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Class-Oriented Hatch Delivers,
This review is from: The Democratization of American Christianity (Paperback)
Hatch's approach to the religion of the early republic is to define the principal conflict along class lines--the educated, eastern, Reformed, Federalist establishment versus the unschooled, western, anti-creedal, Jeffersonian populists. Judging from the prizes this book has won, numerous historians have considered it a landmark perspective on the early republic and subsequent American epochs, which must be taken into account in any future study.
Hatch marshals a copious amount of testimonial evidence as to the methods and convictions of both the religious populists and the clerical aristocrats against whom they rebelled. Unquestionably, Hatch is on to an integral part of early 19th-century religious life. Unfortunately, though, we are left to take Hatch's word for exactly how much this class warfare dominated the religious landscape. Hatch provides little statistical evidence to back up the populists' claims of a vast gulf between rich and poor, and one is left wondering about an excluded middle. Imagine writing an account of the religious history of our time purely from the quotes of Jerry Falwell and Ted Turner, and you see the problem--a vast, silent middle ground of religious opinion is neglected amid the rhetorical blasts of the polarized belligerents.
He never clearly locates the middle class (such as the mercantile bourgeoisie of New York City) on his socio-religious spectrum, only mentioning them in his penultimate chapter, which addresses the years 1830-1860. Similarly, though Hatch mentions a few counter-cultural educated Jeffersonians like Francis Asbury and Jefferson himself, he does not explore their unique fit into this era. Likewise, he implies that the entire under-class rejected clerical authority, never explicitly commenting on whether or not any of the illiterate laity remained faithful to their religious betters during this time.
Despite these silences, Hatch's exciting work provides the basis for a new paradigm in the study of American religious history. After tracing the theme of religious democratization up to the Civil War, he briefly sketches the theme through the 20th century in an epilogue. Anyone who has lived and moved in contemporary evangelical circles plainly sees the cyclical legacy of the early republic: a determined populist insurgency rebels against moribund, worldly religious institutions, but in the following generation, the insurgency itself becomes institutionalized and establishes rapport with higher culture, providing the ground for a new populist insurgency to arise. With an evangelical in the White House and upper-middle-class evangelical churches and institutions entrenched in the suburbs, it would seem the dialectic may be about to turn again, especially if current evangelical materialism becomes full-blown apostasy in the succeeding generation.