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.