Religion scholar Gin Lum (Religious Studies/Stanford Univ.) delves into the writings and memoirs of early Americans deeply concerned with the issues of hell and salvation.
The Calvinist doctrine of predestination held so dear by the first wave of immigrants to the New World began to split by the mid-18th century. While revivalists like Jonathan Edwards preached hell-and-brimstone sermons—e.g., “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”—a backlash urged by Universalists and other liberal ministers presented a more benevolent God, with an emphasis on “moral living over a change of heart,” as well as “the ethical example of Christ rather than the traditional Calvinist doctrine that Christ’s death on the cross saved the elect alone.” The Enlightenment notions of rationality and the perfectability of man influenced the latter ministers and the coterie of Deist founding fathers like Thomas Paine, who denounced the doctrine of original sin as “absurd” and “profane.” Gin Lum illuminates the two doctrinal camps by contrasting portraits of the two John Murrays who arrived in America in the mid-1700s: “Salvation” Murray became a popular and dynamic preacher of Universalism’s message that “at the final judgment all humanity would be cleansed of sin,” while “Damnation” Murray preached of the horrors of eternal damnation to enrapt revivalist audiences. The rise of republicanism helped temper the “efficacy of hell for social cohesion,” replaced gradually by an evangelical sense that repentance of sins could avoid punishment in hell. Gin Lum draws on a wealth of conversion memoirs from exemplary Americans like Sarah Osborn and Benjamin Abbott and takes into account the booming print industry churning out fiery sermons and passionate exhortations for mothers to keep children out of sin’s way—or else. The author also looks extensively at the messages of Western missionaries and anti-slavery crusaders in delivering souls from perdition.
An elucidating study of why hell continued to matter in early America.