Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Democratization of American Christianity (American Anti-Intellectualism Con't)

If this ridiculously long post seems irrelevant to the current election, bear with me! I'll wrap things up tomorrow!

The United States is unique among Western industrial powers. A Gallup poll in the late 1980s revealed that 41% of Americans aged eighteen to twenty-four felt their religion to be a "very important" part of their lives, as opposed to less than 10% in Britain, Germany, and France. Nearly 40% of Americans attend Sunday services, while this is true for only 10% of Britain, 5% of Scandinavians, and less than 25% of Canada and Australia (Hatch 210). The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989) by Nathan O. Hatch, a highly influential scholar of American religious studies and current president of Wake Forest University (32), argues that this is due to the ongoing force of a populist strain of Protestant thought that first arose in the 1790s with widespread demand that the Revolutionary rhetoric of freedom and democracy be fully realized in politics, society, and, inevitably, religion. The Second Great Awakening, which ran through the 1830s, was a time of millennial experimentation and renewal, as well as upheaval within the old Calvinist sects.

Impoverished Americans of the early nineteenth century have been nevertheless described as a "set of fierce republicans" fully aware of the Revolutionary promises of liberty and equality. Furthermore, "[a]mong this motley crew there was no regular place of worship, nor any likely prospect that there should, for their religions had as many shades as the leaves of autumn; . . . To hear their people talk, one would think time had run back to the days of the levelers" (32). A motley, according to historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, was a colorful garment worn by Renaissance court jesters who were granted special permission to mock the king and satirize society. During the era of popular unrest at home and abroad in its colonies, seventeenth-century English commentators began to describe the wildly variegated, ragged mobs of commoners as a "motley crew" (Linebaugh and Rediker 27-28). The English Civil War years witnessed the rise of the Leveller political party, which advocated religious tolerance, jury trials, law in common language, the abolition of double jeopardy, legal equality, and the right to call witnesses and confront accusers (105) – all demands that were finally realized over a century later in the American Constitution. Indeed, says Hatch, the radical preaching and anticlericism of the Second Great Awakening and its powerful resonance among the poor and dispossessed had its origins in the iconoclasm of the English Civil War (Hatch 44), when religious activists usurped Bristol pulpits, warned of the coming millennium and the downfall of the rich, and welcomed "drunkards and adulterers" into their congregations (Linebaugh and Rediker 80-81). The preachers of the Second Great Awakening frequently reminded their audiences of the humble origins of Christ and his early followers, as well as their oppression by the ruling classes – a theme that blended nicely with the fervent Jeffersonianism that characterized the early American republic (Hatch 45).

The overall American situation, however, was as different as it is perhaps possible to be from that of seventeenth-century England. Instead of reacting against an authoritarian, monarchial social order, American preachers lived in and were influenced by a nation that celebrated egalitarian freedom. The post-Revolutionary era saw the rapid growth of newspapers, volunteer societies, the organization of political parties, new definitions of citizenship and the role of women, and virulent attacks on elite professions, especially the clergy. As forms of hierarchy in all areas of life began to collapse, radical Jeffersonians began to reclaim the Revolutionary rhetoric, which had once united colonists from all walks of life, to rouse the common folk against "aristocrats" (23). Drawing on the anti-Federalists, they scorned the idea of society as an organic chain of command and argued that it was instead a veritable motley crew of competing interests. The potent new force of newspapers enabled the propagation of their ideas among the masses, leading one gentleman observer to equate newspaper-reading with "tavern-haunting, drinking, and gambling" (24-25). Radical republicans denounced the legal profession as needlessly obfuscating and designed to thwart the will of the people with its specialized language, while orthodox medicine ought to be overthrown in favor of botanical folk remedies (27-29). "The world has long enough been duped by lawyers, and priests, and doctors," one critic ridiculed. ". . . Every quack is . . . one of the people, and pre-eminently the guardian of the people; while those who spend their lives, in acquiring knowledge which has been handed down by the great physicians, . . . are not of the people, but arrayed against the people, and are bent on killing them off" (Feller 91).

Dissent, in other words, came to be defined against accepted tradition, especially as the rush to settle the frontier removed many citizens from established centers of authority. The deterioration of their economic prospects in the 1780s and '90s, despite promises of prosperity, only deepened their resentment and sense of social alienation (Hatch 34, 39-31). Within this milieu the "coarse language, earthy humor, biting sarcasm, and commonsense reasoning" of backcountry preachers held enormous appeal and left educated ministers at a loss. Instead of respecting "tradition, learning, solemnity and decorum," upstarts such as Methodists Lorenzo Dow and Francis Asbury exalted the individual conscience (34-35). Dow, an itinerant preacher, was so dedicated that he is estimated to have spoken at least 500 camp meetings in 1804 and traveled some ten thousand miles the following year alone.

