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Response to Review no. 882

I was grateful to discover that Greg Smith had read my book, and delighted that he found it substantial enough to attack! To be ignored is an author’s worst fate. I hope that he found it interesting and enjoyable.

His critique was well-written but his blows were glancing, because he didn’t strike at all at the heart of the book: its theological concepts. There’s a good chance that his training did not equip him to do so. Few raised in the shadow of today’s secular monolith are endowed with an understanding of the Christian monolith it replaced.

Perhaps for this reason, Dr Smith suspects that my work is padded with superficial references collected by electronic word searches. He couldn’t have known about the thousands of hours spent combing thousands of primary sources in hard copy in England’s marvellous archives.

He further suggests that I ‘twisted’ the evidence. Yet what confronted me when I began my research was the evident dominance of religious views of justice in the printed works of the 18th century that were inadequately reflected in modern writings about their justice system. This is one point of my book: by glossing over the abundant evidence of the period in favour of more fashionable secular themes, modern scholars have omitted a description of the origins of modern penology that offers great explanatory power.

Smith faults my work for bypassing the revisionist interpretations of prison origins that are by now quite familiar. In answer I simply quote from the book’s introduction, which he may have missed: ‘we will acknowledge and draw upon the worthy contributions of those who explain the penitentiary in other ways – but move on to something new and different’. Far from riding roughshod over the work of others, I saw a gap in the literature and strove to fill it. That’s what academics are supposed to do.

It’s hard to understand where he’s coming from when he says that I fail to show that the book’s principal characters had theology in mind as they shaped the Penitentiary Act. The very term ‘penitentiary’ is a theological concept, and I quote liberally from the printed works and personal letters of the major players in the Act’s formation, from standing committee reports, and even from the Act itself, to demonstrate its theological underpinnings; not to mention the five other chapters that examine the relevant religious currents that coursed through the 18th century. I am at a loss here, and must leave the evidence for the reader to judge.

Dr Smith concludes his article by saying that theologians might be interested in the book but not criminologists or social and legal historians. I think this is the one biting accuracy of his critique, and it is sad but hardly surprising. No monolith is tolerant of contrary ideas; but whether some prison historians care to acknowledge it or not, our penal practice has deep theological foundations that have shaped the present in many ways. And we can’t fully understand our present if we selectively ignore our past.