Damned Nation: Hell in America from Revolution to Reconstruction

Kathryn Gin Lum

Kathryn Gin Lum

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.

Protestant ladder (Source: Oregon History

This Protestant "ladder" from the Oregon History Project website depicts the wide path to destruction and narrow path to salvation, with the Pope falling into hell's fires.

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!


Infographic: What Does the New Testament Say about Homosexuality?

What does the New Testament say about homosexuality

What does the New Testament say about homosexuality? The infographic below is based on an article by Westar Fellow William O. Walker Jr., Jennie Farris King Professor Emeritus of Religion at Trinity University. You can read the full article here.

It's important to realize we can't take the historical attitudes of the past and apply them uncritically to today. This is called anachronism: misplacing persons, objects, and customs of one era into another. No matter where we fall in the spectrum of attitudes surrounding gender and sexuality in Christian denominations today, we need to be cautious about grabbing from the past to prove our points.

That said, we can challenge common assumptions by pointing out that the past isn't as clear-cut as we sometimes would like it to be. Diversity existed in the past, too. There were all kinds of Christians. Even the writers of books that appear in the New Testament didn't all share the same theology. Sometimes they even edited each other's work to suit their own communities' needs and beliefs! The Apostle Paul regularly complained about missionaries with alternate messages for his communities. An early Christian handbook known as the Didache provided instructions for at least one Christian community to test the validity of itinerant preachers.

To quote Anne Lamott in Traveling Mercies, "If the God you believe in hates all the same people you do, then you know you've created God in your own image." History, especially the history of religion, is more complex and more diverse than we usually imagine, and it doesn't easily fit into modern categories.

“Where Have You Laid Him?” An Appeal to Study Christian Origins

Revelations about the historical Jesus, Christian origins, and related topics can come as a shock. To cite a few common surprises, often the first to startle people into historical consciousness, consider these: Matthew and Luke relied on Mark to write their gospels. Furthermore, since the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were assigned to gospels by believers, not appended to the manuscript as in modern times, we don't really know who wrote the gospels. The Apostle Paul certainly wrote some of the letters attributed to him, but some letters are almost universally rejected: 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, for example. Likewise, the Jesus Seminar is famous for pointing out that Jesus didn't say every word attributed to him in the New Testament.

Such information might not be upsetting to someone who sees the Bible as literature or as a collection of texts. But for those of us who were raised within the Christian tradition, or surrounded by it in our culture, we can be left reeling. As one person asked recently at a Westar event, "What am I supposed to take home from this?"

In other words, is there nothing left? Does Christianity disintegrate under a withering historical lens? At the Fall 2013 Meeting, Westar Fellows Dennis E. Smith and Dennis MacDonald discussed this topic with attendees. You can hear their thoughts in the audio clip below.

This topic has come up before. Last October Tara Isabella Burton made an appeal to study theology in this article for The Atlantic. She writes, "If history and comparative religion alike offer us perspective on world events from the 'outside,' the study of theology offers us a chance to study those same events 'from within': an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who—in the world outside the ivory tower—still shape plenty of the world today."

Alana Burton soon responded in Religion Dispatches, "Burton is right to implore non-theists to 'engage with the great questions—and questioners—of history on their own terms.' But to discuss the great questions and questioners in the past tense is to suggest that the most important theological questions have already been asked and answered. Theological inquiry has present and pressing applications in the world and we would be wise not to leave all the fun to historians and the clergy."

Is it unfair to challenge our assumptions about early Christian history? In his book A Scandalous Jesus, Westar Fellow Joseph Bessler defends professors' right to challenge their students to think critically. "Can one also imagine, I wonder, the gall of professors in other graduate departments, in physics, for example, or psychology, or cultural anthropology 'forcing' their students to learn a methodology: How outrageous!" In The Craft of History and the Study of New Testament, Beth M. Sheppard expresses concern for the lack of historical consciousness sometimes present in biblical studies. But she also points out that a historical approach can still be flexible and doesn't necessarily lead to a single conclusion. "History is the arena in which we explore the past. Not every historian will come to the same conclusions or find the same insights about a single episode that happened days, decades, or centuries ago."

Applying this to the historical Jesus, Joseph Bessler observes that we often reach for the historical information that helps us interpret the problems of today. Quests for the historical Jesus, for example, matter deeply to theology because "they have, in their differing ways, sought to argue that the central figure of the Christian faith continues to hold open the horizons of religious and cultural life."

So what do we take home? As Dennis E. Smith suggested in the context of his work with the Acts Seminar, when we accept stories uncritically, we can be tempted to see what we have as inevitable. We may think it was the only possible outcome. Paying attention to history can serve as a corrective, or at minimum a caution, against oversimplifying what it means to be Christian, to follow Jesus, or—and this is especially relevant with the rise of secularism—to be religious at all.

Consider this an appeal to study Christian origins in spite of discouragement and frustrations along the way. Is it difficult to explore alternate versions of the story of Christian origins? Yes. Is it worthwhile? Definitively, yes.

Evolution Weekend 2014: An Interview with Lloyd Geering

From the Big Bang to God by Lloyd GeeringIn honor of Evolution Weekend 2014, which will take place February 7–9, we have invited Westar Fellow Lloyd Geering to reflect on religion and science, evolution, and his latest book From the Big Bang to God: Our Awe-Inspiring Journey of Evolution. Geering is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. A public figure of considerable renown in New Zealand, he is in constant demand as a lecturer and as a commentator on religion and related matters on both television and radio. He is the author of many books including Such Is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (2010) and Coming Back to Earth: From Gods, to God, to Gaia (2009). In 2001, he was honored as Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. In 2007, he received New Zealand’s highest honor, the Order of New Zealand.

