The idea of hell has been contested territory for a long time. From Dante’s Inferno to Rob Bell’s Love Wins, the reality of hell and who is consigned to it continues to be “hotly” debated.
Damned Nation looks at a critical slice of American history from the formation of our country up through the Civil War and the contested ground of the preaching of hell during this period. On the one hand, this book considers the prevalence of the preaching of hell when this was already waning in Europe, and seems to suggest that many public figures were supportive of this preaching as a form of social control in a forming country. On the other, it explores the alternative ideas about judgment that were already present even prior to the civil war. This is encapsulated in the illuminating profiles of two preachers with the same name, “Salvation” and “Damnation” Murray and the distinctive styles and theological convictions of their preaching.
Lum traces this preaching in the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and 30s as well as the growing concerns about the impact of such preaching on some troubled individuals. In her second section, “Adaptation and Dissent”, she particularly explores not only the tempering of such preaching but also alternative visions of heaven and hell in Joseph Smith and the Latter Day Saints, Swedenborgians, and in Native American religion.
It is fascinating to see how the concept of damnation is part of the discussions of slavery and abolition and is handled during the Civil War. Most often, it was very tempting to consign the opposition (whether slaveholding or abolitionist) to hell, and then there were African-American voices who consigned their oppressors to hell. Hell and the state of one’s soul was also a concern of chaplains preparing soldiers going into battle. However, the message was different for the families of those who died in battle, where death in battle or prison camps itself was treated as having an atoning effect that assured the deceased of heaven’s glories. Lum, as have others, notes the distinctive note Lincoln sounded in his second inaugural of seeing the war as a judgment of God on north and south alike.
I found Lum fair and meticulous in the handling of primary source material, mostly consisting of sermons and other printed tracts. Perhaps space did not permit this but I found myself wondering if more might have been done to situate particular preachers’ preaching of hell and damnation in the wider body of their work. It is common, for example to focus on the images of being dangled over the flames in Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, which is admittedly drastic language, but many treatments of this sermon neglect its larger theological context, which emphasizes the mercies of God in giving the opportunity to turn and respond to Christ’s saving work.
While some find any mention of hell or judgment offensive, others (and Lum does note this) would find equally offensive the idea of a God who fails to judge evil. In the concluding sections of her book, Lum extends this conversation to the present, chronicling the continued belief in hell for a number or even majority of Americans and that this belief continues to be contested ground.
This review is based on an advanced e-galley copy of this book provided by the publisher through Netgalley. No compensation was received for this review and the opinions in this review are that of the reviewer alone.