Review: Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction

Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction
Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction by Kathryn Gin Lum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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Review: God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America

God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America
God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America by Walter H. Conser Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems that there are two errors you can make in discussing the relationship of Christianity and science. One is that they have always been at war. The second is that only recently have there been enlightened folk who saw the two in harmonious relationship.

This book is a valuable study of a number of nineteenth century American “mediation theologians” who believed it possible to construct a harmonious understanding of the relationship of Christianity and science. The “antebellum” focus of this work points up that with the advent of Darwin’s work, a new situation arose, one which, at least in this country we are still attempting to come to terms with.

Charles Hodge

Charles Hodge

Many of the names might be unfamiliar to us: Henry Boynton Smith, Union Seminary theology professor, Philip Schaff, the church historian, Charles Hodge, the Princeton theologian, James Henley Thornwell, a southern Presbyterian preacher, Edward Robinson, biblical scholar at Andover Seminary, W.G.T Shedd, a Calvinist theologian influenced by Romantic ideas, James Marsh, U of Vermont college president, and Horace Bushnell, pastor.

These figures engaged the challenges to religious authority arising from European biblical criticism, new philosophical approaches to historical study, discoveries in geology and other natural sciences, thinking about the nature of language and how this related to understanding scripture and how faith engaged social and political science, particularly with regard to America’s most pressing issue in this period, slavery.

Philip Schaff

Philip Schaff

There were several interesting threads I found in this work. One was the influence of European scholarship and Romantic ideas that opened the door to thinking about religion less in doctrinal terms and more in terms of lived experience. The second thread was the effort to find commonalities between theological and scientific methods, such as the focus in Hodges work on the common inductive character to both. A third interesting thread was romantic historical ideals and an optimism about the future, albeit generally a very Anglo-Saxon shaped future. This also is reflected in the very troubling engagement around the issue of slavery where theologians drawing on these sources reached very different conclusions (all of which had racist elements) that contributed to increasing the tension in the fault lines leading to the Civil War.

In Conser’s “Epilogue” he notes how the advent of Darwinism changed everything. It led to a different way of defining how science was done that was incompatible with the earlier understanding and to sharp distinctions between supernaturalist and positivist approaches. Even to this day, different models of origins in part reflect different philosophies of science that points up how important our definition of science is in these discussions. It was also striking to me that those more shaped by doctrinal considerations tended to be the forebears of the fundamentalists, whereas those more shaped by Coleridgean romanticism tended to be the progenitors of the modernists.

In summary, this was a valuable work for me in understanding “how we got here” in terms of some of the present challenges around science and faith and I find anticipated in these thinkers many of the formulations present day scholars are using, whether or not they are aware of their intellectual antecedents.

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