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The politics of hell Kathryn Gim Lum explores the role of hell in the abolitionist and suffragist movements of 18th century women

May 3 2015

“Methinks I see them stand shivering on the brink of the dreadful gulf,” John “Damnation” Murray preached in 1788, describing sinners with “their hearts throbbing—their eyeballs rolling—their teeth gnashing—and their trembling voices beginning the eternal shriek!” Without repentance, these sinners find “the hand of vengeance is chaining them to the rock of never—never—never ending torment and despair!” For Murray and many other 18th century Americans, hell was a real place, a constant threat and a fiery pit of torment and despair.

Kathryn Gin Lum studies hell. Her recent book, Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction, charts the intellectual history of hell in our country. If heaven was a promise, hell was a threat. Both visions of the afterlife profoundly shaped 18th century Americans’ views about their souls, their politics and their nation.

For women in particular, compliance with a proscribed role in society and domestic responsibilities often determined whether they would be granted eternal paradise or eternal punishment, effectively restricting their options. These threats served as a justification for keeping women in their place, and may still linger as the root of challenges women face in progressing towards equality today.

Lum, Stanford assistant professor of religious studies, points out that hell was wielded as a political threat. “With no monarch and no hell,” Lum asks, “what would keep Americans in line?” Damnation, therefore, was a political act; and 18th century Americans were quick to condemn each other to eternal punishment. 

Heaven and hell—the blessed and the damned—figured prominently in the bitter war against slavery. Many Americans believed it was their moral duty to save the “heathens” from hell. Only conversion could prevent their doomed entrance into the place of no return. Abolitionists damned slave-owners; slave-owners damned abolitionists. Some abolitionists even damned the whole country—themselves included—since they considered slavery a national sin.

Women and the threat of hell

On a conceptual level, hell and heaven were democratic places. Anyone (provided they had an immortal soul) could be sentenced to eternal punishment and anyone could be blessed with everlasting reward. Mark Twain put it best: even as “here in the earth all nations hate each other,” in heaven, “all are on an equality absolute, no one of them ranking another; they have to be ‘brothers;’ they have to mix together, pray together, harp together, hosanna together.”  

However, like most democratic ideas, the concepts of heaven and hell were employed differently in practice. While both women and men brandished hell like a sword to strengthen their moral authority, women were charged with a specific duty to prevent eternal damnation. In antebellum America, upper- and middle-class white women were often wrapped in a halo and charged with moral caretaking: guiding their family to worship and ensuring the purity of their husband and children’s souls. “Women were supposed to make sure their families had quiet time to think about their souls,” says Lum.

Antebellum women had greater religious and ethical responsibilities than their male counterparts did. Therefore, they weighed the risks of heaven and hell differently.

Hell, morality, and suffrage

Hell was incorporated into the fight for suffrage. One anti-suffrage senator sneered at the early feminist movement, offering the definition of a suffragette as “a woman who wants to raise Hell, but no children.” Suffragists were quick to retort. “A suffragette,” they argued, was “a woman who wants to raise children, but not in hell!”

Beyond rhetorical threats, some suffragists believed there was a serious relationship between morality and suffrage. Many argued that women should “purify politics” and “enter the foul paths of the world/to sweeten and cleanse and bless.” Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a 19th century feminist, pierced through the cultural narrative of the “moral,” angelic woman, wrapped in her halo of ethical righteousness. Morality, she argued, meant men and women working together for women’s rights. Gilman found the binaries of men and women, hell and heaven, and devils and saints restricting. “One would think, ‘we, as women,’ were angels and our brothers were fiends of hell,” she said. She told her fellow suffragists that because everyone was “born of one mother,” all should be involved in the movement. Hell, Gilman reminded Americans, was a democratic place, equally open to both women and men. 

Going to hell

Lum concludes by teasing out the testy relationship between hell itself and the threat of hell. Was hell only a useful tool for social control? Was heaven the carrot and hell the stick? Did Americans damn and save each other only to get ahead? 

Hell was definitely a useful threat. Abolitionists, suffragists and many others used the idea of hell to their advantage. It was also an ever-present belief that motivated antebellum Americans to evangelize, to reform and to live their lives in ways they considered more heavenly than hellish. After all, these citizens—women and men, children and adults, enslaved and free—were charged with a fate far bigger than their own. Upon their virtue rested the fate, be it damnation or salvation, of the entire new nation.


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