Dow's practice of quoting Thomas Paine at the beginning of his sermons reveals the surprising array of secular influences on the Second Great Awakening; namely, radical Jeffersonianism, in addition to the Enlightenment emphases on equality, the separation of church and state, and the celebration of an "Age of Inquiry" in which the people are invited to think for themselves. To this latter item was added the parallel concept of an "Age of Wonders," in which God remained an active force in everyday life (30-37). By drawing extensively on recent Western religious and intellectual thought, the rising evangelical sects were able to impart what Dr. Martin Luther King has called "a sense of sombodiness" on their poor followers (58). Americans of all ranks felt that they were on the brink of something great, as "standing between a receding heroic past and a wonderful future beginning to unfold" (Feller 4). Among the humble this translated into a sense of millennialism that was closely linked to the spreading of democracy. Elias Smith claimed that God had elevated Jefferson, as He had Cyrus, "to dry up the Euphrates of mystery Babylon," while Lorenzo Dow's "Dawn of Liberty" foreshadowed the Book of Mormon in claiming that the history of salvation was shifting to the New World (Hatch 184-185). Though their African-influenced Christianity and immediate material concerns precluded revolutionary millennialism from the slaves' religion, some would nevertheless come to link Abraham Lincoln with Moses as their promised liberator (Genovese 273, 275-276).

British Methodists were alarmed by their American counterparts' penchant for camp meetings, a trait they shared with other burgeoning Protestant groups including the Baptists (Hatch 50). Observers were either awed by the awesome power of the divine or repelled by "the air of a cell in Bedlam." Whatever one thought of their spiritual utility, it was undeniable that camp meetings were powerful recruiting tools (55). "By making converts the measure of correctness, preachers nearly offered up the tenets of Christianity for popular referendum," Daniel Feller has stated, noting that one itinerant explicitly compared his techniques to those of a politician seeking votes (Feller 99). The most distinct feature of American Christianity doubtlessly was its charismatic leaders whose boldly emotional and endearingly colloquial sermons gave rise to whole new denominations. Also characteristic was a zeal for organization (Hatch 56), a trend mirrored in the proliferation of voluntary societies to assist Americans in their quest for self-mastery (Feller 146). Methodists were especially innovative in this field, demanding that their itinerants preach anywhere and everywhere, as well as successfully combining the force of the spoken Word with that of the printed Word (Hatch 57).

The Calvinist establishment was almost hopelessly impotent in the face of the onslaught, only adding to the evangelicals' success. Unlike in Europe, no single church had the backing of the state, leaving the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians to their own devices. In fact, a New England alliance between Congregationalist ministers and the hated Federalist party became a cause célèbre in the press and added fuel to their religious rivals' zealous opposition to "aristocracy" (59). In addition to a decrease in young men of good families entering the ministry, as well as the seizure of church lands in several states, the old Calvinist denominations soon faced dissent among their own ranks as "New Lights" such as Lyman Beecher sought to revive their churches' sagging image and membership ranks by domesticating popular evangelical techniques (59-61).

The central figures of the Second Great Awakening, according to Hatch, were a "motley crew with few common characteristics." New England's Elias Smith had been a respectable Baptist minister until he fell under the influence of radical Jeffersonian publicist Benjamin Austin, Jr. and underwent a political conversion. He resigned his post, denounced all organized religion, and worked to translate into spiritual terms Austin's call for the common people to think for themselves (69). James O'Kelly headed Virginia's Republican Methodists, formed in 1804 in protest against the "ecclesiastical monarchy" of the Methodist Church and fellow religious radical Francis Asbury in particular. Following the Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky, Barton W. Stone found himself unable to bear Presbyterianism any longer and finally concluded that all church structures were dubious. In 1803 he and a group of five other ministers founded a sect they simply called "Christian." Stone called his beliefs "gospel-liberty," recalling the American Revolution as the defining secular moment of his life. Alexander Campbell, meanwhile, founded the Disciples of Christ in a quest to recover primitive Christianity; they merged with Stone's Christians in 1830 (70-71). Many Baptists were pleased that they seemed to finally be gaining social respectability, yet the radical egalitarianism and violent anticlericism of John Leland threatened their newfound propriety. His 1791 pamphlet, The Rights of Conscience Inalienable. . . or, The High-Flying Churchman, Stripped of His Legal Robe, Appears a Yahoo, borrowed directly from Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (98-99). Note: A yahoo is a bestial sub-human found in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. In the bibliography Hatch also addss that Leland argues that truth will always prevail in a free marketplace of ideas.

