Review: Damned Nation

Shelby M. Balik

Shelby M. Balik is Assistant Professor of History at  Metropolitan State University of Denver.

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Shelby M. Balik, "Review: Damned Nation," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Kathryn Gin Lum. Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. xviii + 310 pp. ISBN 0199843112.

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Popular notions of evangelicals in the early republic highlight heaven’s importance. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and other postmillennialists focused on how hopeful believers could prepare themselves for conversion and salvation. Evangelicals sought to perfect their own souls and everyone else’s (not always in that order) through prayer, temperance, abolitionism, missionary work, and any number of other spiritually driven reform efforts. Though Protestants disagreed as to the best way to get there, heaven seemed the destination that occupied most of their attention.

Not so, argues Kathryn Gin Lum. In her meticulously researched and engagingly written book, Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction, Lum shows how hell dominated evangelical rhetoric through much of the nineteenth century and intersected with divisive questions about politics, morality, and nationhood. At a time when Europeans, influenced by the Enlightenment, had begun to reject the ideas of hell and human depravity, Americans grappled with these concepts and debated the consequences of sin. Lum argues that the churning tumult upending American society—brought about by massive mobility, the market revolution and its social byproducts, the perils of expansion, and bitter debates over slavery—triggered anxieties that made Americans wonder about their individual and national fates. Increasingly, she observes, Americans “frame[d] their concerns about themselves and their friends, families, nation, and world in terms of divine punishment and everlasting torment” (4). Protestants in the early republic envisioned themselves, their communities, and their nation always on the precipice of hell.

Hell had a long history in North America. During the colonial period, when Calvinism underlay most Protestant cultures, many believers assumed that most of their neighbors were irrevocably damned. The Great Awakening challenged those assumptions by emphasizing the importance of human agency and authentic conversion experiences, thereby forcing Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards to reconcile the logic of free will with that of predestination. In other words, even though the Great Awakening stoked fears of hell, it also gave people paths to heaven. So, too, did liberal movements like Unitarianism and Universalism, along with Enlightenment-inspired rationalism, all of which chipped away at the power of hell in the American religious imagination.

But, Lum argues, the rise of the American republic brought hell and damnation right back to the forefront. Republicanism and disestablishment removed two of the sources of oversight that had long compelled people’s obedience: a monarch and an established church. Without those authorities, what kind of chaos might the republic unleash? Fearing moral and spiritual declension—not to mention creeping atheism—ministers embraced the idea of hell not just as a consequence of innate depravity, but also as a punishment for bad behavior. They did so even as they revised their understanding of God so as to bring divine authority in line with the character of the new republic, shifting God “from absolute monarch to moral governor” (41). But if God no longer arbitrarily damned the unregenerate and now punished only sinful conduct, then believers had to willfully reject sin to become saved. Continuing their drift away from Calvinism, ministers called for sinners to repent immediately and prepare for conversion so that they might avoid a horrifying fate.

If people could save themselves from damnation, then they could save others, too. The activist bent of evangelical Protestantism during the Second Great Awakening encouraged them to do just that. Ministers told converts that the privilege of salvation came with great responsibility: the duty “to save themselves, their communities, their nation, and their world from everlasting torment” (44). But the overwhelming task of doing so induced anxiety among those who took their spiritual commitments seriously. Anti-vice tracts and terrifying children’s morality tales described the hell that awaited those who refused to repent. Mothers (not just ornaments but also religious guardians in the home) shouldered responsibility for their families’ moral purity and eternal fates. Popular culture—tracts, sermons, games, museum exhibits, and graphic motifs that depicted ladders from heaven to hell—fixated on the looming threat of damnation. Interweaving anecdotes with material artifacts, Lum convincingly shows the extent to which hell was present in people’s everyday lives. Damnation was not just an abstract threat described in Sunday sermons; rather, ordinary Americans encountered hellish imagery every day and wondered whether they had done enough to be saved.

Not surprisingly, Lum traces the rhetoric of hell and damnation right to the twin crises—slavery and the Civil War—that brought about the United States’ greatest spiritual cataclysm. She points out that evangelicals in both pro-slavery and abolitionist camps used the idea of hell to attack their opponents. Defenders of slavery claimed they were saving heathen slaves by Christianizing them, even as they made clear to those same slaves that eternal misery awaited the impious and disobedient. Abolitionists, on the other hand, worried that slavery destroyed the slaves’ souls, because they relied on masters for religious education rather than reading the Bible for themselves and arriving at authentic conversions, which abolitionists thought impossible in the slaves’ degraded condition. Northern evangelicals seized on the idea that slavery was hell on earth for slaves, and abolitionists from David Walker to William Lloyd Garrison became convinced that anyone who perpetuated and defended the institution was damned. That group included not just slave owners, but also anyone who even tacitly condoned slavery. If slavery was the nation’s greatest sin, as abolitionists argued, then “non-slave-owners could be as blameworthy as slave owners and the North guilty as the South [and] the whole nation had to fear God’s punishment” (185).

The Civil War seemed to prove this point. For many, the war signaled the nation’s damnation. For others, it was a missionary opportunity: a war for souls, literally, on the battlefield and beside hospital deathbeds. But the trauma of war gradually reshaped people’s religious interpretations of it. African Americans continued to pray to a God who punished injustice with damnation. But whites softened their stance. Toward the end, military chaplains began to suggest that soldiers who had endured battle had prepared enough for heaven, even if they died unconverted. As an atmosphere of forgiveness settled in (among some sectors), many ministers suggested that decent people would be rewarded in heaven and only the truly un-Christian risked damnation. The war, it seemed, had been baptism enough for the whole nation.

Lum carefully notes that although the rhetoric of hell captivated much of evangelical America, some groups questioned the prevailing interpretations. Even so, she argues, the particular circumstances that made the young republic seem so vulnerable gave rise to a salient vision of hell that antebellum Christians generally shared. After the Civil War, with those conditions no longer present, hell receded in the American religious mind. Lum’s conclusion raises tantalizing questions about how notions of hell shifted in the twentieth century. But for the antebellum period, she exposes anxieties that simmered beneath the optimism that scholars have generally associated with that period’s evangelical culture. As it turns out, postmillennial optimism was only a veneer, masking fears as deep as the pits of hell.

Editor's note: corrected a paragraph break for the first and second paragraphs (27 May).