31 Mar

William E. McLellin, Journal (July to November 1831)

William E. McLellin is known for his conversion to the Church of Christ in 1831. McLellin became an Elder in the Church and was an original member of Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The Quorum was made of men who were considered apostles, or thought to have a special calling as evangelists. McLellin is also known for his excommunication from the Church by Joseph Smith in 1838. McLellin spoke out against the Church after his excommunication, but rejoined after Smith’s assassination in 1844.

McLellin was born in 1806 in Tennessee. He married Cynthia Ann in 1829. Cynthia Ann died before July 1831 when McLellin lived in Paris, Illinois and worked as a teacher. From July to November 1831 McLellin kept a journal of his interactions with the two travelling preachers, his baptism into the Church of Christ, and his early evangelism. McLellin’s journal is an important source for historians of American religion. It reminds scholars that in the nineteenth-century the Church of Christ appealed to many Americans. It was entertaining, a part of the evangelical print culture, and represented Christian truth. The movement looked like other Christian movements in the 1830s and emphasized similar ideas and theologies. It was also new and mysterious to many others. In any case, the new Christian movement attracted many Americans including McLellin.

Summary

McLellin first heard about the Church of Christ when he was teaching school in Paris, Illinois. Two men came to town and advertised an afternoon meeting in a local town where they would preach. The men said they were travelling to Zion ,”which they said was in upper Missouri.” They also had a book with them called the Book of Mormon, which they claimed was revelation from God. After school one day, McLellin set out “Anxious to see and hear those quear [sic] beings.” The two men preached outdoors in a sugartree grove. They talked about signs of the time, explained why they believed in the Book as a revelation, and “expanded the Gospel the plainest” McLellin “ever heard” in his life. One of the men described having “seen an Holy Angel who made known the record to him.” McLellin pondered “these strange things” in his heart and invited the men to preach in Paris. He also travelled with them to another town to listen to their testimonies and to talk to them more about their religion. McLellin “was induced to believe something about their mission.” The two men invited McLellin to travel with them to Jackson County, Missouri where he could meet other members, and Joseph Smith, a Prophet and the translator of the Book. McLellin accepted the invitation and travelled West.

McLellin’s journal catalogues his journey to Independence, Missouri. He stayed some nights and ate meals with his friends and family who he told about the travelling preachers and the Book of Mormon. Other days and nights he spent with the two men and attended meetings where they preached. One day he took them to the graves of his dead wife, Cynthia Ann, and their infant. Before departing with the two men again, McLellin bought the last Book of Mormon they carried with them. Other nights he stayed in towns. In all cases, he usually paid for his and his horse’s room and board. McLellin also bought a pocket Bible for 75 cents one day. At one of his stops he sold his copy of the Book of Mormon to a lady who boarded him. Two Elders had visited the town and preached, but they ran out of copies of their book to sell. The women convinced McLellin to sell his copy to her.

When McLellin arrived in Independence, he talked with the local people to see what they thought about the traveling preachers. The villagers called them “Mormonites.” They said the Mormonites were honest, but “much deluded by Smith and others.” McLellin met with the Mormonites and saw peace, love, harmony, and humility among them. They engaged in family prayer and talked about the Second Coming, and the rise and progress of their church. They gave testimonies about their conversion experiences. McLellin rose early the next day and prayed to God. He recorded in his journal, “I was bound as an honest man to acknowledge the truth and Validity of the book of Mormon and also that I had found the people of the Lord—The Living Church of Christ.” McLellin was baptized into the Church by immersion in a river and laying on of hands. Nevertheless, like many evangelicals, McLellin had doubts after his baptism. He attended a “sacrament meeting” where there was plain preaching and witnessing by men and women of the works of god. McLellin, however, was disappointed by the lack of shouting, screaming, jumping, and shaking of members at the meeting. Nevertheless, he felt happy and “saw more beauty in Christianity now than I ever had seen before.” A few days later, McLellin was ordained as an Elder in the Church of Christ and was called to preach the Gospel himself.

McLellin travelled with other Elders and preached at meetings. He had not been trained to preach, but God gave him an animated and burning heart. McLellin, like the other Elders, preached for hours on end. At two different meetings, Methodist ministers challenged McLellin and the other Elders. One Methodist accused them of teaching “a supernatural Religion.” Other Christian preachers accused them of being false prophets. McLellin continued to preach with the other Elders. They preached about the literal Second Coming of Jesus in Zion in Missouri, and encouraged people to prepare and gather in Zion. They also continued to sell the Book of Mormon. McLellin eventually returned home to Paris after his preaching circuit.

26 Mar

Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (1997)

Christine Leigh Heyrman examines how evangelicalism spread to the American South from the 1740s to 1830s. Southern Cross surveys the diaries of itinerant Baptist and Methodist preachers to recognize “why southern whites of all classes long kept their distance from evangelicals” (26). Heyrman argues that evangelicalism did not gain widespread support in the South among white Southerners until the 1830s. In its incipient years, evangelicalism challenged the social and familial roles of the Anglican South, particularly the patriarchy of white masters. Itinerant preachers “realized that the future of their churches in the South depended on more than yielding ground to gentlefolk and slaveholders. It would require winning humbler folk as well by altering, often drastically, many earlier evangelical teachings and practices concerning the proper roles of men and women, old and young, white and black, as well as their positions and relationships between the church and the family, and between Christianity and other forms of supernaturalism” (26). By the 1830s, “Southern whites came to speak the language of Canaan as evangelicals learned to speak with a southern accent” (26).

