ regeneration and Catholics allow a role to the human will as well, that would not mean that either one of them should then be considered as non-Christian.  Their difference concerns a secondary matter, not an essential one.  In contrast, if a polytheistic group claimed to be Christian, their polytheism would conflict with the essential monotheistic belief of Christianity.

The religion of the Daughters of Mary does not appear to be syncretic in this last sense, however.  Even though the Daughters do have religious practices that differ from those of most Christians, they still hold the core beliefs of Christianity.  Thus their unusual religious practices are not enough to disqualify them as Christians.

In this paper, I have described the religion of the Daughters of Mary:  its membership, the role of Our Lady of Chains and her story in the religion, and the Daughters’ style of worship.  Description of their worship led to a number of questions:  Are they Catholics?  Are they worshipping the statue of Our Lady?  Are they worshipping Mary?  Are they Christians?

I noted that they are not Catholics, since their worship services are not built around a Eucharistic feast; and, I maintained that their kneeling before the statue was not necessarily worshipping it, since it could just be a way of venerating what it represents.

I considered three textual reasons for believing that they were worshipping Mary:  1) the black Madonna on the honey jar label prompted the idea that the divine can be dark; 2) their communion-like feast which focused on Mary instead of Christ gave the impression that they worship her instead of Him; and 3) the claim that Mary is enough suggested that there is no need for Jesus.  I tried to show that all three textual reasons were weak, because they could all be reasonably interpreted in ways that would not support the divinity of Mary.  In referring to a dark divinity, August might just have been referring to Jesus.  The communion-like feast with the body of the mother could just express a resolve to be model Christians like Mary.  The idea that Mary is enough could just be saying that Mary can be enough to make Lily feel that she has a mother’s love. 

Inspired by the WCC description of itself, I applied a core-beliefs standard of Christianity in an attempt to determine the classification of the religion of the Daughters.  According to the standard, Christians affirm that Jesus Christ is God and Savior as described in the Bible and that there is one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   Using this standard, I cited the Daughters’ hymns, prayers, and stories as evidence for their Christianity.  From my point of view, the view that they worship one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and take Jesus to be God and Savior makes better sense of their words and deeds than the view that they worship Mary. 

It is true that because of their feminist bent, they might find the language of “God the Father” questionable.  Yet, even so, they might use this metaphorical language on occasion for convenience.  They would not necessarily be committed to exclusively male language, however, if they were willing to give the Trinity a non-literal reading.  Their unhappiness with the language of “God the Father” would not force them to give up belief in a non-literal reading of the Trinity.  In such a case, they could still be Christians.

At the end of the paper, I considered three further criticisms of my evidence:  1) their prayers are not good evidence since they might not mean what they say; 2) they are not Christians because their religion is an African-derived religion; and 3) their religion is syncretic and so cannot qualify as Christian.  In response, I argued that since they created much of the religion themselves, there is good reason to believe that they mean what they say in their prayers.  I also maintained that there is no good reason to consider their religion African-derived and that even if it has some elements of African-derived religions, it can still reasonably be interpreted as a form of Christianity.  Further I claimed that they could be Christians as long as their unusual ritual practices did not conflict with their belief in the essentials of Christianity.

In my view, the Daughters are Christians because they affirm that Jesus Christ is God and Savior as described in the Bible and that there is one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Theologian Raymond Brown has a similar view about the boundaries of Christianity.  He says that Christianity “exists in a vast diversity of different styles and forms of organization, but all are agreed that the figure of Jesus is the disclosure of God and the means of human reconciliation with him” (Brown 126).  The Daughters also agree on this, as their hymns, prayers, and stories show; and therefore, I believe that their religion can reasonably be interpreted as a form of Christianity.


Works Cited

  • Bongmba, Elias K. "Religion - African Diaspora - Divinity." 3 September 3 2008 <>.

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  • Brown, Raymond. "Christianity." Bowker, John, ed. Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. New York: Oxford, 2000. 126-27.

  • Hanson, Bradley C. Introduction to Christian Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.

  • Johnson, Elizabeth A. “Naming God She: The Theological Implications.” University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons, online posting. 2 June 2016 <>.

  • Kidd, Sue Monk. The Secret Life of Bees. New York:  Penguin, 2002.

  • Lawler, Ronald, Donald W. Wuerl, and Thomas Commerford Lawler, eds. The Teaching of Christ: A Catholic Catechism for Adults. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 1983.

  • Olson, Roger E. The Mosaic of Christian Belief. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2002.

  • Reuther, Rosemary Radford. “Feminist Critique and Re-visioning of God-Language.” 14 June 2016 <>.

  • Smith, Huston. The Religions of Man. New York:  Perennial, 1965.

  • Starkloff, Carl. A Theology of the In-Between. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2002.

  • Stewart, Dianne M. "African-Derived Religions." Glazier, Stephen D., ed. Encyclopedia of African and African-American Religions. London: Taylor & Francis, 2001. 21-22.

  • "syncretism, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 14, 2016. Web.

  • The Hymnal 1982.  New York: Church Hymnal, 1985.

  • Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York:  Vintage, 1983.

  • World Council of Churches. 16 June 2016 <>.

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