The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America






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Publication: Church History
Author: Roberts, Kyle
Date published: March 1, 2012

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In The Furnace of Affliction , Jennifer Graber provides one of the first in-depth studies of Protestant prison religion in the United States between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Prison religion, for Graber, is not simply religion that takes place in prisons, but the distinct beliefs, practices, and worldviews that come from the intersection of Protestantism and the new and evolving American prison system. Prison religion covers not only the faith that chaplains proffered to inmates but also understandings about the fundamental nature of mankind and the proper role of prisons within society. A broad range of Protestant reformers--Quaker, Old Light Presbyterian, and the various faiths (Baptist, New Divinity, Methodist) influenced by evangelicalism--shared a belief in the reformation of inmates as the prison's primary purpose even if they differed, sometimes markedly, in how they thought this should be accomplished. All found their efforts complicated by the needs of the State to run orderly and profitable institutions. In the end, reformers often supported forms of prison religion far different than they originally intended.

The prisons of New York State provide Graber's focus, although the Pennsylvania prison system, which functioned on a different set of principles, is often invoked as a point of contrast. Over time, three different conceptions of what a prison should be--a garden for the wayward, a furnace for transforming the guilty, and finally a hell where only kindness could be offered--came into being through the efforts of Protestant reformers. What emerges is a story of cycles of reform and brutality. Opportunities for reformers to implement their ideas rarely lasted long, typically sacrificed to the triple threat of politics, profit, and order. Yet despite being marginalized within the institutions they helped bring into being, Protestant reformers continued to labor, opening them up to charges of complicity in justifying increasingly brutal regimes.

New York's earliest prison, Newgate in New York City, owed its existence to the efforts of Quaker reformer Thomas Eddy. Little incarceration occurred during the colonial period, as officials preferred to impose immediate (often corporal or capital) penalties instead. While reformers in Pennsylvania sought to foster Quakerism's focus on the inner light as a means to reform the incarcerated, Eddy preferred to emphasize communal support and policing within what he deemed a sanctifying garden. Eddy soon discovered that prisoners toughened by urban life brought enough worldly evils with them to contaminate the garden. Eddy's objections to developments that contravened his ideal (such as the hiring of armed guards) fell on deaf ears and he eventually lost his position as a result of partisan politics.

Eddy's successor, Baptist minister John Stanford, saw the prison not as a garden but as a furnace in which the afflicted would experience suffering to prepare them for redemption. Stanford's understanding had greater purchase and was exported, in time, to the Auburn prison in upstate New York and to Sing Sing prison, Newgate's successor. Reformer Louis Dwight enjoyed the most successful application of Stanford's furnace conception at Auburn where he perfected a prison system that combined silent, communal labor by day with solitary confinement at night. Prison officials anxious about instilling order also embraced the idea as justification for the infliction of more suffering. When reformers objected to such an application, they found themselves marginalized and sometimes even expelled. Those determined to remain, like Methodist minister John Luckey, had to acquiesce to a new understanding of religion's reformative role not to redeem the soul but to reclaim the law-abiding citizen. By complying instead of resisting, reformers underwrote harsh disciplinary regimes that did little for prisoners' spiritual well being.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Protestant reformers accepted prisons for the hells that they had become. No longer did they try to influence prison discipline through new conceptions of inmate reformation. Instead they used their position to inspect and critique these institutions. John Luckey spent his time gathering and publishing material documenting how prisons made convicts worse, rather than better. Quaker Isaac Hopper did the same but from the vantage of one who assisted discharged convicts readjust to life outside of prison. Their narratives often fell on ambiguous ears: the public expressed discomfort with the amount of brutality to which convicts were subjected, but at the same time wanted prisoners off the streets.

The words of reformers, prison agents and inspectors, and prisoners drive Graber's narrative. Thomas Eddy, Louis Dwight, John Luckey and other reformers dominate, but Graber also uses the surviving writings of other key actors to good effect. Most fascinating are texts by former inmates. These rare sources provide windows into the life of an institution that many at the time preferred not to have documented. For all their seeming transparency, careful attention must be paid to the audiences and reasons for which ex-prisoners wrote. Stressing religious reformation might have made sense for one audience, and its failure for another.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Graber's study, and the most deserving of further elaboration, is the window it provides into the experience of post-revolutionary Protestants seeking to shape public policy in disestablishment America. Early on, the impulse to reform overrode the respect New Yorkers paid to the separation of church and state. Involvement brought, as it did with other contemporary reforms, negotiation and compromise. Graber makes a convincing case for this not being a simple story of secularization: religion continued to have a central place in the public debate over prisons. In asking why reformers' efforts went so horribly awry, The Furnace of Affliction raises important questions about the extent to which antebellum Protestant success or failure in influencing public policy hinged on the ideologies put forward by reformers, their decision to conform to political demands, and the willingness of the public to support their efforts.

Author affiliation:

Loyola University, Chicago

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