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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

Power to the people

Nathan Hatch on the DIY spirit of early American Christianity

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

Power to the people

“Above all, the Revolution dramatically expanded the circle of people who considered themselves capable of thinking for themselves about issues of freedom, equality, sovereignty, and representation. Respect for authority, tradition, station, and education eroded. Ordinary people moved toward these new horizons aided by a powerful new vocabulary, a rhetoric of liberty that would not have occurred to them were it not for the Revolution. In time, the issue of the well-being of ordinary people became central to the definition of being American, public opinion came to assume normative significance, and leaders could not survive who would not, to use Patrick Henry’s phrase, ‘bow with utmost deference to the majesty of the people.’ The correct solution to any important problem, political, legal, or religious, would have to appear to be the people’s choice. . . .

“A diverse array of evangelical firebrands went about the task of movement-building in the generation after the Revolution. Intent on bringing evangelical conversion to the mass of ordinary Americans, they could rarely divorce that message from contagious new democratic vocabularies and impulses that swept through American popular cultures. . . . There was widespread disdain for the supposed lessons of history and tradition, and a call for reform using the rhetoric of the Revolution. . . .

“Christianity was effectively reshaped by common people who molded it in their own image and who threw themselves into expanding its influence. Increasingly assertive common people wanted their leaders unpretentious, their doctrines self-evident and down-to-earth, their music lively and singable, and their churches in local hands. It was this upsurge of democratic hope that characterized so many religious cultures in the early republic and brought Baptists, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, and a host of other insurgent groups to the fore. The rise of evangelical Christianity in the early republic is, in some measure, a story of the success of common people in shaping the culture after their own priorities rather than the priorities outlined by gentlemen such as the framers of the Constitution. . . .

“The democratization of Christianity, then, has less to do with the specifics of polity and governance and more with the incarnation of the church into popular culture. In at least three respects the popular religious movements of the early republic articulated a profoundly democratic spirit. First, they denied the age-old distinction that set the clergy apart from us as a separate order of men, and they refused to defer to learned theologians and traditional orthodoxies. All were democratic or populist in the way they instinctively associated virtue with ordinary people rather than with elites, exalted the vernacular in word and song as the hallowed channel for communicating with and about God, and freely turned over the reigns [sic] of power. These groups also shared with the Jeffersonian Republicans an overt rejection of the past as a repository of wisdom. By redefining leadership itself, these movements reconstructed the foundations of religion in keeping with the values and priorities of ordinary people.

“Second, these movements empowered ordinary people by taking their deepest spiritual impulses at face value rather than subjecting them to the scrutiny of orthodox doctrine and the frowns of respectable clergyman. In the last two decades of the century, preachers from a wide range of new religious movements openly fanned the flames of religious ecstasy. . . . What had been defined as ‘enthusiasm’ was increasingly advocated from the pulpit as an essential part of Christianity. Such a shift in emphasis, accompanied by rousing gospel singing rather than formal church music, reflected the common people’s success in defining the nature of faith for themselves. . . .

“The early Republic was also a democratic movement in a third sense. Religious outsiders, flushed with confidence about their prospects, had little sense of their limitations. They dreamed that a new age of religious and social harmony would naturally spring up out of their efforts to overthrow corrosive and authoritarian structures. This upsurge of democratic hope, this passion for equality, led to a welter of diverse and competing forms, many of them structured in highly undemocratic ways. The Methodists under Francis Asbury, for instance, used authoritarian means to build a church that would not be a respecter of persons. This church faced the curious paradox of gaining phenomenal influence among laypersons with whom it would not share ecclesiastical authority. Similarly, the Mormons used a virtual religious dictatorship as the means to return power to illiterate men. Yet despite these authoritarian structures, the fundamental impetus of these movements was to make Christianity a liberating force; people were given the right to think and act for themselves rather than depending upon the mediations of an educated elite. The most fascinating religious story of the early republic is the signal achievements of these and other populist religious leaders — outsiders who used democratic persuasions to reconstruct the foundations of religious authority.

“While the eighteenth century had seen a steady growth of authority based on popular appeal, particularly in various forms of religious dissent, the Revolution quickened the pace. Those who defended clerical authority as the right of a gentry minority were pitted against rough-hewn leaders who denied the right of any one class of people to speak for another. The early republic witnessed a popular displacement of power from the uncommon man, the man of ideas in American politics and religion. It is the intent of this study to tell at least part of this complicated story: how ordinary folk came to distrust leaders of genius and talent and to defend the right of common people to shape their own faith and submit to leaders of their own choosing.

“This story also provides new insight into how America became a liberal, competitive, and market-driven society. In an age when most ordinary Americans expected almost nothing from government institutions and almost everything from religious ones, popular religious ideologies were perhaps the most important bellwethers of shifting worldviews. The passion for equality during these early years equaled the passionate rejection of the past. Rather than looking backward and clinging to an older moral economy, insurgent religious leaders espoused convictions that were essentially modern and individualistic. These convictions defied elite privilege and vested interests and anticipated a millennial dawn of equality and justice. Yet, to achieve these visions of the common good, they favored means inseparable from the individual’s pursuit of spiritual and temporal well-being. They assumed that the leveling of aristocracy, root and branch, would naturally draw people together in harmony and equality. In this way, religious movements eager to preserve the supernatural in everyday life have the ironic effect of accelerating the break-up of traditional society and the advent of a social order of competition, self-expression, and free enterprise. In this moment of democratic aspiration, religious leaders could not foresee that their assault upon mediating structures could produce a society in which grasping entrepreneurs could erect new forms of tyranny in religious, political, and economic institutions.”

— from Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University Press, 1989)