26 Mar

Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (1989)

Nathan O. Hatch examines the cultural and religious history of the early American republic between 1780 and 1830. The Democratization of American Christianity is a history of popular religious movements– including the Christian movement, the Methodists, the Baptists, the black churches, and the Mormons–and their popular leadership. Hatch argues that “the theme of democratization is essential to understanding the development of American Christianity,” (3). The Second Great Awakening “sprang from a populist upsurge rather than from changing mores of established parishes….The heart of the movement was a revolution in communications, preaching, print, and song” (226). The Second Great Awakening was not a force of unifying revivalism. It delineated social conflicts among clergy and laymen that emerged from the social conflicts of the American Revolution.

Summary

Hatch traces the “fault lines” of democratization to the American Revolution, “the most crucial event in American history” (3). According to Hatch, “The Revolution and the beliefs flowing from it created a cultural ferment over the meaning of freedom. Turmoil swirled around crucial issues of authority, organization, and leadership” (6). This political and social turmoil incited struggles for religious authority among educated clergy and ordinary men. These struggles were also fueled by agrarian unrest that “was tightly linked to a vein of radical religious protest” (31). Common-folk preachers emerged from this crisis of authority who promoted mixtures of high and popular culture, expressed varied opinions, and exalted youth, free expression, and religious ecstasy. These ministers preached against established denominations, supported individuals’ interpretation of scripture, and deferred to the supernatural. These ministers formed five popular religious movements that exemplify the democratization of Christianity: the Christian movement, the Methodists, the Baptists, the black churches, and the Mormons. These movements highlighted the crisis in authority in popularity culture and expressed a “democratic spirit” in three respects. First, they denied leadership to the learned and elite, and approved the use of vernacular in word and print. Second, they empowered ordinary people by encouraging the recognition of the supernatural in everyday life. Third, they gave ordinary people the right to think and act for themselves, even in theology, as exemplified in development of a popular religious print culture.

Despite these democratic notions, “religious demagogues” emerged as leaders of these movements who quested for a new religious order. Among these popular movements, restoration movements, including the Adventists and Millerites, gained influence. These latter movements were made possible by “the sharp blows of the democratic revolutions in severing taproots of orthodoxy [Calvinism, the Reformed tradition] and the disconcerting reality of intense religious pluralism in the early 1800s” (169).  By the mid-nineteenth century, “the early republic’s populist religious movements were undergoing a metamorphosis from alienation to influence” (193). The denominational landscape of America was transformed by the nation’s democratic upheavals in three ways. 1) Leaders of the popular religious movements brought change to the established churches (Finney promoted Methodist revival techniques among Presbyterians); 2) The preachers of these movements sought respectability, gentility, and legitimation; 3) The trend toward formalization and respectability brought a new wave of “religious firebrands” (195). Popular religion in America rested on the paradoxical relationship of democratic leadership: common-folk preachers fitted the Gospel to ordinary Americans while they also re-inscribed order, tradition, and authority. It also rested on the “pervasive quality of dissent” in America. The democratic spirit influenced American Christianity to such an extent that “popular culture in the early republic became manifestly Christian” (209).

Historiography

The Democratization of American Christianity was a response to the void in the 1980s on the religious history of the early American Republic. Hatch suggested that this void emerged because of three trends in scholarship. 1) Historians treated the early American republic as a bookend to either the American Revolution or the Jacksonian era. Thus, the era was deemed insignificant in itself. 2) Historians did not question the ubiquitous linking of the Great Awakening with the Revolution. They traced America’s root and future identity to the revivals of the eighteenth-century. 3) Scholars continued to produce historical narratives that favored elite churches and clergy.

This book urges scholars to move beyond studying American Christianity from the perspective of elite theologians. This method of study obscures transformations and power struggles in religious leadership that emerged during this time and continued to shape American Christianity. Hatch’s method looks to ordinary men who challenged denominational authority and structure, and, in doing so, “rose to leadership positions” in popular religious movements. Hatch shows that religious debates in the early American republic were not merely clashes over theological and intellectual differences, but also social struggles over power and authority.

Hatch suggests that “historians failed to appreciate the influence of popular religion in a culture shifting from classical republican values to those of a vulgar democracy and entrepreneurial individualism” for three reasons. 1) Historians from the 1950s to 1980s downplayed the social impact of the Revolution. They assumed the Revolution was about defending “home rule,” not about social conflict. And, in the same vein, they assumed that the Second Great Awakening was about deepening religious piety, not about social and religious turmoil. Revivalism, for these historians, becomes the unifying force that drove American Christianity. According to Hatch, “Revivalism as a principle agent of change has obscured the achievements of flesh-and-blood leaders and the dramatic strategies to forge new movements. It has also blurred the vastly different social functions the revival could assume for proponents as diverse as Lyman Beecher and Francis Asbury” (222). Moreover, the Second Great Awakening had been interpreted “as an attempt by traditional religious elites to impose social order upon a disordered and secularized society.” Neither of these interpretations allowed for the power struggles experienced between the clergy and laymen, between institutions and new movements.

Hatch’s insights about social conflict and historical categories are invaluable. Yet, scholars may need to rethink Hatch’s notion that democratization stemmed from the Revolution. In recent years, scholars, like Linda K. Kerber (Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America) have moved away from seeing the Revolution as the most influential event in American history. They suggest that the Revolution was revolutionary in terms of ideas, not necessarily in terms of social conflict and action. The social statuses of enslaved Africans, women, and poor white males remained the same after the Revolution. The impact of the Revolution was not the event itself, but the ideas and social change that it fostered in the early American Republic. The early American Republic, not the Revolution called for social change. Democratization was an effect of social stagnation, not necessarily social change. People were not happy with the results of the Revolution. Nevertheless, Hatch’s insights about the Second Great Awakening remain significant for the study of American religion. The historical category of “the Second Great Awakening” obscures actual historical developments and the people involved.

Historians have also failed to interpret the influence of popular religion because 2) “church historians from the more popular denominations have had reasons to sanitize their histories” (223). Hatch suggests that some historian have focused on aspects of their own religious heritage “linked to cultural enrichment, institutional cohesion, and intellectual respectability” (223). These scholars presented histories of these movements as markers of civilization and progress. They ignore notions that churches and movements can act as forces of liberation and control. These historians also present Protestantism as a single, unified entity with a commitment to “the church.” Hatch warns that this presentation of unity obscures evidence and makes it “virtually impossible for church historians…to admit that God’s ultimate plans could entail the splintering of churches” (223). Church historians also presented the Second Great Awakening as a unifying force of evangelicalism in the face of secularism. Thus, American Christianity is always at odds with American culture.

Popular religious movements remained unexplored because of 3) the emphasis on class conflict, labor, and capitalism. “This neglect stems both from the neo-Marxist preoccupation with the formation of social classes and from the assumption that religion is generally a conservative and pernicious force” (224). Recent studies have incorporated Hatch’s criticism by incorporating the study of American religion with capitalism, the marketplace, and secularism. Studies also abound that trace evangelicals’ use of media in the nineteenth-century.

The Democratization of American Christianity revolutionizes the ways scholars should think about Christianity in the early American Republic. This book is not about popular religion in the sense that it looks beyond men in leadership positions. But, it opens the way for other scholars to delve deeper into the everyday religious lives of men, women, and children who influenced popular Christianity in the early American republic (See Heyrman, Southern Cross). Hatch shifts the study of American religion from elite to popular religion in order to see major transformations in the practice and popularity of Christianity.

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