Kathryn Gin Lum's Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction is an impressive work that explores antebellum Americans' persistent belief in hell, and why that belief mattered to both individuals and society.
Undergirding this book is a deep consideration of a continuous evangelical community who set the terms of the discourse. Gin Lum follows leading clergy, from Jonathan Edwards to Charles Grandison Finney, and beyond, to explain how among evangelicals the concept of hell was a moving target, refining and adapting to opponents' criticisms and contemporary contexts. All evangelicals retained an insistence that "we" (evangelicals) held absolute truth, and without full acceptance of their message, "they" (outsiders) were eternally damned. This common characteristic trumped other differences.
After the Revolution, Universalists directly opposed the evangelical hell-raisers. Two men, born in the same year and both named John Murray, distinguished by the nicknames "Salvation" and "Damnation," defended the opposing positions. Both Salvation and Damnation Murray focused largely on the social utility of their respective theologies, particularly in the cultivation of virtue. Each feared the other's theology would undermine order in the new republic. While the argument of Damnation Murray gained more adherents in general, his strict Calvinism gave way to a wider variety of evangelical expressions about God and salvation in the Second Great Awakening. [End Page 593]
Antebellum Protestants occasionally expressed anxiety over the state of their own souls, but Gin Lum notes that over time more evangelicals feared hell less for themselves than for their kin, creating in them a great sense of responsibility and anxiety for others. Missionaries and sensitive laity also bemoaned the fates of pagan sinners at home and heathens abroad. Most American Protestants considered white middle-class norms to be good indicators of salvation; consequently, damnation was more likely for those "others" who looked and acted differently from the Anglo American majority. Hell thus heightened both crusading impulses and, likely, racial chauvinism.
Gin Lum surveys a variety of dissenters from the evangelical vision of hell. These ranged from prostitutes, drunkards, and gamblers who indifferently scoffed at minsters' threats, to liturgically inclined Catholics who embraced cycles of sin and absolution that rendered their path to hell different from Protestants. (Strangely, despite their orthodox acceptance of hell, Catholics rarely appear in the work except as evangelical foils.) Groups such as the Swedenborgians, Mormons, and Spiritualists consigned hell to a small place in the afterlife, variously stressing progression through realms of heaven, multiple heavens, or evolutionary advancement of the mind as possibilities. Even some Protestants softened their rhetoric, with Horace Bushnell and Catharine Beecher, among others, emphasizing the ideal that nurturing mothers would lead far more souls into heaven than prior generations supposed. Surprisingly, Universalists do not reappear as a group after the early chapters, despite their outsized influence as direct opponents of the doctrine: This is one rare oversight in the book.
Gin Lum notes that the nonwhite heathen provided a particularly difficult challenge to evangelical tropes. Insightful Indian prophets and natives throughout the world turned the concept of hell on their missionary visitors, suggesting that hell might be reserved for those whites whose greed, violence, and closed-mindedness revealed far more damnable behavior. When applied to slavery, rhetoric about hell grew from unwieldy to untrammelled. Early abolitionists mourned that slavery damaged the moral facilities of slaves, thus consigning them to hell; pro-slavery Christians agreed enough to call for evangelization, not abolition. Abolitionists countered with depictions of slavery as hell on earth, and for those acts condemned slaveholders to eternal torment. Slaveholders responded in kind, suggesting abolitionists would earn hell for sanctioning lawlessness and violence. Finally, William Lloyd Garrison and his [End Page 594] allies, despite often holding religious unorthodoxy regarding hell for the individual, suggested the entire nation might be damned for its unwillingness to address the sin of slavery.
The Civil War serves as a culmination and continuation of Gin Lum's narrative. Throughout the war individuals on all sides proselytized fearlessly to help their friends and loved...