Review: Damned Nation

Seth Perry

Seth Perry is Assistant Professor of Religion at Princeton University.

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Seth Perry, "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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Pop-culture guru Joss Whedon has a fan-offending rule for his script-writing: It’s not a battle if there’s no cost. To convince audiences that his characters face real and serious situations, Whedon famously kills off these beloved characters. Without ever-present risk, Whedon argues, nothing is ever really at stake in people’s actions.

Whedon’s rule came to mind while reading Damned Nation because, like his, Kathryn Gin Lum’s characters demand stakes, and they measure them in terms of death. For early-national Americans, Lum argues, the risk of eternal damnation gave life consequence. In a new nation cut loose from stabilizing norms and founded on trust in the “republican virtue” of its citizens and government, the fear of hell served as an explanatory framework for action. “[T]he fear of hell played a role in regulating behavior and belief and in shaping antebellum Americans’ attitudes toward each other and the world,” Lum concludes (233).

Lum takes the idea of hell as her starting point, rather than any particular individual or institutional bearer of the idea, which means that both hell-fearers and -scoffers come in for equal treatment. Her selection of sources, moreover, make this study a model for attempting to bridge the supposed divide between intellectual and social history. Lum’s argument hinges on the idea that the fear of hell was not merely an abstraction for theological debate, but a real, visceral presence in the lives of many early-national Americans. “Dissenters might thumb their noses at the fear of hell, but even without attending an evangelical church they would have encountered a barrage of warnings that could settle into the mind’s recesses and emerge with devastating power in the face of death or other trauma” (119). Lum takes to task both older scholarship that discounted the motivational potential of religious belief in favor of “political concepts like republicanism, liberalism, and democratization” and, in an erudite footnote, recent studies that likewise read against their sources in search of the haunting, deterministic activity of power. When our subjects say that they have done (or not done) a thing because they fear the searing pain of endless hellfire and abject, eternal separation from their loved ones, Lum argues, maybe we don’t need to go looking for some other explanation.

This argument is utterly convincing when the activity in question is evangelism. Making masterful use of sources intimidatingly broad in geographic and demographic scope (the organic presence of the West and the Pacific here is unmatched in studies of religion in the antebellum period), Lum observes the missionary pressure that fear of hell could put on the laity. Shiftless satisfaction with one’s own salvation was a recipe for damnation. Religious leaders insisted that believers risked hell themselves if they failed to help save others. Lum maps the printing and missionizing efforts of nineteenth-century voluntary societies onto this diffusion of responsibility, but her biggest contribution lies in tracing this commitment in interpersonal, private relationships. In Lum’s telling, the supposed inward-looking, individualistic nature of evangelical Protestantism comes in for serious question and the (to this reader) mind-numbing, officious moralizing of so many private communications from this period regains some of its breathless urgency. This angle on the religious populism of the early national period is revelatory.

If this were the extent of it, though, it would be difficult to observe the greater significance of hell in early-national culture. Evangelism as a hell-motivated activity is in some sense a closed circuit, after all: the fear of hell pushed believers to make other people fear hell, and so on, damned turtles all the way down. Lum is emphatic that this isn’t all, however, and maintains that the stakes of hell were present wherever “different religious bodies competed for converts, interest groups vied for sociopolitical influence, and oppressed peoples called for ultimate justice” (232).

Because proscribed and prescribed behaviors were by no means uniform across various sorts of hell-fearers, though, the significance of hell beyond strictly religious spheres is difficult to isolate. This is no more apparent than in Lum’s discussion of slavery as the great religious contest of the nineteenth century. While maintaining that “real anxiety about slavery’s eternal repercussions underlay the deployment of damnation rhetoric in the slavery controversy,” Lum is obliged to observe that other factors conditioned how those potential repercussions were defined (167). Predictably, that is, slave owners were more likely to profess the belief that slavery might save souls from hell and that abolitionists were on their way there. “At a time when the threat of eternal punishment for the unrepentant still resounded from pulpits and leapt from the pages of newspapers, it is hardly surprising that each side seized it as a weapon against those with whom they disagreed and as an argument to sway the noncommittal” (167–168).

Here, hell appears as a rhetorical device deployed in support of whichever side of the slavery discussion a speaker had already committed to, not a goad to or restraint on action in itself. Lum is not alone in grappling with questions of religious motivation vis-à-vis other ones—Mark Noll laments the instrumental use of religion in exactly this context in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006)—but she faces them with unusual directness throughout the text and in a trenchant epilogue. The result is something much more than a straightforward history of one corner of antebellum American theology. By simultaneously insisting on the motivational potential of a sincere and visceral fear of hell and on the fact that such motivations coexisted with others, Lum demonstrates how antebellum Americans lived with hell while trying to avoid living in it.