Summary

In the eighteenth century, the largest number of churchgoers in the South were “Anglicans, members of the colonial church of England who later came to be called Episcopalians” (7). The First Great Awakening (1730s to 1740s) did little to affect the religious atmosphere of the southern colonies. From the 1740s to 1760s, some evangelicals moved to the South to proselytize, and more settlers moved south and southwest bringing their pietistic traditions. Heyrman notes, “All of those migrants and missionaries carried into the South the conviction that spiritual rebirth was essential to salvation, and the most militant among them, Baptists and Methodists, aimed at nothing less than teaching all Southerners the language of Canaan” (11). To do this, evangelicals attacked the “popishness” of Anglicanism with its rituals and holidays, and sent young, itinerant preachers to the backcountry. Evangelicals gained some membership numbers and established churches. By 1776, however, evangelicals numbered less than 10% of the southern white population. After the American Revolution and the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, evangelicals (Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians) gained only a few more adherents. By the early 1800s, evangelicals comprised only 17% of the white population and 8% percent of the enslaved population. “Why,” asks Heryman, “was it that evangelicals, although now invested with every advantage, still struggled to claim the soul of the South?” (23). The answer: Evangelicals challenged the social hierarchies of Anglicanism and southern culture.

These challenges angered and frightened most white laypeople, particularly white masters. Evangelicals preached about the sinfulness of humans, the torments of hell, and Satan and demons’ ability to interact with and take visible form in the world. This supernaturalism frightened white people in at least three ways. 1) It equated Satan with “the black man,” who represented the powerfulness of enslaved people. 2) It appealed to enslaved men and women who regarded supernaturalism as an integral part of religious life. 3) It frightened whites who also believed in the power and literalness of Satan. Evangelicals also challenged social hierarchy by sending out young, single, itinerant preachers. These young men challenged southern culture’s emphasis on patriarchy. These men did not defer wisdom to age, they were unmarried in a society that preferred marriage, they were single men interacting with married women, and they demanded reverence and respect from all classes of southern men. Evangelicalism also upset traditional understandings of family. Ministers ridiculed marriage, rarely dated, and married late. They expected loyalty among evangelicals after conversion, not among family members. They also upset hierarchies by seeking the conversion of women first and being in close proximity with women alone. They allowed women to speak in public, give testimony, and receive revelations. Women’s newfound spirituality looked hyper-sexual to white, male southerners. The language of family and “God the Father” in evangelical circles also undermined the earthly family. The emphasis on an intimate relationship with the male Jesus upset notions of masculinity. Moreover, ministers denounced social interaction among families and communities by denouncing dancing, parties, and drinking. Poorer white males even detested evangelicals who seemed to disrupt their relationships with white masters. Evangelicals challenged all levels of southern culture and society. These challenges hindered the popularity of evangelicalism. By the early 1800s, evangelicals recognized these stumbling blocks and altered their messages.

Evangelicals tamed their emphasis on Satan and supernaturalism to appease whites. This also meant segregating churches and seeking approval from masters to preach to and baptize enslaved Africans. Taming supernaturalism meant curtailing African participation in evangelicalism. Evangelicals stopped women from preaching and specking in public. They associated female piety with the home and domesticity. Evangelicals married and had families. They deferred power and authority to white masters. “What had come to matter most to men of God was what had always mattered most to men of honor: vindicating their mastery within the public sphere” (252). Evangelicalism draped itself in southern culture and society in order to win the souls of the South. Evangelicals came to resemble white masters. After winning the white masters, evangelicals were able to win the unchurched, white, lower classes from the 1810 to 1830s.

Historiography

Southern Cross examines the spread of evangelicalism contra Nathan Hatch’s notion of democratization. Unlike Hatch, Heyrman recognizes, firstly, that regionalism was important to the growth of evangelicalism. Hatch suggests that “The choice to study common developments springs from a conviction that certain underlying cultural dynamics of this period are not reducible to distinct regional characteristics…no section of the new nation was exempt from a democratic upsurge in religious matters” (12). Heyrman shows that regionalism impacted the spread of evangelicalism in the South. Evangelicalism challenged the establishment of the Anglian Church in the southern colonies and southern culture. Regionalism hindered and postponed the democratic upsurge in religious matters.

Heryman also challenges Hatch’s notion of democratization and popular religious movements. Evangelicalism was not a democratizing movement in the sense that it liberated people from social mores and promoted equality. To be sure, the movement attempted these things in its early years in the South. The moves toward liberation, however, were not successful. Evangelical ministers eventually re-inscribed the social order and gender roles of southern culture, and supported slavery. Evangelicalism did not liberate or embody the values of ordinary citizens. It actually did the opposite. Thus, Heyrman redefines the meaning of a popular religious movement: “This is the truest sense in which southern evangelicalism was a dynamic and popular movement: It was being reinvented during the very decades that it took root in that region, transformed by the demands of laymen and –women and the responses of clerical leaders” (27). A popular religious movement is the reinvention of religious values to meet the needs of particular laypeople, clergy, and culture.

Southern Cross is also important for what it says about the characteristics of evangelicalism. The dominance of evangelicalism in the South was not inevitable. Evangelicalism struggled for almost 100 years to take root in the South. Only when evangelical ministers conformed themselves and their messages to southern society and culture did it survive and thrive. Moreover, evangelicalism in the early nineteenth-century looked strange to many people. Its focus on supernaturalism and Satan frightened people. Evangelicals tamed supernaturalism to appeal to southerners. This is an important point. However, the degree to which evangelicals actually tamed supernaturalism may be debated. Recent studies show that belief in the supernatural grew throughout the nineteenth-century. In Heyrman’s story, supernaturalism all but disappears from evangelicalism. Nevertheless, the main point still stands. Evangelicalism of the early nineteenth-century was not the evangelicalism of the mid- or late-nineteenth century. Evangelicalism is not a static force or category that describes one particular theology and practice of Christianity.

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.