‘Pure hell.”

It’s a phrase we use to describe a multitude of things, like two hours spent trapped in swampy summer interstate traffic with no air conditioning.

Or a torturous dinner with that fit fellow from the gym who, as it turns out, is a self-proclaimed depressive and only speaks in quotations from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Or the summer internship at that advertising agency where “learn all the nuances of the industry” really meant “spend afternoons picking alfalfa sprouts from the manager’s chicken fried rice.”

Hell is a comparison we make for dramatic effect, a place we curse each other to in the spiraling mess of an argument or an exclamation shouted over a stalling computer.

Hell is also a destination with which few of us have firsthand experience. (That old ad manager might really know. She seemed like the type of gal who might vacation on the lake of fire and brimstone.)

Our perceptions of the underworld are built from childhood memories of Sunday church services, maybe some Dante in college and a Clive Barker movie or two. And for some of us, an eternity spent in hell fire isn’t a possibility we put much thought into. The afterlife is an afterthought.

But in the early 1800s, people were putting a good deal of thought into hell — and their proximity to it.

Before the revivalists arrived in the 1790s with their all-nighter sermons, a belief in predestination reigned. Predominant thought held that your fate — either an eternity in heavenly comfort or drowning in a sea of fire — had been decided by God long before your newborn eyes opened to the world. No faith could redirect your course. No good works could change your soul’s ultimate destination.

“If you’re damned, it’s real scary and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Tom Kelleher, current curator of historic trades, mills and mechanical arts at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.

Old Sturbridge Village is one of the country’s largest living history museums, presenting New England life as it was from 1790 to 1840. Re-enactors tend the fields, manage the mill and staff the bank, country store and school.

And some of them, like Kelleher, preach.

The religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening swept through the United States in the early 19th century — a theological wildfire sparked by the threatening flames of the netherworld.

Souls could be saved, this new thinking said, through religious revivals.

“You have the power to say, ‘God save me,’ or ‘To heck with this, I don’t believe it,’ ” said Kelleher. An individual’s soul can be saved “not through your good works but through accepting God.”

Revivalism spread to churches and meetinghouses and to fields and warehouses. And like the Jimmy Swaggarts of their time, revivalist preachers such as Jedediah Burchard rose from the ranks like flashy beacons of eternal salvation.

Kelleher takes special interest in the revivalist movement and in Jedediah Burchard, appearing in costume at Old Sturbridge Village to re-enact Rev. Burchard’s lively revivals. The preacher was a controversial fellow, said Kelleher, stirring debate among the congregations he visited. “He almost destroyed Middlebury College (in Vermont). His revival produced so much contention that it decimated the enrollment to about a quarter of what it had been,” he said.

Burchard was also known to condemn individual townspeople from the pulpit — the threat of such reprobation in those times perhaps as frightening as hell itself.

The reverend’s work lends itself to re-enactment thanks to detailed accounts of Burchard’s preaching, transcribed verbatim by a couple of college students. A publisher hired the students to record everything the preacher said or did — from clapping his hands to leaping onto benches — like an historical screenplay.

These records enable Kelleher to bring Burchard back to life without having to fill in the gaps. “The problem with (other) revival services,” said Kelleher, “is that the ministers spoke extemporaneously. … They kind of read sermons, scholarly papers, and read this long, boring paper about ‘this passage means this and this passage means that,’ and the people would dutifully listen to it.”

What happened between the lines was anyone’s guess, and Kelleher didn’t want to make something up.

Kelleher has been appearing as the preacher for two decades. Tonight, he brings Burchard’s revival to Narramissic, the Peabody-Fitch Farm in Bridgton during a discussion and re-enactment called “Do you know what hell is?”

The event is a blend of New England history and old-fashioned entertainment. But it’s re-enactment for thought too. “It’s not to promote religion,” said Kelleher, “but to make people think about where we are and how we got here.”

And perhaps spur some thought about where we’re going.Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be contacted at 791-6333 or at:

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