The Furnace of Affliction

The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Furnace of Affliction
    Book Description:

    Focusing on the intersection of Christianity and politics in the American penitentiary system, Jennifer Graber explores evangelical Protestants' efforts to make religion central to emerging practices and philosophies of prison discipline from the 1790s through the 1850s.Initially, state and prison officials welcomed Protestant reformers' and ministers' recommendations, particularly their ideas about inmate suffering and redemption. Over time, however, officials proved less receptive to the reformers' activities, and inmates also opposed them. Ensuing debates between reformers, officials, and inmates revealed deep disagreements over religion's place in prisons and in the wider public sphere as the separation of church and state took hold and the nation's religious environment became more diverse and competitive. Examining the innovative New York prison system, Graber shows how Protestant reformers failed to realize their dreams of large-scale inmate conversion or of prisons that reflected their values. To keep a foothold in prisons, reformers were forced to relinquish their Protestant terminology and practices and instead to adopt secular ideas about American morals, virtues, and citizenship. Graber argues that, by revising their original understanding of prisoner suffering and redemption, reformers learned to see inmates' afflictions not as a necessary prelude to a sinner's experience of grace but as the required punishment for breaking the new nation's laws.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0333-9
    Subjects: Religion, History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Americans incarcerate. Though the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has almost a quarter of its prisoners. More than two million Americans live behind bars. That is one out of every one hundred adults. The United States imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than any other industrialized country. The economic cost of maintaining prisons threatens to overwhelm the population. In 2010 California officials considered releasing thousands of inmates in order to balance the budget. The human cost—counted in broken families and decimated communities—can hardly be calculated.¹

    The nation’s high incarceration rate...

  5. 1 The Prison as Garden, 1796–1804
    (pp. 15-46)

    In the summer of 1800, fifteen convicts from Newgate Prison made a “daring escape” across the Hudson River to New Jersey. New York State legislators responded by establishing an armed guard on call in the surrounding neighborhood. The prison’s agent, a Quaker and advocate of nonviolence, objected. He told state officials that overseeing the guard required duties that those “who are of the people called Quakers, cannot with propriety discharge.” Legislators were unmoved. The armed guard remained, straining the prison’s budget and vexing its Quaker administrators.¹

    During the prison’s early years, the armed guard served on several occasions. Its ongoing...

  6. 2 The Furnace of Affliction, 1805–1823
    (pp. 47-72)

    In 1822 an evangelical press publishedSword of Justice, Wielded by Mercy, an anonymous dialogue between Newgate prison inspectors and an inmate about to be released. Reflecting on the sentence he served and punishments he endured, the prisoner quotes from the book of Proverbs: “I experienced the truth of the declaration that ‘judgments are prepared for scorners, and stripes for the backs of fools.’” In response to the inmate’s reference to the whip, the inspectors explain that they found it “painful” to administer such severe sanctions. The convict assures them, however, that he understands their position, that stripes were “inflicted...

  7. 3 The Furnace at Auburn, 1816–1827
    (pp. 73-102)

    In October 1826 a young minister sat in on a conversation between Auburn Prison’s resident chaplain, the Reverend Jared Curtis, and an African American inmate, Jack Hodges. Hodges was serving a ten-year sentence for his role in a murder plot. According to the visitor’s account, Hodges considered himself a sinner and an unbeliever upon his arrival at Auburn. After many visits from Chaplain Curtis and a long period of spiritual suffering, however, Hodges experienced conversion. The visitor listened to Hodges recount his movement from repentance toward belief and moral living. “In the providence of God, you have a long sentence,”...

  8. 4 The Furnace at Sing Sing, 1828–1839
    (pp. 103-134)

    In 1829 Sing Sing Prison’s agent assaulted the resident chaplain and threw him out of the prison. The institution had no minister until a year later when a new head administrator took over. The new agent, Robert Wiltse, was also dubious about prison chaplains. In a report presented to the state legislature in 1834, Wiltse questioned the claims of inmate reformation boasted by prison ministers. “How much risk do they run of being deceived by hypocritical protestations?” he asked. Wiltse assured the legislature that “the hope once entertained of producing a general and radical reformation of offenders through a penitentiary...

  9. 5 The Furnace Transformed, 1840–1847
    (pp. 135-156)

    In 1843 Sing Sing’s resident chaplain went to the head prison inspector to plead the case of a suicidal inmate. The inspector, a New York judge named John Edmonds, usually supported Sing Sing’s notoriously severe regime. He led an inspectors’ board aligned with Albany Democrats, who traditionally favored tough prison discipline focused on order and profit. According to the chaplain’s memoir, the inmate in question deliberately provoked keepers, hoping to incite a fatal beating. He sought immediate death over the “slow death by the cat[-o’-nine-tails]” he would endure if he served out his sentence. To the chaplain’s surprise, Inspector Edmonds...

  10. 6 The Prison as Hell, 1848–1860
    (pp. 157-178)

    On a visit to the state legislature, Quaker Isaac Hopper almost got himself thrown out of the capital. Like many Friends, he refused to show deference to government officials. When he declined to remove his hat, the assembly’s guard threatened to eject him. Hopper explained his position to the guard and took his place in a hearing about the state prisons. His visit, however, continued to provoke responses. His traditional clothing, plain speech, and adherence to old customs reportedly amused lawmakers. They “regarded [him] as a curiosity.” His conspicuous attachment to the Friends tied him to another world, one legislators...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 179-184)

    Americans incarcerate. State governments began this task in the early republic and continue it today. In recent years, the pace of incarceration has quickened. Indeed, the scope of American imprisonment sets the nation apart from its world neighbors. In April 2008New York Timesreporter Adam Liptak wrote that the “United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment.” More than two million people live behind bars in America. Or as a columnist in theGuardianhas put it, the United States now has more...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 185-208)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 209-222)
  14. Index
    (pp. 223-234)