[Review] The Democratization of American Christianity

Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity. (New Haven: Yale, 1989), 243pp.

According to Hatch, religion in the early American republic was profoundly influenced by the process of democratization that was inaugurated by the revolution that gave birth to a United States of America. Hatch describes how the religion of post-Revolutionary America was marked by the ascendency of populist leaders and democratic movements pushing back against the hegemony of the orthodox Calvinism that marked the founders of the American colonies, and which remained in power in the northeastern United States.

The social upheaval inherent in revolution did not subside once the new nation had come into being. The period of 1775-1850 saw a profound reordering of the structures of American society, including religion. This upheaval saw the inversion of authority so that those occupying the elite professions, including law, medicine, and priesthood, came to be displaced by the virtuous everyman.

The liberty that came into being with the Declaration of Independence produced a fierce vision of ordinary folk as enjoying the right to believe as they wished—the inalienable right of freedom of conscience. This was especially the case as the American population came to occupy new frontiers and territories of the new nation which were notably devoid of the influences of high culture. Hatch points out that many of these new religious groups were highly class-conscious to the extent almost of using a class-based hermeneutic to critique the dominant churches of high society.

This context provided the perfect petri dish into which a myriad of sects could come into being. Hatch examines these culturally marginal groups including The Christian Movement, The Methodism of Bishop Francis Asbury, the birth of African-American religious groups such as the AME Church, and the Mormonism fueled by the heavenly vision of Joseph Smith.

Hatch shows how religion in the early republic veered away from those forms of Christianity that were regnant in Europe and under whose leadership the new nation had been formed—the “Calvinist Orthodoxy” of the Old School Presbyterians. The Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, and the Episcopalians were all eclipsed by the growth of the various sects within Protestant Christianity. These sects valued the preacher as an everyman, rejecting the notion of a cultured and educated clergy. Preaching came to be associated with the exhortative style of the frontier evangelist rather than the rhetorical finesse of the Ivy League graduate.

This new populist, revivalist religion—in all its forms—was remarkably able to grasp the importance of new communication media. If Gutenberg’s printing press helped to start the Protestant Reformation, surely its successors—the myriad newsletters, papers, and tracts of the early republic—aided the growth of these new religious movements despite the efforts of schools such as The Mercersburg Theology as well as the Old Princeton School to critique and deconstruct the theology of such “enthusiasts.”

Finally, Hatch shows how these new religious groups took hold of the Protestant slogan “sola scriptura” and carried it to its logical end thus producing a plurality of interpretations. “No creed but the Bible” was the watchword of both fundamentalists and Unitarian Universalists at the time.

Each person, it was thought, had the right to his own mind with respect to scripture interpretation—let the priests and the scholars be damned. In the end, the landscape of American religion was inalterably shaped by the forces of revolution that were unleashed in the severing of ties with Great Britain.