Popular Religion and the Salvation of the Colonial Dream

Editors Note- This is a review of The Democratization of American Christianity. Go here for info on the book.

American Christianity faced a tough decision as the 18th century turned into that of the 19th. The American Revolution seemed to have through everything off. Like a teenager fresh from his parents’ house, the American experiment stood gangly next to its older brothers across the pond. If the tensions of the age were being felt by the newest kid on the block, its older brothers were not faring much better. Christianity and the European churches were both struggling. In this tumult Hatch records that one of the American mainstream’s quintessential preachers took the pulpit at the founding of Andover Seminary in 1814. Beecher set his rhetorical prowess against the enemies of American Christendom. America was beset by men “who are nominally ministers of the Gospel…. They are generally illiterate men…. With few exceptions they are utterly unacquainted with theology and like other men are devoted through the week to secular employment…”[1] Beecher looked out at the great, unwashed masses and worried about the chances of an illiterate Christianity surviving in a world in which the intellectual stalwarts were dying a slow painful death.

As historians and other researchers are wont to do, one might fast forward to the modern day. What has become of the Christianities of America and Europe? Hatch reports that the younger brother shows three main differences with his older siblings: “the vitality of religion among ordinary people, the continuing prominence of populist religious leaders, and the vitality of mass democratic movements that reflect charisma and organizational skills of these leaders.”[2] In comparison Hatch asserts that religion, particularly Christianity, seems to be waning in England et al. One might ask why this pronounced difference. What has been planted in the soil of America that has not taken in Europe? In Hatch’s review of these important early days of a truly American religion, this author is reminded of the works of David Martin and Harvey Cox on Pentecostalism in the Global South. It seems that much like its newer neighbors, American popular Christianity has succeeded (in terms of numerical growth and vitality) because of its ability to prepare its people to be better citizens in their land. This populist Christianity has given its members the means to deal successfully with the rising tides of modern life. While this is a tremendous accomplishment, it has not been without sacrifice. America has had to pull the band-aid of a hierarchical and state-sponsored structure that had previously animated glued the people to Western Christendom. To accomplish these means has meant addressing four major complaints of American populist religion with the established Calvinism of its day: “its implicit endorsement of the status quo, its tyranny over personal experience, its preoccupation with complicated and arcane dogma, and its clerical pretension.”[3] Hatch’s book can be seen as an elaboration of the victories and defeats, both real and pyrric, against these complaints.

One mistake commonly made by the educated gentry of any generation is to assume that education is positively correlated with intelligence. At any time intelligent design can be seen in populist movements. It is interesting that this brand of intelligence can be more fluid and adaptable to changing tides than that of the more educated. Hatch notes that “while [these] preachers believed in fervent emotion, and had no interest in allowing one generation to rule over another, they were also capable of devastating logic to achieve their purposes.”[4] One could argue as Hatch does that these “uneducated fools” showed tremendous acumen in establishing systems and using ordinary means to accomplish extraordinary ends. In an article on the state of Anglican Virginia, Edward Bonds discusses the incipient challenges of doing church in the wild stretches of Virginia. He argues that the distances and individualistic nature of the inhabitants frustrated a hide-bound Anglican church. Likewise a good Virginian Anglican like Morgan Godwin can openly complain that the church was overstretched and not up to the task.[5] Yet Francis Asbury in establishing the Methodist circuit was able to provide a timely but costly method for maintaining spiritual oversight of his troops in the trenches. Hatch refers to the “accordionlike power” of this system to contract and expand with the sentiments of the land.[6] This simple structure provides a simple but intelligent solution to a problem that had vexed many of the more educated.

These entrepreneurs of American Christianity would also prove adept at using the modern media to their tremendous advantage. The emphases on colloquial sermons, testimonies, and publication of heart-felt worship choruses (set to modern tunes) established an important beachhead amongst the popular folk. Likewise the use of publishing and journals provide a hands-on encounter with the faith even as distances grew between its parishioners and priests. All of these tools enabled the Baptist, the Methodist, or the religious populist to meet his or her reader on an even level. Hatch writes that social structures of this new republic required a popular literature “that did not talk down to its intended readers.”[7] The result was that readers were given ownership of the material. In words similar to those used by Phillip Jenkins in his trilogy of books on the experience of Christianity in the Global South[8], Hatch argues that the story of faith could become the story of the common people. As with its African and Latin American followers, this subtle change brings a dedication and commitment that often precludes experimentation with other forms of thought and religion.

