How Hell Has Shaped America

An 1865 political cartoon depicting Benedict Arnold and Jefferson Davis in Hell.

What inspired you to write Damned Nation?

When I was an undergraduate, I was stunned by the sudden death of a loved one. My bewilderment and bereavement drove me to research the history of death. I was surprised by the voluminous literature on the moment of death relative to what comes after. I realized I was more interested in the latter, and in how people’s ideas about the afterlife shape their lives in the here-and-now. I initially set out to write about both heaven and hell, but I didn’t want to spend eternity in graduate school, even if I was happy to spend graduate school in eternity!

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Hell mattered a hell of a lot in the first century of America’s nationhood. The fear of hell motivated evangelicals to try to change not only their own behaviors and beliefs but also those of others too. The impulse to save one’s self by saving others influenced the social and political reform movements of the nineteenth century, from temperance to abolitionism.

To put it simply: hell was not antithetical to, but rather part and parcel of, the modern nation-building project in the US.

Evangelicals saw their success as integral to the survival of the young nation, and their failure as spelling its doom. I think this mentality continues to exert influence today. Anyone wondering why abortion or same-sex marriage are hot topics in contemporary America, even though they don’t seem to directly affect those who most oppose them, might turn to the first century of nationhood to understand the roots of this impulse.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

I thought about, and drafted, a long introductory section tracing the history of hell back to its ancient origins. But it is a contested and complicated story and the last thing I wanted to do was to oversimplify things in the service of my own, much narrower history.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

Perhaps the biggest misconception about hell is that it’s been on the outs since the enlightenment liberated the human mind from the shackles of antiquated beliefs. Hell has not disappeared and it is not disappearing.

My book looks at a critical time and a key location in its survival: the late-eighteenth to nineteenth centuries in the United States, a nation supposedly founded on the enlightenment ideals of optimism in human ability and tolerance for religious diversity.

Excellent recent books have already called the latter into question (like David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom and Amanda Porterfield’s Conceived in Doubt). My book builds on these studies to complicate the common characterization of Americans as millennial optimists, forward-looking and confident in their ability to redeem the world. Hell survived in this supposedly enlightened nation, not as an anachronistic relic, but in order to ensure that very nations survival—or so its American defenders argued.

They claimed that the threat of hell was necessary to compel the orderly behavior of citizens in the new, monarchless republic. And they worried that the damnable sins of its individuals would spell the downfall of the nation itself. To put it simply: hell was not antithetical to, but rather part and parcel of, the modern nation-building project in the US.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I wanted to reach both a scholarly and a general audience, so I tried to keep the jargon to a minimum and the historiographical discussions to the notes. Since hell is a topic that remains live to this day, I also envisioned an audience that included everyone from diehard believers to incredulous skeptics as I was writing. The book features a spectrum of persuasions so there’s hopefully a little something for everyone.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

All of the above! Hell’s defenders and detractors pissed each other off even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and I imagine they’ll do the same now, even as they entertain everyone else.

What alternative title would you give the book?

It’s a cheesy pun, but Damned Nation has been my title all along. I pitched it as a play on Ernest Lee Tuveson’s classic Redeemer Nation. Originally I also had a question mark (Damned Nation?) but my editor convinced me that punctuation in titles is never a good idea. The question mark was supposed to convey the uncertainty many antebellum Americans felt about the status of their nation.

How do you feel about the cover?

I love it!

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Jill Lepore’s The Name of War: it is moving without being maudlin, informed by present-day concerns without being presentist, and just beautifully written overall.

What’s your next book?

I did my undergraduate work in the Silicon Valley, and have recently returned to this hotbed of technological innovation. Here it is impossible to escape the belief that technology will save humanity. My next project investigates the origins of this belief and its connections to the Protestantism that has long dominated the American landscape.

I return to the nineteenth century, when many Euro-Americans believed that technology and Protestant commitment went hand-in-hand, and hoped that both would save the world. I am interested in how technology became a marker of religious difference, defining the “progressive Protestant” against the “stagnating heathen.” And I want to know what residues of these assumptions continue to influence our interactions with so-called “developing” and “emerging” nations.