For all their differences, however, each of these men stressed the simple motifs of sin, grace, and conversion. They embraced spontaneous experience and dismissed any religion that struck them as cold, detached, and intellectual. Unlike their predecessors of the First Great Awakening, they quite self-consciously threw off the weighted traditions of the past and rejected learned theology; they also demanded that clergy and laity be placed on equal footing, sought to create a new history that called for inquiry and innovation, and, above all, proclaimed the inalienable right of every Christian to read and understand the Bible for themselves. The story of Christianity since the time of the Apostles, they charged, has been a sad conspiracy of elite clerics to keep the full Truth out of the hands of the people to enrich their own power. Stone and Campbell pushed this logic to its extreme and renounced any form of church government; Stone and his colleagues even dissolved their own organization (76-77). There can be no creed, many argued, but the Bible. This was a crucial departure from the First Great Awakening, which had not gone so far as to use the Bible itself to combat theology, history, and tradition. The Bible also provided solid footing for a populace shaken by rootlessness, political controversy, and fragmentation (180-182).

"Whatever the religion of the masters," Eugene D. Genovese has written, "the slaves, when given a choice, overwhelmingly preferred the Baptists and secondarily the Methodists" (Genovese 232). The old Calvinist doctrine of predestination had never appealed to them for the same reason that poor whites often rejected it (212-243). The slaves' life-affirming African heritage easily complimented the evangelicals' celebration of the individual soul, which African spirituality saw as a vibrant force of inner life (Hatch 212; Genovese 247). Many Baptists and Methodists – including John Leland, James O'Kelly, and Francis Asbury – initially embraced African-Americans and took a staunch abolitionist stance. To the modern scholar this religious opposition to slavery may seem shallow and temporary, says Hatch, but in its own time it was a radical attack on the Southern precept of paternalism (Hatch 102-103). The evangelicals also preached in plain language and allowed for immediate conversion, as opposed to long periods of study and self-reflection (105-109). Above all, they utilized black preachers, which had been almost unheard of in the colonial era.

Greater permeation into Southern society meant greater accommodations for slavery and the assertion of white supremacy; nevertheless, this ironically bolstered African-Americans' identity and religious autonomy as they formed their own churches when interracial congregations were broken up (105-109). Slaveholders soon found that laws repressing black preachers nearly impossible to enforce. The black churches "counseled a strategy of patience, of acceptance of what could not be helped, of a dogged effort to keep the black community alive and healthy – a strategy of survival that . . . above all said yes to life in this world" (Genovese 279). African-Americans' Christianity formed "the core of their identity," conveying racial strength and uplift while maintaining communication networks among fellow slaves and far-flung plantations (Hatch 113).

Leaders such as John Leland may have been too iconoclastic to have lasting influence (100), but one Joseph Smith was certainly quite the exception. Born in 1805 to a family unable to break out of "poverty, wearisome toil, and chronic dislocation," Smith nonetheless grew up in a strongly religious household where he watched his mother Lucy sample an array of shrilly competing sects in a vain search for fulfillment. By his fifteenth birthday Smith was "convinced that only a new outpouring of divine revelation could pierce the spiritual darkness and confusion that gripped his own soul and the modern church" (113-114). In 1827 he began claiming to be a prophet who had found a set of gold plates, as well as the Urim and Thummin, a decoder-type stone instrument that had revealed to him the long-lost history of God's workings in the Americas. The Book of Mormon was subsequently published in 1830, purporting to illuminate America's redemptive role in the greater divine scheme. America's churches, the "fifth Gospel" charged, were dumb hollow shells woefully ignorant of both their own history and God's plans for the imminent latter-days (115). According to Hatch, the Book of Mormon is also an intriguing manifesto of social protest by a disillusioned outsider, a "stern and sober depiction of reality," in which the rich and proud find themselves as sinners in the hands of an angry God, while the poor are uplifted as emblems of true holiness (116-117).

For self-proclaimed "prophets" like Joseph Smith to even have any appeal, it was in part because the traditional clergy's status as authoritative sources of information had since been superseded by newspapers and other educated elites, particularly lawyers (125). Religious movements were quick to take advantage of the expansion of printing technology and the new era of mass communications it helped usher. A more varied and far-flung audience could now be reached, transforming Methodists, Baptists, Universalists, Mormons, and others into veritable "communication entrepreneurs." Their primary goal was to broadcast the Truth, and to this end they utilized not only newspapers but also sheet music, pamphlets, broadsides, tracts, journals, and books. A democratic religious press also appeared; the only comparable medium in the colonies had been printed sermons circulated among educated ministers (126-127). Even the secular Jeffersonian papers proved invaluable for linking the powerless with those suspicious of power (128). And unlike their British counterparts, writers of religious materials took their audiences seriously, challenging them with weighty topics of literature and theology (143).

