This woodcut, captioned “Christian Reformation,” was featured in an 1839 prisoner narrative. A Peep into the State Prison at Auburn not only rehearsed a long list of grievances against prison officials. Its author also accused the Protestant chaplain of supporting physically grueling, if not tortuous disciplinary regimes. The author decried the prison minister’s acquiescence to administrators using the lash.
While historians could point to the chaplain’s Calvinist credentials to explain his support for inmate whipping, that conclusion fails to offer an adequate account. Indeed, this Auburn prison chaplain was among the few Protestant prison reformers who supported the severe disciplines imposed in New York’s prisons in the 1830s. Indeed, most of the Calvinist and Quaker reformers agreed that the prison agents of Auburn and Sing Sing had gone too far.
Calvinist and Quaker reformers were among the earliest proponents of the Auburn prison discipline. They had long argued that religion was central to any prison’s reformative program. They emphasized prisoners’ descent and ascent – a program of suffering and redemption – that took inmates through prison trials toward a new life as an honest and hardworking citizen. They also understood themselves as guardians of this program of symbolic death and resurrection. They believed the prisons needed them to ensure that just the right sort of suffering was inflicted on inmates. To be sure, there were minor disagreements among them. Quakers tended to resist any form of corporal punishment. Calvinists were willing to accept it in limited forms. Even so, both of these traditions produced prison activists committed to a particularly Protestant version of the death and resurrection ideology on which the antebellum prisons relied. They both claimed that prisoners could reclaim their citizenship only when they had changed as a result of well-designed psychological, if not physical, afflictions.
So what happened at Auburn in 1839? Why did an inmate accuse the Protestant chaplain – and the reformers who sponsored his work – of colluding with abusive prison officials? This question requires us to explore how religion was such a contested category among antebellum prison partisans. By 1839, the Protestant reformers who backed Auburn’s chaplain had no idea that the minister supported the warden’s move toward expanded use of physical punishments. At the same time, prison officials across the state argued that chaplains had a duty to uphold the state’s disciplinary interests, not sentimental, humanitarian ideals. Both Quaker and Calvinist reformers were appalled when investigations late in the decade revealed institutions racked by violence while some chaplains stood by.
Protestant reformers accepted, if not argued for some forms of inmate suffering. They advocated their own notions of suffering and redemption with the hope of controlling how prison officials imparted physical afflictions on inmates. For them, religion was the key to keeping suffering under strict controls and interpreting its purpose correctly. But other interested parties interpreted religion in their own ways. Some wardens claimed that religion was central because inmates needed to understand they had offended both God and society – and deserved harsh treatment for their transgressions. And as the 1839 woodcut shows, prisoners invoked religion in their critiques of the penitentiary.
Jennifer Graber is an assistant professor of Religious Studies at the College of Wooster. Her book, "The Furnace of Affliction: Religion and the Early American Prison," is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.