By means of adaptation to current realities, and reaction to felt needs and tensions, the populist leaders were able to build fellowships, establish churches, and hold their audiences spellbound. Yet without this all important step of ownership these movements would not have been long for this world. It is not enough to rail against the status quo, but important as well to find structures and options preferable to that old order. The populist ability to both rein in unwanted enthusiasms, and release necessary frustrations proves of vital importance. In discussing the Latin American experience of Pentecostalism (a modern populist movement), David Martin argues for what he calls “ecstatic release.”[9] He argues that release of the emotions is often the complement of self-control and not its adversary. The Populists of Hatch’s work also saw it as a necessary release that enables salvation. While the Anglican and Presbyterian ministers had addressed their potential converts in terms of education and conformity, these pioneers of religious faith sought to preach the good news and wait for the joyous reaction that such news should create in its listeners.[10]

By these means of release and response, the early populists were able to change the status quo, and create new structures which fit the inhabitants’ unique lives. These pioneers of the populist faith would try to establish dogmas and doctrines more in touch with their other commitments. In a way this brand of Christianity tapped into a feeling not uncommon in Church history: the idea that this one particular group is reforming Christianity along the lines of the early church. The idea of restoring the faith to its pre-establishment faith is prominent throughout the centuries, and according to Hatch shares a predominant role in the lives of these “new” movements.

Baptist preacher Elhanan Winchester writes that he “shut himself up chiefly in my chamber, read the Scriptures, and prayed to God to lead me into truth, and not to suffer in embrace any error.”[11] While this author is convinced of God’s sovereign ability to illuminate the scriptures through His Holy Spirit, it is this tendency of populist faith most unnerves. This perhaps proves the criticism of Luther at Worms that should he succeed Christianity was destined to fracture in a million little pieces all saying “I am the true Christianity.” Issues of this nature beg the question over what constitutes authority. It also points to one of the most troubling aspects and ironies of such populist religion. Many of these movements, after they had grown and often while they grew, displayed tendencies to try and control strictly even as they sought to be the rule of the people. Hatch writes of Asbury that he felt “it was the church’s ‘duty… to condescend to men of low estate.’”[12] It is with this sense of entitlement and license that created the impetus to create great and lasting institutions. It is also this instinct that allowed the following generations to long for more established and respectable organizations. In this push one gets leaders such as Charles Finney that mix the passionate desire to save souls with the desire to ‘trim away the rough edges’ of this faith. One also gets leaders that look to the establishment of settled movements and buildings. One also gets such areas as New York’s ‘burned over’ district which became exhausted after suffering so many intense waves of revivalism. One can also get the types of religious actions that provide an inoculation against the gospel as many a current Southern U.S. preacher has bemoaned. Before getting too misty-eyed for Puritanism, one must come back to Hatch’s assertion that the American faith shows more vitality and popular life than its European neighbors. In the popularizing and democratizing of the American faith, men like Francis Asbury and John Leland sought in their own ways to save and preserve the faith that the early colonists had brought to these shores from Europe.

True the more established powers of the day saw their place in our culture minimized, and with that minimization important ideas were lost. The faith that remained was one that was radically different. An European committed to the faith in a land of rampant secularity might argue from Hatch’s reading that the Christianity that remains is vital and important and that matters. Likewise an American committed to the orthodoxy of the faith believed everywhere at all times by all peoples might question just what they have received that is of value. But the ability to ask such questions, as well as, the desire to find good answers proves to this author that the rumors of the death of Christianity have been greatly exaggerate, and that matters as well.

[1] Hatch, Richard. The Democratization of American Christianity. Yale UP (New Haven, Conn.): 1989, 18.

[2] Hatch, 212.

[3] Hatch, 171.

[4] Hatch, 135.

[5] Both works are cited in the anthology Major Problems in American Religious History which is edited by Patrick Allitt. The Bonds essay “Anglicans in Virginia” can be found on pp 83-90 and the primary source document by Godwin can be found on pp 70-71.

[6] Hatch, 89.

[7] Hatch, 143.

[8] This series of books includes The New Christendom, Believing the Bible in the Global South, and God’s Continent.

[9] Martin, David. Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish. Malden, Mass (Blackwell Publishing): 2002, 15.

[10] For a discussion of this idea in the mission to the Southern slaves, see pp 104 -106 of Hatch’s book. For a review of this concept as it played out in the camp meeting among white Methodists, see 49-56.

[11] Hatch, 41.

[12] Hatch, 85.


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