Monday, January 26, 2015

Kathryn Gin Lum's "Damned Nation"

Kathryn Gin Lum is Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies Department in collaboration with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford. She is affiliated with American Studies, Asian American Studies, and History (by courtesy).

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her 2014 book, Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction, and reported the following:
Damned Nation tries to understand how belief in hell shaped the personal and political lives of Americans in the first century of nationhood. What did it mean to really believe in hell—to believe that you yourself, your loved ones, or even the vast majority of humans might end up in the fiery pit forever? How would that fear shape the way you lived in the day-to-day, interacted with others, and thought about your place in the world?

The book argues that although Americans liked to think of themselves as a “redeemer nation,” the fear that they might be damned instead—individually and collectively—animated them to worried action on behalf of themselves and others. The argument unfolds in three parts: the first looks at the survival of the doctrine in the late eighteenth century and at how it was preached in pulpits and in print; the second considers lay responses to the terrifying prospect of eternal torment; and the third looks at the deployment of the threat of hell in the slavery controversy and the Civil War.

Page 99 falls in the middle of Part Two. Prior to this point, we’ve seen how ministers used fire-and-brimstone sermons to urge American audiences to repent immediately in order to be saved. But lay believers recognized that life took many turns beyond the immediate moment of conversion, and that staying out of hell necessitated constant monitoring of even the most mundane of daily activities. Advice guides taught ordinary people how to live in order to be saved. Crucial to the soul-saving enterprise was the “right apportionment of time”: individuals had to make sure they didn’t waste time reading “bad books,” or frittering away the evening dancing or playing cards. They always had to be on guard lest death strike suddenly.

Women were held especially responsible for safeguarding the eternal welfare of their loved ones. They were supposed to efficiently manage their household’s schedule to ensure that their husbands and children did not neglect quiet time reading the Bible and analyzing the state of their souls. As in the rest of the book, page 99 joins public and private writings and the personal with the political. It begins with Catharine Beecher’s advice in her popular Treatise on Domestic Economy and ends with Martha Laurens Ramsay’s anxieties as recorded in her diary.

From Page 99:
…Just as women would be held accountable for the ‘right apportionment of time’ at an individual level, [Beecher] wrote, so they must also “use [their] influence and example to promote the discharge of the same duty by others…. If, by late breakfasts, irregular hours for meals, and other hinderances of this kind, she interferes with, or refrains from promoting regular industry in others, she is accountable to God for all the waste of time consequent on her negligence.” Even the most mundane affairs took on eternal import when viewed through the lens of accountability. Families, communities, and even the nation were to be formed along the same industrious lines as the saved individual. Antebellum Protestants did not emphasize discipline for the sole purpose of molding good workers, even if that was not an unwelcome side effect. Discipline freed the time needed to devote to their own and others’ salvation in the midst of their busy lives….

Women were often at the forefront of lay efforts at saving souls. Even as Martha Ramsay daily struggled to find personal peace, she also worried that the cares of everyday life imperiled her loved ones’ eternal welfare. In September 1795, she asked God for “the thorough conversion of a very near and dear friend” and “that my dear husband may be preserved from worldly entanglements, and enabled so to manage his earthly affairs, that they may never interfere with his heavenly business.”…
Learn more about Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction at the Oxford University Press website.

Cover story: Damned Nation.

--Marshal Zeringue