Interview with Jennifer Graber

Randall Stephens

[I crosspost here a selection from a short interview with Jenn Graber. The full interview is at the HS blog.]

"Americans incarcerate," writes Jennifer Graber in her new engaging book The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). "Though the United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population," she writes, "it has almost a quarter of its prisoners." Such facts make the long history of American prisons and their maintenance all the more interesting. Graber, an assistant professor in the department of religious studies at the College of Wooster, analyzes the "intersection of Christianity and politics in the American penitentiary system."* Her interesting account also looks at the religious dimensions of discipline and the ideas that undergirded punishment from the 1790s to the 1950s.

Randall Stephens: You write that antebellum Americans disagreed on much when it came to prisons, but most “affirmed religion's central importance” to prisons and reform. How was criminal justice “religious” in this era?

Jennifer Graber: If you were concerned about criminal punishment in the early republic, there were lots of things to fight about. Once the states began to build prisons, the big debate was between a discipline out of Pennsylvania that featured total solitary confinement and one out of New York that combined labor in workshops during the day with solitary confinement at night. Partisans for these two systems called the other side un-American and un-Christian. Beyond the rival disciplines, people debated the best way to reform inmates. They argued about what was more important: a good Sunday School teacher in Sing Sing or clean water and decent food in Sing Sing? Without fail, everyone interested in the debate claimed that “religion”—and they used the word “religion” even though they meant variations of evangelical Protestantism—was central to inmate reformation and the overall health of American prisons as strong institutions. What they didn't realize is that their common evocation of “religion” masked significant differences. For instance, they all thought that prison chaplains were necessary, but disagreed—sometimes violently—over the role these ministers should play inside institutions. Or, they all assumed that God ordained the civil authorities to punish lawbreakers, but varied on the question of that punishment’s severity.

Stephens: What kinds of problems did evangelicals target in the prison system? What can we learn about them by the sort of reforms they pursued?

Graber: Their first target was colonial-era punishments, whether it was steep fines, corporal punishments such as whipping or branding, or the gallows. They joined a trans-Atlantic movement to reform punishment and were active in the construction and administration of the first prisons. Protestant evangelicals—and I include many Quakers in this group, which might ruffle some historians’ feathers—envisioned the prison as an ideal site for prompting criminals’ conversion and reformation.>>>


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