Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction

Aaron Menikoff | October 2, 2015

In Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction, Kathryn Gin Lum argues the doctrine of hell made Christianity a useful but dangerous religion in 19th-century America. Lum, assistant professor in the religious studies department at Stanford University, counters the prevailing academic thesis that as cultures modernize they come to view hell as an obsolete relic.

Lum’s desire isn’t to defend the doctrine, but to convince readers we can’t comprehend America without understanding orthodox teaching on hell.

Reliable, Curious Guide 

It serves Christians well to think critically about history, and Lum is as a reliable guide, exploring the writings of early Americans who thought deeply about hell. She gives us no reason to think she’s a Christian, but she’s curious, and her impetus for the research may be the question, “Why do so many Americans in the 21st century still believe in a holy God who eternally punishes unrepentant sinners?”

What has made the doctrine of hell useful historically? Lum gives three answers. Believers in hell (1) promoted virtue, (2) organized political action, and (3) comforted the oppressed (232).

The United States began with a robust commitment to personal virtue and evangelism. Americans connected the two. Our forefathers, Lum insists, promoted piety by preaching the necessity of…

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