FIRE AND BRIMSTONE
Americans’ Burning Obsession With Hell
For most of a century, until the carnage of the Civil War gave people something to really worry about, the idea of eternal damnation was a national obsession across America.
One of the more serious crimes of which institutionalized religion is supposedly guilty is that it is a method for controlling the masses. It’s long, bloody, and compromised history, some argue, shows that it is merely another tool in the arsenal of those seeking to control other people.
The irony is that many religious leaders in 18th- and 19th-century America would have concurred with the idea that religion was an effective form of crowd control. Where the agreement would no doubt have diverged is that they would have seen such shepherding as religion serving one of its core functions—to create a more virtuous society.
That craving for a more virtuous society lies at the heart of Kathryn Gin Lum’s Damned Nation: Hell in America From the Revolution to Reconstruction. In the book, Lum traces the use of eternal damnation as a motivating force in American life, beginning after the First Great Awakening in the 18th century.
In post-Revolution America, she argues, religious institutions saw themselves as extremely important for the development of a politically-engaged, civic-minded society. As the country lurched from one hot-button topic to the next—independence, the acquisition and settlement of new territories, slavery, and, ultimately, civil war—fear of rotting in hell was seen as a way to keep things together.
As Lum notes, and as anybody who has read Jonathan Edwards knows, the use of eternal damnation was nothing new in American society. What is interesting about its continued prevalence in the U.S. until the Civil War is that its strength did not wane even as the Enlightenment took hold with ideas of rationality and the perfectibility of man. Even as some turned to religions like Universalism with its idea of universal salvation, the fire-and-brimstone churches swept up even more.
While surely there were manipulative ministers who used the threat of hell for less than honorable ends, Lum does not question the motives of most religious leaders.
“Many who disseminated the threat of damnation actually feared it for themselves and believed that they could and should do something to save people from it,” she points out.
In addition, the average layperson in this time period was well versed in theology. “Far from being passive dupes sitting in the pews,” Lum writes, “they discussed with each other, and for the most part understood, the nuanced distinctions.”
However, their work is certainly jarring for the modern mind.
Advice tablets for preachers about how to speak to a potential convert included this gem from the New York Evangelist about dealing with a person on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “This despair then is his excuse for neglecting his present duty … He must be driven out of this shelter … There are no means like a pressure of duty, and deep conviction, and the thunders of damnation to chase away such despair.”
There is even one about how to find converts at funerals where “there will doubtless be favorable opportunities, for bringing the awful realities of death, judgment and eternity to bear upon individuals” who don’t attend church and otherwise would not be listening to a preacher.
The far-reaching arms of printed pamphlets by preachers and evangelical associations were distributed under titles like “On the Character and Doom of the Wicked” or sure to be filled with pickup lines, “On the Necessity of Preparation for Death.”
Primers for children included lovely poems that read “Tho’ I am young yet I may die, And hasten to eternity: There is a dreadful fiery hell, Where wicked ones must always dwell.”
However, evangelicals, Lum argues, saw such language “not as a cruelty but as an act of mercy that could save the sinner from much worse.”
The effectiveness of these pamphlets, and the awareness of its writers are apparent in one Lum digs up called “To Mothers.” It is specifically written for the domestic woman who feels, in its words, “unknown,” “obscure,” and “secluded.” To reassure the woman, the tract includes encouragements like “You are immortal,” and your “influence with [your] child is greater than that of a Legislator or General” and that she should not feel secluded because her child is there, and “That child has a soul, worth more than a million globes of gold.”
Reading through the now-hilarious advice tablets, the popular preacher pamphlets, and the guidebooks for how a “saved” man or woman should live, it becomes apparent that one of the reasons hell may have been so popular as a religious image was because people seemed to genuinely believe that a system of punishment and reward was needed in society—it wasn’t just excited millenialists. Be a good citizen, and heaven awaits; fail to convert and lead a moral life, burn in hell.
