A Review of The Democratization of American Christianity by Nathan O. Hatch

The Democratization of American Christianity was published in 1989 by Nathan O. Hatch, who was at that time a professor of history and vice president for Graduate Studies and Research at the University of Notre Dame. Through this study of history, Hatch aims to describe how “the wave of popular religious movements that broke upon the United States in the half century after independence did more to Christianize American society than anything before or since” (3). His central thesis of the book displays how grassroot movements of religious populism are a crucial component toward understanding American Christianity. As the book’s title suggests, by tracing an outline of these populist religious movements during the first decades of the nation (specifically from the end of the American Revolution to the middle of the Nineteenth Century), Hatch details how American Christianity became democratized, becoming a religion by the people and for the people. In order to accomplish his goal, Hatch focuses particularly upon five major mass movements within this period of history: the Christian movement, the Methodists, the Baptists, the black churches, and the Mormons (4).

Hatch structures the book in a sort chiastic form. With eight chapters, the first and last correspond to one another, providing the introduction and epilogue respectively. Chapters two and seven parallel one another, as chapter two discusses the conditions that gave birth to the mass movements in focus and chapter seven describes how the populist legacy continued to endure in the decades beyond the time period of our focus. Chapters three through six fittingly form the heart of the book with chapters three and four discussing the mass movements themselves, while chapters five and six address audience that composed these movements.

Analysis of Argument

One of Hatch’s first major points toward establishing his thesis is a description of the crisis of authority that permeated the early years of the new republic. In chapter two, he explores how Americans of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries became increasingly skeptical and even dismissive of the traditional establishment within the three most notable professions: doctors, lawyers, and clergy. After briefly describing how Jeffersonian populism usurped the more aristocratic Federalism and some of the shifts toward the people taking place in the legal and medical systems, Hatch presents the early religious dissenters, such as Lorenzo Dow, as acting against the corrupt authority that they saw within the clergy. This fundamental distrust of established authority began to give way to the conscience of the individual. The originally Baptist preacher Elhanan Winchester exemplifies this change in his embracing of universalism through “locking the door and coming to grips with Scripture for himself” (41-42).

Hatch continues to describe the significance of these mass movements in chapters three and four. Within chapter three, Hatch describes the general and common character that the five movements shared with one another. Notably they all sought to reconstruct the outworking of Christianity away from its former ways. They each focused upon numerical growth that added converts to the zeal of each movement, and they did this through the same means, colloquial sermons that avoided the scholarly language that had defined previous preaching. In Chapter four, he then describes the particular formation of each movement, which for all of their differences, each display the populist usurping of traditional clerical authority in favor of a more people-center religion.

In chapters five and six, Hatch focuses particularly upon the audiences that received and embraced these mass movements. Chapter five details the media by which these movements reached their audiences. The flood of unstudied but charismatic preachers, the proliferation of the printed word, and the surge of energetic gospel music all served to ensure the movements’ connection with the common man. Each medium reached out to the ears of those who would need to wrestle mightily in order to understand a carefully constructed theological treatise but could readily understand the points made in simple, common language used in songs or pamphlets. Furthermore, each movement emphasized the need for people to think for themselves rather than submitting to authorities, which resulted in a sharp rise of primitive biblicism (which chapter six describes). Having rejected the traditional authority of the establishment, they took the Reformers’ message of Sola Scriptura to its logical extreme, defiantly holding to the confession “no creed but the Bible.” This, of course, meant that the individual alone was the true arbiter for understanding the Bible.

Within chapter seven, Hatch describes the transitional period of the mid-Nineteenth Century away from the intense religious fervor of the previous decades. While much of the overt zeal that marked the movements died down as a result of their increased respectability, he notes that the populist root never diminished entirely, with preachers like Charles Finney carrying the torch of charisma to the next generation. Yet while these fiery leaders did continue, they gradually shifted into the periphery, while leaders like Nathan Bangs led the movements ever back into the mainstream professionalism.

