Northern Illinois University Press

Hanging Between Heaven and Earth

Capital Crime, Execution preaching, and Theology in Early New England

Scott D. Seay

“Admirably well-organized and clearly written. [Seay] demonstrates a superb grasp of the history of preaching and criminal justice and the cultural history of colonial New England.”—W. Clark Gilpin, University of Chicago Divinity School

“Seay’s book will complement and complete previous scholarship … it joins several fine books that are together creating a new school of thinking about early American religious history.”—Philip Goff, Director, Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

One of the most ritualized spectacles of colonial and early national New England, public execution was intended to warn of the wages of sin, reconcile the convict to both God and the community, and demonstrate the cooperative authority of church and state. The clergy played a central role in the ritual itself and provided one of the primary explications of it: the execution sermon. In his in-depth study, Seay analyzes just over 100 such sermons preached and published in colonial and early national New England.

After placing the execution sermon in its ritual and literary context, he explores three interrelated themes—human sinfulness, the economy of conversion, and the nature and function of civil government—and outlines how theological explications of capital crime and its punishment changed over the course of 150 years. Seay offers more than a description of the content of these sermons; he explores how theological interpretations evolved in relation to larger cultural trends in early New England.

Seay concludes that as long as the Congregational church remained established, executions were public, public discourse was restricted to an educated elite, and execution sermons remained the definitive word on crime and punishment. The decades following the American Revolution, however, brought the slow disestablishment of the church, the privatization of executions, and the democratization of public discourse. As a result of these cultural changes, the execution sermon slowly lost its currency in New England, and this genre of preaching simply disappeared. This book will appeal to those interested in American History, theology, and the ministry.

(2009) 230 pp.
ISBN 978-0-87580-402-6
cloth $36.00

Scott D. Seay is Assistant Professor of Church History at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Table of Contents

Chapter One: The Contexts of the Execution Sermon
Chapter Two: Human Sinfulness
Chapter Three: The Economy of Conversion
Chapter Four: Civil Government
Chapter Five: A New Moral Discourse
Works Cited

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ISBN: 978-0-87580-402-6
Hanging Between Heaven and Earth $36.00