The dark underside to the American Dream is a fear that America is a damned nation—damned, according to Stanford professor Kathryn Gin Lum, for failing to carry out its responsibility to evangelize the world.
Hell is alive and well in American culture. The Westboro Baptist Church and other groups are well known for presenting laundry lists of sins that are damnation-worthy. Such groups are often met with laughter or outrage today, depending on the severity of the behavior, but these voices aren’t out of place: this kind of fire-and-brimstone language has a long history in the United States.
As one attendee asked, why learn about this? What is the value of learning about an apparently outmoded concept like hell? As another attendee responded, we need to think about it because it’s still alive for people today. Whether or not we believe in hell, we have to deal with the language of hell in public debates. Sometimes it crops up in political language, such as justifications for the death penalty or interventions in other countries for the sake of democracy. Sometimes we find it in religious contexts, like end-of-life pastoral counseling. Understanding the history can help with responding meaningfully in such moments.
Gin Lum, whose book Damned Nation will be published in September 2014, cautioned against oversimplifying the history of hell in America. Antebellum America can’t just be seen as a cultural backwater, lagging behind the other side of the Atlantic. Something else was—and still is—going on with metaphors of hell in Americans’ cultural vocabulary. We can’t go on thinking, as Enlightenment thinkers often did, that human history is always rolling forward toward Progress. A lot has changed, but hell still gets under our skin.
Eighteenth-century ministers came to see human beings as agents in control of their own moral behavior. This has proven to be a very important piece of the American Dream, which claims anyone who works hard enough can achieve success in the Land of Opportunity. Yet this was a departure from the earlier, infamous views espoused in Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” where God held all the power to determine each person’s future. God’s sovereignty was displaced with human agency. Charles Grandison Finney used to single out members of his congregation and place them in the hot seat while he preached. He claimed husbands and wives would have to testify against one another in the final judgment. Parents would be brought to task for the unbelief of their children. Ministers were not exempt: Timothy Merrit said ministers’ “blood shall be required at their hands” if the wicked aren’t warned, and William Meade claimed, “Witnesses against us [ministers] will be the lost souls, and perhaps also … among our executioners and tormentors.” Ministers were urged to be bold and earnest yet also tender, even for those who “deserve to perish.”
What drove this missionary zeal? In part, ministers felt there was not enough time to reach everybody. The population of the United States exploded in this period. There were only 27,000 ministers serving some 23 million people spread across a vast geography. In their urgency ministers encouraged people to see themselves as responsible for not only their family but the broader public; in the absence of a minister, any conscientious person should speak out for the sake of others’ souls. The anxiety felt by ministers was often expressed as fear for the nation as a whole, not just individuals. This also came to play a role in the language of American exceptionalism: Americans took on a sense of obligation for saving the world in order to maintain the nation’s special status in God’s eyes.
Meanwhile the public not only experienced the violence of the Civil War through loss of loved ones but also got ready access to violence through the earliest forms of photography. Among several stories of the War shared by Gin Lum were the reflections of military chaplains who had to tread a fine line between warning soldiers not to sacrifice their souls and keeping up morale. As one chaplain said, “How lamentable it will be to die for your country and lose your own soul!”
Did believers accept the ministers’ claims? Not universally. Harriet Stowe, whose unconverted fiancee and several family members passed away in quick succession, wrote a novel entitled The Minister’s Wooing in which one character cries out in her grief, “I can never love God! … And what is worse, I cannot redeem my friends!” Some people suggested the journey to heaven was a gradual process throughout life rather than the more dramatic evangelical “turn of heart.” By the mid-19th century, art showed signs of a major shift away from hellish imagery around the deaths of loved ones toward an assumption that loved ones were in heaven.
Audience questions drew out related topics like near-death experiences, the relationship of the concept of Original Sin to hell, how Satan figures into the language of damnation, and hell in modern-day fundamentalism. Many of these are captured in quotes in the Twitter feed below, so we hope you will take a moment to explore them. Most of all, we are grateful to Kathryn Gin Lum for sharing her time with the Westar community!