At the heart of this communication revolution was the new appreciation for vernacular speech. The classic age of the stylized American sermon had come to a close (133). Lay preaching was a common feature among many evangelical movements, the only requirement being an ability to connect with and move people. This radical dependence on audience in turn elevated preachers who were often the very opposite of traditional decorum and respectability (134). Truth, some argued, "is not determined by majority vote. But in America it was" (Feller 105). The creativity, honest passion, humor, and simple structures of the new sermons had powerful mass appeal. The frequent use of storytelling also proved a surprisingly effective weapon against the theological attacks of the religious establishment: "You can refute Hegel," it has been said, "but not . . . the Song of Sixpence" (138). The Mormons – who to this day have no paid professional clergy – even discouraged their preachers from careful study and written notes when preparing their sermons. Both Mormons and Methodists would also quickly promote earnest new converts to the priesthood and then send them on a punishing round of speaking engagements (140). Sacred music, meanwhile, long the domain of high culture, was completely transformed as new sects developed their own religious folk songs, often by drawing on familiar lyrics and melodies (146-147). Record numbers of common people were soon churning out their own religious music, for which there was broad demand (151). African-Americans in particular became known for their rousing spirituals. "The slave' talent for improvisation," says Genovese, "as well as their deep religious conviction, drew expressions of wonder and admiration from almost everyone who heard them sing" (Genovese 249).

The many-headed hydra of Lerna, which grew two heads for every one cut off, had long been a metaphor used by the elites to refer to the difficulty of containing or suppressing popular grassroots movements (Marcus and Rediker 2-3). In the United States, Calvinism faced a "menacing hydra" in the new denominations that seemed to be springing up everywhere during the Second Great Awakening (Hatch 170). Instead of repression (not an option in America) some Calvinists, especially the Presbyterians, effectively adapted many of their rivals' innovative recruiting techniques. Despite his suspicions of the anti-intellectual character of the evangelicals, New Lights such as Lyman Beecher also felt that Calvinism's relentless emphasis on sin and the inscrutability of God's will "left energetic pastors like himself with nothing to do" (Feller 97). As the traditional Calvinist churches began to implement the evangelicals' recruiting techniques and preaching styles, it was inevitable that many of these insurgent sects themselves would slide towards respectability and social acceptance. The more radical they were and the more they attacked tradition, the more confusing their limitless world had become. When founding Bethany College, for example, Alexander Campbell had declared that no professorship of theology was to be established, but only the Bible as a book of "plain facts" which everyone was to interpret for themselves (Hatch 163).

The Second Great Awakening had become, its critics charged, nothing but a cacophonous "motley mass of protesting systems" (183). With the exception of Joseph Smith's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the movements that coalesced in the dynamic spiritual marketplace of the early republic would "produce no offspring comparable to the socially radical Ranters, Diggers, and Fifth-Monarchy Men of the seventeenth century" (184). As the Methodist and Baptist churches grew wealthier their newly affluent membership demanded college-educated ministers, finer churches, and organs (195). Though this growing civility enabled greater interdenominational cooperation between moderate evangelicals and revivalist Calvinists, it also increased internal divisions between urban and rural, rich and poor (205). Even Alexander Campbell came to admit that, "A book is not sufficient to govern a church" (206).

Nathan O. Hatch nevertheless draws a clear line of descent from Campbell, Elias Smith, Lorenzo Dow, John Leland, Francis Asbury, James O'Kelly, and Barton W. Stone and such modern Christians as Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, the late Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, Kathryn Kuhlman, Robert Schuller, and Jimmy Swaggart (211). The true power of American Christianity, Hatch asserts, has been its recognition of the supernatural in everyday life while maintaining the characteristically American values of autonomy and popular sovereignty. Fundamentalism, the Holiness movement, and Pentecostalism – dismissed by critics as "holdovers from an age of rural simplicity" – continue as vital spiritual forces to this day, especially among the rural Southern poor and urban working classes in the Midwest (213-216).

Too many historians, Hatch claims, have dismissed the early American republic as a mere epilogue to the Revolutionary years and prologue to the Jacksonian era. The result has been an unfortunate lack of scholarship covering this period, as well as little recognition of the continuity between the Revolution and the Second Great Awakening (221). What little work that has been done has all too often merely reinforced the tired stereotype of religion as tool of social control and repression (224-225). In order to demonstrate the inherently populist character of American Christianity that has distinguished it from other Western nations, Hatch draws extensively on both modern scholarship and a wide variety of contemporary pamphlets, sermons, religious journals, memoirs, journals, and letters. Most intriguing, however, is his inclusion of an appendix of anticlerical and anti-Calvinist songs and poems by ordinary Americans that "translate theological concepts into language of the marketplace, personalize theological abstractions, deflate the pretensions of privileged church leaders, and instill hope and confidence in popular collective action" (227). Many were extracted from songbooks published by Elias Smith and Lorenzo Dow, demonstrating not only the spiritual sentiments of ordinary folk but of their leaders as well. All in all, The Democratization of American Christianity comes highly recommended, especially for anyone wondering at the comparatively religious character of American society.


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