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.

Prayer of Adoration | August 21, 2016

Our Gracious Heavenly Father–
We gather for the purpose of exalting you
and giving you the honor that is your due.

And we approach you in prayer
we do so in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ–
we cling to his perfect life, credited to our account;
his sacrificial death, that put to death our sin;
his resurrection, that points to our own resurrection;
and, his ascension, through which we have been given
the gift of your Spirit to aid us in our weakness,
to convict us of our sin, to empower us for ministry.

Each of us has tried so hard, so many times
to run from you and to worship ourselves.
Yet, for those of us who are in Christ Jesus
we have found that there is no where we may go
that you are not already there ahead of us.

If we try to ascend to the heavens, you are there.
If we make our bed in the depths, you are there.
If we rise with the dawn, or settle on the far side of the seas–
already, you are there and you will guide us and direct us.

No place is so dark that it can overwhelm your light.
No light is so bright that your light is not brighter still.
Darkness is as light to you, and lightness is as the dark.

We praise you that you have not left us alone, to our own
devices.
We praise you that you stand willing to rescue us from sin
and death.
We praise you that your love and grace are irresistible.
Accept now, O Lord, the praises of your people.

Through Christ we pray.

Amen.
(adapted from Psalm 139)

Today’s Pastoral Prayer

August 14, 2016

I prayed this Pastoral Prayer in today’s Sanctuary service. It is loosely based on the revival hymn “Softly and Tenderly,”

Gracious Lord,

Softly and tenderly you call us
to turn our faces to you, to come to you,
and to find rest for our souls.

For some of us the distance is great
and we doubt the reception we’ll receive.
For others the distance seems shorter
and we wonder whether we might just linger where we are
a moment longer and start the journey tomorrow.

When we doubt, we fail to recognize all the mercies
you extend to us—that are new every morning.
When we tarry, we ignore the steady march of time toward
our death-beds.

Shake us from our ignorance and illusions.

We’ve grown so use to striving, jostling,
positioning, and contending, that we wonder if it is
at all possible to find rest in your love for us.

By your Spirit, press deeply into us the truth
that your love caused you to step out of heaven,
to become just as we are, yet without sin,
and to give your life so that we might be restored,
so that our strivings might cease,
and we might know the Sabbath rest that comes in the Gospel.

Amen.

Wants

What is a Christian?

August 3, 2016

The real question here relates not to “thinking people,” but to the definition of words like “Christian” or “Presbyterian.” There comes a point when a word loses its power to contribute to the meaningful exchange of ideas. We have reached this point in the mainline churches. Little to no objective referent lays behind a word like “Christian.”

We live in a day and age where “self-identification” reigns supreme. We see it every time an essayist writes, “I identify as a white, heterosexual protestant.” Presumably he does so because he actually is a white, heterosexual protestant. Let us exise the phrase, “I identify as” from our parlance–it’s less than helpful.

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