Q: You recently celebrated 70 years as a Presbyterian minister. Yet From the Big Bang to God owes at least as much to science as to theology and philosophy. What led you to write a book that weaves science so deeply into the story of who we are?

The idea that science and religion have little in common and, may even be in conflict, is a modern misconception that is no earlier than the 19th century. Theology, as my teacher defined it, is the enterprise by which faith thinks itself through and relates itself to all other knowledge. That is a very tall order in these days of the ‘knowledge explosion’. ‘Science’ etymologically means ‘knowledge’ though today it usually refers to knowledge obtained by the empirical method. But only look at the way the Bible starts with cosmology. That is where theology starts today too. The first chapter of Genesis expresses the cultural knowledge (primitive science) of 2500 years ago when ‘science’ simply had to make eminently good sense to be convincing. This ancient view of the universe has been made obsolete by modern cosmology and so theology must be reshaped accordingly. I see my book as just as much an exercise in theology as it is in science.

Q: Sometimes people express a sentiment to “live and let live” in debates around topics like evolution. How much leeway do we have in this? What is the value of coming to a consensus and sharing a Great Story of human origins, like the one you’ve told in From the Big Bang to God?

As my book makes clear, the concept of evolution applies not only to the development of life itself but also to the development of human knowledge. It too has evolved. When Genesis 1 was first compiled it was a remarkable break-through, so convincing that it remained viable for 2000 years and eventually led to the rise of empirical science. But to base theology upon Genesis 1 today, as some fundamentalists do, leads not only to bad theology but to false theology and hence and idolatry (the most heinous sin of all). Since each great civilization has been based on a common Great Story of where we came from, so I have told this new Great Story in the hope that it, or something very like it, can become the basis for a new global civilization.

Q: The organizers of Evolution Weekend say on their website: “When some define religion so narrowly that it is categorically opposed to evolutionary ideas, or any of the findings of science, it both demeans and diminishes religion.” Does this resonate with you? How would you describe the relationship between religion and science?

I agree with the statement, believing there is much confusion in the popular mind today about both religion and science. By science is meant knowledge that we treat as reliable because it has been subjected to tests that confirm it. But this does not mean that current science is absolute and final for all time. Scientific knowledge is always subject to review and modification. For, example, Newtonians physics has been modified by quantum physics. Religion is even more subject to change for it contains a strong subjective component and must always be consistent with what is the current state of scientific knowledge. Of course much depends on how one defines religion. Much popular understanding of religion is far too narrow, which is why an increasing number say they are not religious. There is no one generally accepted definition. I choose to define religion as “a total mode of the interpreting and living of life”.

Q: You mentioned in a recent radio interview with Pastor John Shuck on Religion for Life that one of your most influential teachers, Helmut Rex, who came to New Zealand in 1939 as a refugee from Berlin, described the Christian tradition not as “a set of unchangeable truths” but rather as “growing path of faith in which one’s beliefs change from century to century depending upon the kind of cultural context in which you live.” How do you believe the great contemporary concern for the environment will affect this growing path of faith?

The new Great Story of evolution has not only replaced all the earlier Great Stories of where we came from but has alerted us to our earthly origins. (The biblical story was strangely not far away from it when it declared us to be made of the dust of the earth.) The important new science of ecology has alerted us to the way in which all forms of life form a living whole with one another and their common environment, just as the trillions of cells in the human body work together for the common good. If we do not learn how to fit in with the environment that has shaped us we shall bring about our own demise as a species, and go the way of the dinosaurs. The former great commandment to obey the revealed will of God in his heaven above has evolved into the obligation to stand in awe of this amazing universe, respect all forms of life and fulfill our duties to the earthly environment on which we depend.

Stones & BonesQ: What gives you hope for the future? What advice would you give to young faith leaders who are looking for ways to bring together scientific and religious truths?

One of the things I learned to appreciate more deeply in writing this book was the amazing capacity the universe displays for the formation of evermore complex wholes. The human species is the most complex whole in the universe that we are aware of. In the last ten thousand years we humans have come to dominate the earth in a way no other species has done. In the recent phenomenon of globalization we have reached the point where we face the choice of building an harmonious community or destroy ourselves by mutual hostility and war. ... The evolutionary process so characteristic of the universe gives us hope. Look at how it led to the harmony of the hive of bees. So, though there are no guarantees, this awe-inspiring universe may yet lead us humans to overcome our self-centredness and blindness and learn how to evolve into a global social organism. The unifying instrument is love. That is why the advice of Jesus to “love your enemies” remains so basic to our future. The more we understand evolution and co-operate with it the more this is likely to happen.

God: The Modern Problem

Ancient Christians thought of God as an absolute, unchanging essence, based on the thought of the philosopher Plato. This underpins our concepts of the Trinity and even the salvation story of Jesus's death and resurrection. But with the rise in the Middle Ages of nominalism, a new philosophy that emphasizes language over substance, the ancient view of God began to fall apart. Christianity is still struggling to pick up the pieces. Here David Galston, Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University and author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, describes this problem in more detail. He explores different attempts to save or defend God against the problems presented by modern thinking, and introduces some ideas for moving forward with the historical Jesus.

David Galston presented the above talk during the Once and Future God Session of the "Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies?" conference, sponsored by the Westar Institute in October 2013. He refers a couple times to the God Seminar: this is a new project by scholars affiliated with Westar that is still in the planning stages. You can also watch a discussion of the future of Christianity from this same session.

The lecture is available as five separate video clips. You can watch all five continuously below, or visit the YouTube playlist to browse different topics.