Hell mattered a lot before the Civil War. The prospect of eternal torment was cited to bolster the urgency of missions, campaigns against alcohol abuse, the abolition of slavery, and other moral crusades in our nation’s history.
The sheer pervasiveness of the doctrine of hell struck me as I read Kathryn Gin Lum’s revealing and engaging Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction (Oxford University Press). Americans believed in and invoked hell regularly. But their polemical uses of the threat of damnation seemed, at times, to treat hell more as a tool of political motivation than a spiritual reality.
Gin Lum, an assistant professor of religious studies at Stanford University, introduces a startling range of people who talked about hell in early-19th-century America. They included evangelical believers and critical skeptics, African American slaves and proslavery whites. Belief in hell helped to inspire the evangelistic efforts that came to define the Second Great Awakening and the “Great Century” of domestic and international missions.
Charles Finney, the definitive evangelist of the Second Great Awakening, did not hesitate to speak about hell. He once told a dying Boston woman he considered unregenerate that her nominal faith would not win her salvation. On her deathbed, the woman seemed to have a vision of God, but the imagery led her into terror, not comfort. She “exclaimed that she was going to hell,” Finney wrote, and in that desperate frame of mind, she died. The thought of countless millions plunging into fiery torment prompted legions of ministers and missionaries to risk their lives and fortunes to bring as many as possible to Christ.
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