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Furnace of Affliction

Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America

Jennifer Graber

Publication Year: 2011

Initially, state and prison officials welcomed Protestant reformers' and ministers' recommendations, particularly their ideas about inmate suffering and redemption. Over time, however, officials proved less receptive to the reformers' activities, and inmates also opposed them. Ensuing debates between reformers, officials, and inmates revealed deep disagreements over religion's place in prisons and in the wider public sphere as the separation of church and state took hold and the nation's religious environment became more diverse and competitive. Examining the innovative New York prison system, Graber shows how Protestant reformers failed to realize their dreams of large-scale inmate conversion or of prisons that reflected their values. To keep a foothold in prisons, reformers were forced to relinquish their Protestant terminology and practices and instead to adopt secular ideas about American morals, virtues, and citizenship. Graber argues that, by revising their original understanding of prisoner suffering and redemption, reformers learned to see inmates' afflictions not as a necessary prelude to a sinner's experience of grace but as the required punishment for breaking the new nation's laws.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-ix

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pp. xi-xii

When a book takes more than five years to write, there are lots of people to thank. First, let me mention those who made it possible— materially— to write this book. For their financial assistance, I thank the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the Duke University History...

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pp. 1-13

Americans incarcerate. Though the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has almost a quarter of its prisoners. More than two million Americans live behind bars. That is one out of every one hundred adults. The United States imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens...

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CHAPTER 1. The Prison as Garden, 1796–1804

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pp. 15-45

In the summer of 1800, fifteen convicts from Newgate Prison made a “daring escape” across the Hudson River to New Jersey. New York State legislators responded by establishing an armed guard on call in the surrounding neighborhood. The prison’s agent, a Quaker and advocate of nonviolence,...

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CHAPTER 2. The Furnace of Affliction, 1805–1823

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pp. 47-71

In 1822 an evangelical press published Sword of Justice, Wielded by Mercy, an anonymous dialogue between Newgate prison inspectors and an inmate about to be released. Reflecting on the sentence he served and punishments he endured, the prisoner quotes from the book of Proverbs: “I experienced...

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CHAPTER 3. The Furnace at Auburn, 1816–1827

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pp. 73-101

In October 1826 a young minister sat in on a conversation between Auburn Prison’s resident chaplain, the Reverend Jared Curtis, and an African American inmate, Jack Hodges. Hodges was serving a ten-year sentence for his role in a murder plot. According to the visitor’s account...

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CHAPTER 4. The Furnace at Sing Sing, 1828–1839

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pp. 103-134

In 1829 Sing Sing Prison’s agent assaulted the resident chaplain and threw him out of the prison. The institution had no minister until a year later when a new head administrator took over. The new agent, Robert Wiltse, was also dubious about prison chaplains. In a report presented to the state...

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CHAPTER 5. The Furnace Transformed, 1840–1847

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pp. 135-156

In 1843 Sing Sing’s resident chaplain went to the head prison inspector to plead the case of a suicidal inmate. The inspector, a New York judge named John Edmonds, usually supported Sing Sing’s notoriously severe regime. He led an inspectors’ board aligned with Albany...

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CHAPTER 6. The Prison as Hell, 1848–1860

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pp. 157-178

On a visit to the state legislature, Quaker Isaac Hopper almost got himself thrown out of the capital. Like many Friends, he refused to show deference to government officials. When he declined to remove his hat, the assembly’s guard threatened to eject him. Hopper explained his position to the...

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pp. 179-184

Americans incarcerate. State governments began this task in the early republic and continue it today. In recent years, the pace of incarceration has quickened. Indeed, the scope of American imprisonment sets the nation apart from its world neighbors. In April 2008...


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pp. 185-208


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pp. 209-222


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pp. 223-234

E-ISBN-13: 9781469603339
E-ISBN-10: 1469603330
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807834572
Print-ISBN-10: 0807834572

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 709552663
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Furnace of Affliction

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Subject Headings

  • Religious work with prisoners -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Corrections -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Prisoners -- Religious life -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Protestantism -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
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