Hatch concludes with chapter eight’s epilogue tracing the continuous populist swells throughout the rest of American history. Specifically, he points to the rise of Fundamentalism and Pentecostalism within the Twentieth Century as descendants of the five discussed mass movements. The advent of the radio and the rise of the middle class added new dimensions to these later movements, but the same essential appeal to the common man remained the same. Hatch concludes that these populist groundswells are one of the primary factors underlining the endurance and prevalence of American Christianity.

Critical Evaluation and Conclusion

This study of American Christianity possesses several strengths. First, Hatch’s layout of the material is a great help for grasping his overall argument. The topical focus of the internal four chapters and chronological focus of the four external orient the book as both a study and a story. Furthermore, the centralized presentation of each movement’s beginnings in chapter four served to make comparing and contrasting their similarities quite smooth.

Second, his explicit intent “to plumb the pamphlets, booklets, tracts, hymnbooks, journals, and newspapers that inundated popular culture in the early republic” (11) ensures that the book maintains a populist aroma throughout. Frequent citations from these sources help to paint vivid portraits of these mass movements that so easily enraptured their hearers. Furthermore, the appendix of anti-Calvinist and anticlerical poems acts as another powerful presentation of the strong anti-authoritarian mentality at work within this era. These sources serve to give us a more vivid sense of the history that we are studying.

Third, Hatch presents this historical narrative in a clear and interesting manner. Littered with anecdotes that act as both points of interest and windows into the post-Revolution religious landscape of America, the book is not dull; rather, it is both engaging and informative.

Finally, his concluding note regarding the study of Christianity in the early decades of the United States was a fitting reminder of the limitations of any one book to cover such material. The time period that Hatch explored is rich and, as he notes, still relatively uncharted. Hatch seems to understand the inability of any one author to grasp the depths that history offers to us; thus, he openly invites others to join in and continue onward with his exploration.

The significance of Hatch’s book seems to be bound to the validity of his argument. If populism truly does run as deep into the fabric of America as he claims, then developing a greater understanding of populism’s roots is highly beneficial, and I certainly believe this to be the case. Even today, populist allure over and against the “establishment” can be fairly easily seen. Within politics, President Trump and Bernie Sanders both present themselves before the American people in ways quite reminiscent of the charismatic but uncouth preachers like Lorenzo Dow, Elias Smith, or John Leland. Of course, Trump and Sanders do not bring quite the overt emotional fervor of the revivalist camp meetings, but their simple and repetitive appeals to their respective audiences create a very similar result. Both strive to empower their followers against the regular establishment authorities, which ironically results in a bolstering of their own authority (which was the irony that Hatch described with the leaders of the mass movements).

Also, as Hatch argues in the last two chapters, the religious movements have not ceased. They have certainly changed their appearance, just as the Fundamentalist and Pentecostal movements did not present themselves in identical ways to the Methodist, Christian, or Mormon movements before them. The various forms of charismatic movements (such as Bethel and Hillsong) and even the resurgence of Reformed theology seem to fit many of the patterns that Hatch described. Empowered common people and persuasive, likeable leaders continue to be a regular feature within American Christianity.

If indeed these sort of movements are still prevalent within the United States, Hatch’s balanced treatment of their beginnings can certainly help us to make sense of our present day. Throughout the book, Hatch is careful to describe both the benefits of an empowered populous as well as the dangers. For instance, the tendency of Americans to be skeptical or even blatantly discredit authorities and the educated elites is one that should be carefully balanced. Such skepticism has often brought about healthy and beneficial changes to society as a whole, yet the pendulum can just as easily swing toward merely establishing another form of authoritarianism.

For these reasons, many would find benefit from reading Hatch’s book. Academics, pastors, and politicians will gain a valuable glimpse into the formation of today’s America. Many churchgoers would likely find the book a bit dry, although they too would certainly benefit from this portrait of religious history. Of course, the presumed disinterest of the laity with such a study only seems to lend credibility to Hatch’s overall premise.

Overall, The Democratization of American Christianity was an intriguing and eye-opening book to read. Hatch’s engaging writing style and frequent citation of the mass literature of the time aid the reader to feel the turbulence and frenzy of the mass movements that he describes. Diving into this study of our past is a great tool for helping to make sense of our present.

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