Retribution v. Reform in American Justice: Interview with Jennifer Graber at Religion Dispatches

Paul Harvey

Shortly after the publication of Jennifer Graber's outstanding work The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America (University of North Carolina Press), we blogged about it here, and we've also blogged about Jennifer's outstanding recent article in Church History, drawn from her next project about the meanings of war, violence, and religion in the nineteenth-century Indian wars (if you think The Furnace of Affliction is depressing, try reading the article, where the violence of the 19th-century frontier wars comes out in illuminatingly dark detail). The Historical Society blog also has interviewed Graber, posted here back last March. Here is Randall's introduction to the book and interview, which hits at some of the main themes of interest:

"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 ofreligious 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

Religion Dispatches has just posted an interview with Jen about The Furnace of Affliction, which makes for great reading. So read it -- here. Here's a little excerpt, which shows how the work upsets all manner of preconceived notions and doesn't make easy or comfortable reading for anybody:

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

There are a couple issues I had to tackle head-on. Since the 1970s, Americans have witnessed the increasingly retributive spirit of this country’s prisons. It was imperative to show that while there have always been debates about reformation and retribution, the current environment is an historical anomaly.

For people who had any knowledge of prison history, I wanted to deal with some false notions about Quakers and Calvinists. Some scholars have posited accounts of the early prisons in which kind-hearted Quakers were just lovely to prisoners while bloodthirsty Calvinists wanted inmates to suffer deeply for their crimes. This simply is not the case.

Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, and other interested religious reformers shared in a fairly unified approach to prisons and prisoners. They wanted reformative prisons. They wanted inmates to be led through a series of experiences that prompted their redemption. They all disavowed torture and abuse. Really, their only disagreements were about corporal punishment, namely whipping. Some Protestant reformers affirmed the limited use of whipping. But even Quakers who disavowed whipping found other ways to enact discipline on the body, such as gagging. . .

Continue reading here.


Edward J. Blum said…
what a terrific interview! RD does tremendous work with authors and books.
Randall said…
A good post for today with what passes as justice in Georgia.

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