“In a republic, fear of the sovereign could be replaced by fear of God, driving inherently depraved people to virtuous behavior in the effort to avoid future punishment,” she explains.
Being a religious man or woman who worked to spread the word of God was also a good way for one to be seen as middle-class, and no longer one of the unrefined masses.
The effects were numerous. Self-abnegation became an extremely important virtue, especially as Americans grew more prosperous. Prodigious amounts of money were raised for missionaries by preachers arguing that not only would the heathen be saved from eternal damnation, but so too would those who donated. Men were taught self-control about everything from their diet to how to resist the “painted woman.”
The idea of salvation through the salvation of others was also one of the significant factors in why hell was still so popular. As Americans moved West and as immigrants flooded cities and towns, it became just as important, if not more so, for good, upstanding citizens, to work to “save” their neighbors and tame the West. Religious institutions, as documented in Robert Wuthnow’s recent book on the history of religion in Texas, were often the only institutions on the frontier that existed to provide education, welfare, and most importantly, some form of rules by which to live.
This evangelizing zeal also found strength as Americans turned their gaze outwards, most notably to Africa, where an outpouring of funds and missionaries to convert the “heathen” stood in stark contrast to efforts to help slaves.
The issue of eternal damnation got a second wind in the 19th century with the slavery debate. On the abolitionist side, the threat of hell was used not only against slaveholders, but also against all those who stood by and did nothing, thereby damning the United States to God’s vengeance. William Lloyd Garrison was probably the most prominent leader who relied on the effectiveness of hellfire. Lum shares how he even admitted that without hell, “The English language is lamentably weak and deficient … I wish its epithets were heavier.”
Predictably, the pro-slavery faction also used the threat of hell to their favor. They used it to control their slave populations, as “many of the sermons warn of the hell that awaits not only those who do not believe but also those who misbehave in ways defined by masters claiming to speak for God.” They also argued that the Bible authorized slavery, and that the slaves were actually being rescued from heathen Africa.
When reading about the heated battle over which side really was risking God’s wrath, it only heightens the power of that famous line uttered by Mark Twain’s Huck when he decides to side with Jim the slave and against proper society: “Then I’ll go to hell.”
The efficacy of bandying threats of going to hell met its match in the Civil War. While it would continue to find uses in certain evangelical pockets in the century to come, “the sheer scale of death,” claims Lum, “accelerated the trend toward assuming heaven for loved ones and muted the rhetoric of fire and brimstone in the mainstream evangelical denominations.”
While nostalgia for fire-breathing preachers among mainstream Americans is probably nonexistent, one of the more subtle joys of Lum’s book lay in discovering just what enthralling writers these hellfire theologians could be. Today’s firebreathers seem not only somniferous in comparison, but also far less elegant.
There is Theodore Weld, writing about slavery, who declares, “It crushes the body, tramples into the dust the upward tendencies of intellect, breaks the heart and kills the soul.” Or Rev. Adam Empie, preaching against waiting until one’s deathbed to convert because it would make you a lower class person in Heaven: “Could we put the question to those miserable exiles from happiness, who dwell among the Apostate damned; could you ask them, what brought them to that state of misery; millions of voices, from the infernal pit, would rise in peals of thunders, roaring out delay! delay! delay!” Or read the singular John “Damnation” Murray. “Where now is the sparkling poison of the wanton eye?” he asks, and answers that in Hell, it is “altered into the baleful image of horror and despair—the very picture of the ugliest fiend below: whenever they roll their eye-balls their ghastly looks are telling all within them.”
It is unclear just how much the fear of burning in hell produced a civil society in the early United States—crime, corruption, and grave national sins certainly occurred anyway. However, the deep and widespread obsession with not only one’s own salvation, but that of neighbors and of the country, would have long-lasting ramifications for the country. Its effects could be seen in Prohibition, foreign policy, the Civil Rights movement, and even today in the culture wars over evolution, abortion, and gay marriage.