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Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction
Kathryn Gin Lum
Hell mattered a hell of a lot in the first century of America’s nationhood. The fear of hell motivated evangelicals to try to change not only their own behaviors and beliefs but also those of others too. The impulse to save one’s self by saving others influenced the social and political reform movements of the nineteenth century, from temperance to abolitionism.
To put it simply: hell was not antithetical to, but rather part and parcel of, the modern nation-building project in the US.
Evangelicals saw their success as integral to the survival of the young nation, and their failure as spelling its doom. I think this mentality continues to exert influence today. Anyone wondering why abortion or same-sex marriage are hot topics in contemporary America, even though they don’t seem to directly affect those who most oppose them, might turn to the first century of nationhood to understand the roots of this impulse.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about hell is that it’s been on the outs since the enlightenment liberated the human mind from the shackles of antiquated beliefs. Hell has not disappeared and it is not disappearing.
My book looks at a critical time and a key location in its survival: the late-eighteenth to nineteenth centuries in the United States, a nation supposedly founded on the enlightenment ideals of optimism in human ability and tolerance for religious diversity.
Excellent recent books have already called the latter into question (like David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom and Amanda Porterfield’s Conceived in Doubt). My book builds on these studies to complicate the common characterization of Americans as millennial optimists, forward-looking and confident in their ability to redeem the world. Hell survived in this supposedly enlightened nation, not as an anachronistic relic, but in order to ensure that very nation’s survival—or so its American defenders argued.
They claimed that the threat of hell was necessary to compel the orderly behavior of citizens in the new, monarchless republic. And they worried that the damnable sins of its individuals would spell the downfall of the nation itself. To put it simply: hell was not antithetical to, but rather part and parcel of, the modern nation-building project in the US.
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