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Stanford scholar reveals how fears of damnation undergird American history

Early Americans were apparently not just concerned with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They were also obsessed with issues of hell and salvation.

In her recently published book, Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction, Kathryn Gin Lum, assistant professor of religious studies at Stanford, shows how hell was used as a tool of political motivation in the first century of nationhood.

Lum, who studies the intersections between religion and race in America, analyzes how the widespread belief in hell influenced Americans' perceptions of themselves and the rest of the world between the Revolution and Reconstruction.

Lum discovers that under the threat of political chaos and economic unease, "saved" and "damned" became distinctions as crucial as race, class and gender. These concepts influenced social reform efforts such as the temperance movement, missionizing and slavery reform.

"The prevalent belief that you might end up in eternal torment because you've gambled, danced or broken the Sabbath was a powerful ideology," says Lum. "It reassured anxious Americans that something was going to keep citizens in line in the new republic."

Although Lum's book focuses on the period up to the Civil War, when many worried about the eternal fate of themselves and their loved ones, her research is hardly describing a past that's long gone.

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