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The Democratization of American Christianity
by nathan hatch
yale university press, 312 pages, $25

In 1802 a flamboyant Baptist preacher named John Leland presented a twelve-hundred pound “mammoth cheese” to Thomas Jefferson at a White House ceremony. Molded in a cider press from the milk of nine hundred cows, this phenomenal creation bore the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” This bizarre and media-minded event has a strikingly modern ring, but it also tells us something significant about the time in which it occurred. 

John Leland is just one of the many colorful preachers who, following the American Revolution, led a religious revolt against the learned theologians and ecclesiastical institutions of his day. He and Other remarkably popular visionary leaders caused the period of the early republic to become, according to historian Nathan Hatch, “the most centrifugal epoch in American church history.” The lives of these men and the movements that they led are recounted in this fascinating book. (Whatever became of the huge mound of cheese. Hatch does not say.) 

Hatch, who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, argues that the American Revolution dramatically expanded the number of people who decided that they were capable of thinking for themselves on all manner of issues. “Respect for authority, tradition, station, and education eroded,” writes Hatch, and as a result, “American Protestantism has been skewed away from central ecclesiastical institutions and high culture; it has been pushed and pulled into its present shape by a democratic or populist orientation.” This democratic impulse provided the means for evangelical Protestantism to flourish. 

Hatch examines five popular churches and religious movements that emerged early in the nineteenth century: the Methodists, the Baptists, the Mormons, various black churches, and the “Christian” movement (sometimes called the Campbellite movement, after Alexander Campbell). Hatch finds their leaders—previously unfamiliar men like Leland, Francis Asbury, and Lorenzo Dow—every bit as important in the history of nineteenth-century Protestantism as the better known ministers Lyman Beecher, Horace Bushnell, and Timothy Dwight.  

As a result of an anti-authoritarian impulse, writes Hatch, Americans of the early Republic began to exalt “religious leaders short in social graces, family connections, and literary education.” They preached their message to the “unschooled and unsophisticated,” and offered people of humble origins “a marvelous sense of individual potential and collective aspiration.” For these reasons religious populism became an institution in itself and remains today one of the strongest and deepest impulses in American life. 

The transitional period between 1780 and 1830 left an “indelible imprint upon the structures of American Christianity.” Christianity during this time was fundamentally reshaped and molded by common people who “wanted their leaders unpretentious, their doctrines self-evident and down-to-earth, their music lively and singable, and their churches in local hands.” These were people who refused to defer to learned theologians and instead “associated virtue with ordinary people rather than elites.” Hatch shows how these ordinary folks, armed with the gifts of persuasion and a “common touch,” came to “distrust leaders of genius and talent” and instead learned to “shape their own faith and submit to leaders of their own choosing.” 

Mass religious movements emerged that were not only deeply fervent but also genuinely democratic and populist. There also appeared a new style of minister and leader, a fact not lost on Alexis de Tocqueville, who said in amazement: “Where I expect to find a priest, I find a politician.” This new-style leader often urged others to be contemptuous of education and creeds, and encouraged his followers to think and examine the Scriptures for themselves. 

Such spiritual populism brought anything but religious cohesiveness to the new nation. It brought instead a “sea of sectarian rivalries” that led to “religious ferment, chaos, and originality unmatched in American history.”

Few traditional claims to religious authority could weather such a relentless beating. There were competing claims of old denominations and a host of new ones. Wandering prophets appeared dramatically, and supremely heterodox religious movements gained a following. People veered from one church to another. Religious competitors wrangled unceasingly, traditional clergy and self-appointed preachers foremost in the fray.

Moreover, mass communication networks grew as an explosion of popular religious material became the primary means of promotion for competing religious groups. Church leaders became “communication entrepreneurs” and master preachers of what John Wesley called “plain truth for plain people.” This required an ability to distill their message to reach the ears of uneducated common folks. Evangelicals learned to craft their warm appeals for the unchurched masses. They effectively “made evangelicalism a major force on both sides of the Atlantic,” says Hatch. “Folk geniuses” is the term Hatch uses to describe these apparently great communicators.

But there was a downside to this religious fervor among the masses. The response of congregations to this anti-authoritarian, anti-centralist, and anti-elitist message began to dictate the contours of the message being proclaimed. A radical dependence on and sensitivity to the audience caused the values of the listeners to shape the content of the message. Charles Finney told ministers to speak “the language of common life.” He urged preachers to “throw out their notes, look their audience square in the face, and preach in a style that was colloquial, repetitious, conversational, and lively.”

This “audience-centered” approach was the beginning of a revolution in American religious life, the effects of which can still be seen today across the entire theological landscape. From codependency theories couched in theological language to pleas that the church be “market-driven” (defined by one leader recently as, “focusing on what people are looking for from a ministry”) to reformulations of a gospel of self-esteem. the messages of many current popular religious leaders are dictated more by their attempt to be “receptor oriented” than by their critique of the Zeitgeist.

Modern evangelical Protestantism has, because of its populist tendencies, shown paradoxical signs of strength and weakness. Measuring the success of their ministries by their popular reception, evangelical pastors in America have nourished millions of believers in basic doctrinal content. They have built over 250 Bible colleges and seminaries in this century alone. But while popular leaders sell books in the millions, the secularism of elites meets little effective challenge. When on the march politically, evangelicals are only able to stir up the troops within their own camp. As Hatch has noted elsewhere, because many evangelicals “have abandoned the university, the arts, and other realms of ‘high culture’ “ they are often “least capable of winning the right to be heard by twentieth-century intellectuals.” By continuing to slight “the life of the mind,” warns Hatch, evangelicals, for all their success at reaching people at large, “must sooner or later face the specter of Pyrrhic victory.”

Hatch makes a convincing case that much of the distinctive nature of American Protestant Christianity can be attributed to its populist and democratic orientation. The many self-appointed and independent religious leaders surrounding us today (from Pat Robertson to Jesse Jackson) were foreshadowed in many ways by a populist theology that developed out of the first half of the nineteenth century. Accordingly, much of American Christianity “continues to be powered by ordinary people and by the contagious spirit of their efforts to storm heaven by the back door.”

Winner of the Albert C. Outler Prize in Ecumenical Church History and of two other prestigious academic awards, Nathan Hatch’s book has already become a standard reference on American religious history.

Michael Cromartie is a research associate in Protestant Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the editor of Evangelicals and Foreign Policy and the co-editor, with Richard John Neuhaus, ofPiety and Politics: Evangelicals and Fundamentalists Confront the World.

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