  •' GeniusPhx says:

    It’s finally coming out with some regularity that our country was not founded on religious freedom and our founders were not christians. Several books have come our recently written by christians calling our founders ‘infidels’ among other things.

    from what i gather our country was not very religious after the enlightenment, estimates are that only 20% of americans belonged to a church at a time when that was required by law. That is when fear and guilt was introduced in a big way to drive people back to church (fear and guilt is the most damaging part of religion according to psychiatrists). Tent revivals, fire and brimstone preaching was the result and it worked for awhile. The religiosity of america has been on a steady decline since the internet and we could be looking at a post religion society in 25 years.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    It will be a bumpy ride. Religion doesn’t go quietly. There will be a lot of condemning to hell along the way. We will have to be strong and keep telling them, now we know their tricks, and there isn’t really any hell that they can send us to.

  •' the Old Adam says:

    There will be a judgement at the end of time…or at the end of our lives. Somebody has to judge us. (we aren’t porpoises or squirrels, for cry in’ out loud)

    But the good news is that the One who will be judging us, is the same one who died for us on the Cross. I find that a great comfort.

  •' 013090 says:

    “our founders were not christians”

    That is no more accurate than saying our founders were Christians. Like society as a whole, the Founders carried with them a variety of religious and philosophical beliefs. Some were staunch traditional Christians (e.g. Samuel Adams), others skeptical deists (e.g. Thomas Jefferson), and with all sorts in between (e.g. John Adams; George Washington; etc..). The Founders were not uniform.

  •' Frank6548 says:

    Hell won’t go away because it exists.

  •' Andre M says:

    Clearly hell won’t go away because it doesn’t exist either, since people like you keep the idea alive.

  •' Eric says:

    “Somebody has to judge us.”

    Speak for yourself, old man-child. The rest of us aren’t kids still seeking parental approval.

  •' apotropoxy says:

    God created hell, Satan, souls and temptation for his (its) own amusement. Who are we to question his (its) moral judgment?

  •' Jim Reed says:

    And back then the dividing line between Christianity and science was not as clear as it is today.

  •' Gemgirl says:

    See, that is the difference between a Christian and an atheist viewpoint. I am an atheist and I see absolutely NO difference between a porpoise or squirrel and a human except in our debt we owe to the earth. Animals do not owe the earth anything but we do. We are here for a time and then we die. Some lives are quite long and some are very short. If you happen to live awhile….I think it’s a good idea to do a couple of positive things like try to help improve some human lives along the way….or improve the condition of the earth’s environment so others may enjoy for centuries to come. The judgement comes from within myself, my neighbors here on earth, and those earthlings who come after me. Hopefully, I won’t disappoint them.

  •' TexTech says:

    A book worth reading is titled, “The Formation of Hell” which traces the concept of hell from humankind’s earliest concepts of hell through more recent times. The one thing I most remember rather echoes something said in the interview above. One of the ancient Greek playwrights said that the idea of hell was useful for maintaining order in society. Not sure if he believed in hell or not but he sure saw it as a funcitonal concept.

  •' Smknws says:

    why would god create a HELL when he created “US”
    in his own image .. he would not send himself ..US.. to hell.. if he didn’t
    create hell in the first 5 days.. IT does not exist WE are still living in the
    sixth day .. Wo/Man, kind who forgot their Godness within … created every
    thing good and bad after God said go forth and multiply.. That was a long time
    ago .. I have evolved enough to re-read and understand GENESIS written
    after more than 4 billion years of evolution .. he left the best for last he
    created Wo /Man,kind .. I wonder if he has any regrets … BIG smile NO he knew
    what he was doing he can set it right .Then we will live in peace in the 7th day, only then can he rest .. It’s all a god plan 😉

  •' Frank6548 says:

    God doesn’t send anyone to hell. People choose to go there.

  •' Smknws says:

    Human – being… Human = people return to dust ..cant choose anything ..
    BEING = soul /life of god within US goes back to god from whence it came .

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