What do prisons and religion have in common? In The Furnace of Affliction, Jennifer Graber convincingly answers that the newly constructed prisons of the early American republic were physical and symbolic sites of public debate about personal redemption and social ethics. Across the transatlantic world around 1800, institutions that were designed to reform criminals gradually replaced brutal physical punishments and jails randomly housing lawbreakers along with the poor and insane. Nowhere was Christianity more visible in this transformation than in the United States. Graber examines the [End Page 215] prisons of New York State and the chaplains who not only ministered to inmates but also spoke out vigorously about policy. Theologically, these Protestant clergymen were a disparate group, ranging from evangelicals convinced of the prisoners' sinfulness to Quakers and other liberals more hopeful about character. For every step forward toward making the prison a place of disciplined labor, Bible-reading, and repentance, the chaplains faced discouraging conditions of overcrowding, violence, and renewed corporeal punishment. They were tenacious reformers who seemed nearly "haunted" by their cause, to the point that one former chaplain, living in the Midwest after the Civil War, arranged for his body to be buried at Sing Sing (p. 178). The lure of prisons for Christian reformers, Graber suggests, was the opportunity the institutions offered them to address the problem of suffering.
The way this moral drama played out in early America is the intellectual anchor of The Furnace of Affliction. To be sure, Graber's book is a well-crafted historical case study. She nonetheless highlights the religious outcome: reformers "trapped by this tension between punitive and reformative impulses" (p. 181). If prisoners were perceived as willfully sinful and hence deserving of punishment, then harsh measures were acceptable and failure to reclaim the inmates excusable. Not surprisingly, disheartening prison realities repeatedly assaulted the theologies of the chaplains and made them doubt their own good intentions. In the background, the recent legal separation of church and state made their work all the more uncertain. The chance to redeem a distressed captive population drew them to prison work, at the same time that the prospects for enduring moral reformation of the prisoners were modest at best. All these struggles exacted a religious price, Graber concludes. Contention and compromise in the secular setting of prisons eroded denominational traditions—"Quaker silence, Presbyterian prayer, and Methodist discipline"—and left a bland "religiosity of citizenship that invoked God's blessing on moral living, hard work, and obedience to secular authority" (pp. 176-77).
Prisons operating as places of reformation also strangely challenged [End Page 216] the civil society they intended to serve. Graber underscores the paradox that the nation's aspiration to be democratic advanced hand in hand with "the socially degrading treatment of criminals" (p. 182). Her analysis calls attention to how often social separation, a recurring American reform impulse, has ambiguously mixed hopes for renewal with restricted freedom. Whether citizens of the early republic voluntarily departed for utopian colonies or frontier communities or else involuntarily found themselves confined in an asylum or a prison, relocation carried the enticing promise of a fresh start without entanglements. Yet, Graber asks us to see that separation was sometimes no more than dismissive segregation. Precisely because prison reform continues today, the ethical attitude of free citizens toward the incarcerated remains a compelling issue.
No matter what the practical success or failure of Christian reformers in antebellum prisons, these Americans produced a sustained print record of official reports, religious tracts, and memoirs. They spoke out because the issues raised by prisons were fundamental to their values. Jennifer Graber has done full justice to these historical conversations in her excellent book.
Anne C. Rose teaches history and religious studies at Penn State University. Her most recent book is Psychology and Selfhood in the Segregated South (2009).