The overriding theme of Langston Hughes' short story "Salvation," is of disillusionment with organized religion. As one of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes believed that African Americans should celebrate their own culture rather than looking to society's institutions.
The short story is autobiographical and begins with a statement that, in effect, announces the theme: "I was saved from sin when I was going on 13. But not really saved." These opening statements set up the dichotomy of the story and the question it asks about religion and its meaning.
In the story, young Langston attends a religious revival meeting with his aunt Reed. She tells him that if he is saved by Jesus, he will see a light. The boy believes her very literally, and waits with the other children as the preacher gives a powerful sermon. One by one the children go forward as if they had been saved, until there is only Langston and his friend Westley left seated. His friend tells him he is tired of sitting there, and so advances to the stage as if he too had been saved.
With his aunt and the entire congregation praying for him, finally Langston does go to the stage himself as if he had been saved. The congregation and his aunt are ecstatic, but he cries later on that night because he knows he did not receive "salvation" in the way he was told. He is left with questions about why nothing happened when he and his friend pretended to be saved, and a sense of moral confusion about his experiences and the expectations of his family, the church and society that return to the central theme.