Views of the future state: afterlife beliefs in the deep south, 1820-1865

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University of Alabama Libraries

This dissertation examines shifting conceptions of the afterlife among white literate inhabitants of the Deep South between 1820 and 1865, as the challenges of scientific study, universalism, and otherworldly mysticism encouraged questioning. In 1820, ideas of what lay beyond death were relatively static and limited in scope, holding closely to the few images available in the King James Bible. Attempts to squelch superstition in the early nineteenth century had stifled the magical and mystical in the literate southern worldview, further dampening imagination in the contemplation of the world beyond death. Debates over heaven and hell centered on who would get there and how--not on what they would find there. As the published work of scientists around the world--increasingly available by the late 1820s--began to call into question biblical references to such things as the age of the earth, and raised speculation about life on other planets, doubt surfaced also as to the trustworthiness of scriptural translation. Within this environment of skepticism, universalism gained adherents. A growing number found compelling evidence within the flood of exegetical studies questioning whether the scribes of Holy Writ had ever intended to suggest an eternal punishment when they used the words interpreted as "hell" in modern translations of Scripture. As traditional views began to gray at the edges, and skepticism became fashionable, new waves of mysticism--particularly those of Mesmerism and Spiritualism--found curious audiences and committed practitioners. These ideas were never institutionalized to the degree they were in the North, but the impact of this broader thinking reveals itself in the markedly changed reading habits of the South by the advent of the Civil War. Hell had softened, though the terrifying images of old were resurrected by clergy when soldiers faced battle unconverted. The personal writing during the war reflected a very vibrant view of heaven--one that went beyond Scripture to suggest an environment like home, only better. With it came an expanded freedom to question and to imagine.

Electronic Thesis or Dissertation
History, Religious history