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The Democratization of American Christianity Paperback – Illustrated, January 23, 1991
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1991 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
- Item Weight : 1.06 pounds
- Paperback : 312 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0300050607
- ISBN-13 : 978-0300050608
- Product Dimensions : 5.9 x 0.82 x 9.1 inches
- Publisher : Yale University Press; Illustrated Edition (January 23, 1991)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #310,875 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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But as Professor Hatch shows, the stump-winding evangelists won the day because they went out into the fields to gather their harvest, compelling results by down-home parables, insisting that "grace" was open to all souls regardless of gender, age, class, education, family, land of birth, or even - most radically of all - race. If, as Marx says, ideas reflect the politics and position of those promoting them, then the evangelicals of early America were the metaphysical side of popular democracy, free elections, open land, and upward mobility.
This brings me to a point which Professor Hatch seems to neglect, but was obvious to critics of the religious free market: that these preachers and seekers were entrepreneurs as much as frontier land speculators, often drawing in gullible "settlers" with exaggerated claims. For Joseph Smith this was no mere analogy: his church was also a corporate enterprise, and in moving to Utah became a state within a state. Temporal profit and power was never hidden too deeply behind the rationale of "pure Bible preaching."
In establishing the evangelists' democratic and even radical credentials, Hatch skirts their doctrinal intolerance; the negative side by which they're now judged. After all, it was frontier religious democrats who found the Mormons' closed community and ever-more fantastic theology so threatening, and drove them out by "mass democratic action" wherever they settled; finally lynching Joseph Smith himself in an act of "popular sovereignty." These religious populists also had scant use for the Catholic and Jewish immigrants filling the cities after this period, expressing this grass-roots totalitarianism in the Ku Klux Klan after WW I. Klan membership was highest where the new faiths had the widest membership, lowest where the "old churches" predominated. By the time of the Scopes Trial in 1925 their falling credibility reflected the career of legal counsel and populist William Jennings Bryan; the fate of his personal example overshadowed the progressive legacy of his early years. While Hatch has rescued the free-thinking origin of the evangelicals from the obscurity of American intellectual life - "They will not surrender to learned experts the right to think for themselves" (p. 219) - they studiously seek to deny it to those within and without their fold, using the strong arm of the state to enforce their values. Here there is no conflict with secularism.
The ultra-Protestant fracturing Professor Hatch records has gone even further. Now religious entrepreneurs do not found new denominations, but mega "big box" cathedrals run as one-man shows via electronic evangelism. The tax-free profiteering involved here gives a clue to much of the free spirit of the American religious frontier. American religion narrowed the gap between God and Man, and also between the Life to Come and the power, profits, and pleasures of this one.
Which brings me to a final point, unanticipated by Hatch at his time of writing: the baffling support of evangelicals for Donald Trump. Despite his peccadilloes, his gaffes, his barbarous ignorance, and flaming bigotry, their faith in him as some new Messiah seems to vindicate all the Elmer Gantry stereotypes of huckster showmen gulling the rubes yet again. True enough; but as Hatch shows here, the evangelicals originated as dissidents against the Established faith of eastern elites. In Trump they recognize a fellow rebel against the right of the "correct" to rule. If Heaven's Grace be open to all men, regardless of their sinful pasts, why not the highest offices of this temporal veil? :)
Hatch divides his book into four sections: Context, Mass Movements, Audience, and Legacy. In the first, he outlines the manner in which the new religious movements represented Jeffersonian democratic ideas. Hatch writes, “They denied the age-old distinction that set the clergy apart as a separate order of men,” the movements “empowered ordinary people by taking their deepest spiritual impulses at face value,” and the “upsurge of democratic hope…led to a welter of diverse and competing forms.” In flaunting traditional authority and empowering their followers to examine their religious experiences for themselves, the new religions upheld the Jeffersonian ideals. In his second section, Hatch examines each of the five religious movements in detail, explaining how they fit his mold. The Christian Movement, for example, “was laced with the language of politics” and espoused Jeffersonian values. Francis Asbury “warned of the growing evil of preachers, elders, and bishops.” John Leland echoed this when he “confessed that his calling had been ‘to watch and check clerical hierarchy, which assumes as many shades as a chameleon.’” African-American churches, by their very nature, rejected traditional white authority and allowed blacks to experience religion without white society controlling their experiences. Finally, the Mormon message “is intensely populist in its rejection of the religious conventions of [its] day and in its hostility to the orthodox clergy.” In his third section, Hatch argues, “the insurgents considered people’s common sense more reliable, even in theology, than the judgement [sic] of an educated few.” This concept led to an increase in the number of religious pamphlets and tracts written by untrained clergy or laypeople, allowing the public to have a voice in religion. Hatch concludes his book by arguing in his final section that modern evangelical Christianity in America is the result of this process that began in the nineteenth century.
Hatch provides a compelling argument that insurgent religions, having adopted the populist language of Jeffersonian politics, redefined the American religious landscape. Moreover, he demonstrates that the Second Great Awakening, rather than being the conservative religious movement that many historians have portrayed it to be, served to divorce “religious leadership from social position,” thereby ensuring the democratizing of American Christianity. Hatch admits in his post-epilogue section on the Second Great Awakening that there is more work remaining, but he lays out a solid foundation for future analyses to build upon.