Evil in America from the Early Republic to the Christian Right

AHA Session 134
Friday, January 4, 2013: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Conti Room (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Amanda Porterfield, Florida State University
Catherine A. Brekus, University of Chicago

Session Abstract

When confronted with dogs or strangers, some seventeenth-century British colonists associated them with evil. Then during the nineteenth century, evil could be found in the form of slavery or slave rebellions, alcohol or costumed Klansman. In the twentieth century, Americans looked at economic woe, genocidal warfare, and new technologies that could blow up the world and saw variations of evil. Building upon the innovative work of James A. Morone’s Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History, these three papers examine how various Americans approached problems of evil, hell, and sin, and how their notions of evil spoke to their historical moments. Together, they push American historians to consider more profoundly how conceptions of evil have influenced historical moments and been shaped by shifts in the nation’s politics, culture, and religion. Concepts of evil, shifting over time as they have, affected the lives of Americans, the physical and imagined places they lived, and the stories they told about themselves and others.

Kathryn Gin, of Princeton University, examines how theological debates over the existence of hell during the early republic and why the place of hell survived the Enlightenment. Focusing on Judith Sargent Murray and two separate men named John Murray, she shows how the concept of hell was imperative for the new nation and its sense of justice. Then, Edward J. Blum, of San Diego State University, looks at how African Americans from the age of slavery to the years of the Great Depression, compared slavery to hell. Examining the writing of antislavery writings from former slaves and interviews of former slaves during the 1920s and 1930s, Blum shows how southern African Americans devised a complex understanding of hell that took into account place and process, human events and sacred actions. He contends that African Americans put the politics of sin to work, first, to undermine white supremacy and, second, to forge historical memories that opposed conceptions of the United States as inherently good and righteous. Finally, Molly Worthen, examine how in the mid twentieth century, the problem of evil animated how evangelical Christians interacted with the theological insights of Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and H. Richard Niebuhr. As evangelicals tried to make sense of World war, the Holocaust, atomic weaponry, disputes over biblical inerrancy, missionary efforts in the post-colonial world, and culture wars at home, they continually returned to problems of evil, sin, and damnation to understand themselves and others.

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