Damned Nation

Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction

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Kathryn Gin Lum
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     2014.
     328 pages.
     $31.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199843114.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Kathryn Gin Lum describes the United States between the Revolution and Reconstruction as hell-obsessed. Americans, despite theological, class, gender, and racial divisions, shared a common concern for the state of their souls in relationship to damnation. In the nineteenth century the categories of saved and unsaved were communal, and thus those who worked to save themselves and others from damnation participated in a redeemer nation and saw those who were damned as a drag on the entire nation’s salvation. Focusing in the first half of the book on the most prominent ministers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Gin Lum argues that hell proved to be a useful republican theology because it filled the vacuum left by the fear of sovereign power, and thus encouraged good behavior as a citizen. Discussions of damnation thus track familiar themes in American religious history: Calvinist accommodations to Enlightenment celebrations of individual capacity, the rise of Arminian theology, and competition with deist and Unitarian religion. Despite the increasingly optimistic and human-centric religion of the United States during the nineteenth century, Gin Lum argues that people still saw God’s punishment as a key element of their faith.

With the rise of evangelicalism and its promotion of human initiative, hell became less of an arbitrary outcome and was more directly tied to effort. Evangelical belief in hell was a great moral responsibility because it added drama to the project of converting domestic and foreign heathens. Gin Lum argues that for populations on the move, the threat of hell was often more useful than pastoral modeling and monitoring of a true Christian life. In this sense, hell was indeed meant to scare people. Terror, often aimed at women who were responsible for children, was a crucial affect of mid-century evangelicalism. Here Gin Lum draws on a broad range of print sources, including maps of damnation and catechisms that made up the popular culture of antebellum evangelicalism. These sources demonstrate the pervasiveness of hell as a discourse, but they also raise unanswered questions about the relationship of this discourse to broader antebellum conceptions of space, time, and affect (is fear holy? what did hell look like? where is it?). Gin Lum focuses on individual narratives, either from published editorials or private diaries, and we see people genuinely wrestling with a hell-focused angst. It is not entirely clear, however, how damnation related to the other associated categories of antebellum life that scholars of American religious history have been grappling with in recent scholarship (heaven, the domestic sphere, the government, or terrifying spectacles).

The payoff of this extensive accounting of ministerial and lay damnation-talk comes in the second half of the book where Gin Lum explores the Unitarian, spiritualist, Native American, and African American responses to middle-class white constructions of salvation and damnation. The creative responses to this established discourse included role reversals and inversions in which, for instance, the white folks went to hell for their hypocrisy. In the most interesting chapter of the book, “Slavery Destroys Immortal Souls,” Gin Lum shows the ways in which hell became a useful tool on both sides of the anti-slavery debate. Anti-slavery and pro-slavery proponents were able to use hell as a threat for the sins of the nation and as a description of American social relations. Frederick Douglas, for example, invoked the vision of hell and demons to describe his own experience of slavery, demonstrating the immanence of demonic sensations for some Americans. Most provocatively, William Lloyd Garrison also used the language of damnation to critique slaveholders and complacent Northerners despite not actually believing in hell as a possible outcome of personal behavior. This chapter demonstrates Gin Lum’s argument—that damnation was a dominant aspect of nineteenth-century American religiosity—with particular force, because it shows the pervasive and ethically-charged nature of damnation-talk in American culture. Finally, with the crisis of the Civil War, Gin Lum argues that ministers used the threat of an early death and the widespread fear of damnation to missionize amongst the troops. In the end, however, heaven displaced hell in Christian discourse as people tried to cope with unprecedented human loss. Gin Lum does not argue that hell faded from American life entirely (as exemplified today by highly public groups like the Westboro Baptist Church), but she does argue that heaven became more central to American thought about the afterlife.  The book sensitivily tracks theological change, carefully tracking denominational differences and distinctions between ministers and lay people’s understandings of these theological stakes. At its strongest points, however, Damned Nation inquires into hell as a cultural concept that extends beyond theology and asks how hell functioned as a broader concept outside of the traditional boundaries of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dana W. Logan is a postdoctoral fellow at the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

Date of Review: 
August 4, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kathryn Gin Lum is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University. She received her PhD in History from Yale and her BA in History from Stanford. She is an Annenberg Faculty Fellow (2012-14), is affiliated with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE) and the Department of History (by courtesy), and organizes the American Religions Workshop at Stanford.

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