- The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America by Jennifer Graber
The Furnace of Affliction examines the role of religion in the first decades of the nation’s penitentiaries. Specifically, Jennifer Graber sets out to determine whether or not religion was at the heart of reformative incarceration in the early prisons of New York State. Close connections between New York and Philadelphia reformers is immediately apparent, beginning with Quaker Thomas Eddy, who lead efforts at New York’s Newgate Prison. Eddy took great inspiration from his Philadelphia friends who advocated nonviolence, spacious gardens, and a paternalistic philosophy. Eddy’s efforts in New York failed and his influence had peaked and waned by 1804.
This time signified a transition in both the form and philosophy of religion’s influence—perhaps the most dramatic turning point in the book. Graber shifts her focus from religious reformers (chiefly Quaker in the early decades) to Protestant chaplains who become more important as the years unfold. In this new era, the narrative of reformative incarceration shifts from one of quiet and peaceful reflection to a “furnace of affliction” in the words of the influential Baptist chaplain Reverend John Stanford, who led religious work at Newgate. Reverend Stanford’s philosophy and approach to prisoners was crucial to the larger shift in expectations for punishment. Stanford promoted “a theology of redemptive suffering” that basically endorsed the increasing use of violent means to discipline and punish inmates (58).
The penitentiary system never worked as it was intended; inmates refused to be silent and obedient; guards violated rules; reformers fought with inspectors over what was right. This dynamic was repeated again and again as Auburn Penitentiary was to be built upstate with more modern design to accommodate the growing number of inmates subject to reformative incarceration. This time Boston’s Reverend Louis Dwight became [End Page 402] the driving force in shaping the institution’s approach to religious—and penal—redemption. The state used Reverend Dwight (as it had Reverend Stanford) in this marriage of convenience that helped gain public approval for an increasingly expensive, ineffective, and violent institution made more humane by the presence of religious leaders charged with eliciting weeping confessions from inmates.
The book’s thesis might best be illustrated in chapter 4 on Sing-Sing, where the relationship between religion and the state falls apart. Sing-Sing was thought by many at the time to contain the most dangerous, unreformable criminals. This was in no small part due to its New York City location and diverse population of immigrants, free blacks, and other unwanted, despised groups. The keepers at Sing-Sing—first Elam Lynds, later Robert Wilste—embraced violent tactics for disciplining this allegedly unruly crowd. They believed religious men and reform narratives undermined their authority and were not rooted in reality. This attitude was put on trial as a great scandal involving prisoner abuse, excessive force, and unauthorized use of violence drew statewide and even national attention. While the governor fired Wilste and called for major changes, including mandatory Sunday school and an expanded library, religious leaders celebrated but never regained significant authority.
Readers of this journal in particular will wonder how this account of New York differs from accounts of punishment in Pennsylvania. I can say with confidence: very little. This fact is exacerbated by the book’s lack of concern about penal labor—the chief distinction between penitentiaries in Pennsylvania and New York in the first place. Insights of interest include the tremendous influence of Boston’s Reverend Dwight over New York’s prisons, the tireless if idealistic and futile efforts of Thomas Eddy—truly a brother to many in Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (PSAMPP), as well as the numerous voices of former inmates captured in publications throughout the antebellum period.
Graber’s analysis of the central issue at hand—religion—is careful and nuanced. But after Eddy, the idealism was lost. The Furnace of Affliction shows how central the...