Hatch's key claim, in this work, is that "democratization" was the key trend in American religious life in the generation after the Revolution. This period saw the rise of insurgent popular Christian movements that challenged clerical authority, denominational institutions, and indeed all restraints on individual conscience. That last feature, the individualism of these movements, generated a strong centrifugal force, splitting American Christianity into numerous sects. Thanks to the ferment of the early republic, Hatch writes, American Christianity has a built-in tendency to regenerate itself through constant dissent and through the constant nurturing of popular spiritual energy. To prove his case, Hatch traces the rise of five Christian movements in the early American republic -- or rather, he traces the work of their key leaders. But this is part of his argument, albeit an underdeveloped part: democratization pushed fiery communicators to national prominence in the place of a clerical elite, empowering laymen and splitting churches without actually eliminating spiritual authority.) Hatch examines the Methodists, the Disciples of Christ, black Christians, the Baptists, and the Mormons. These movements, according to Hatch, developed in a radical Jeffersonian culture. These preachers sought to find new converts out-of-doors, often literally (as in the case of Methodist camp meetings), not within the existing church establishment as the leaders of the first Great Awakening had done. Meanwhile, among Baptists, some churches and leaders tried in the first decades of the century to develop a basic form of denominational governance, but others, led by John Leland, fought back strongly to keep the Baptists decentralized. According to Hatch, this first generation of populists left a lasting impression on American Christianity. When Nathan Bangs and other second-generation Methodists tried to steer their denomination toward sobriety and institutional strength, others dissented strongly.
Great combination of a very clear thesis and lots of well-organized evidence. Hatch also does a great job with the ironies of this movement. People wanted to break free of ecclesiastical organizations, but this meant a lot of little churches often run by men who were essentially demagogues. Except if every person is interpreting the Bible for his or her self then you have schisms from your schisms.
In The Democratization of American Christianity, Nathan Hatch explores how Christian preachers and laymen adapted to fit the needs and aspirations of popular American culture. The direction taken during this particular era is not only important American history, but it is also important Church history because of the amazing shift in practice and theological emphasis that developed. Democratization obviously receives significant attention, but it is closely related to other important emphases such as authority, individualism, and the rise of the common man. It was the injection of this compelling language in popular early American culture that empowered and energized evangelical Christianity. Popular preachers dismissed the educated clergy in established churches as elites unconcerned for the common man. In evangelical churches like the Methodists and Baptists, African Americans heard a message that was fresh, capable of being readily understood and immediately experienced (pg 104). Hatch notes that the most important development was that of the black preacher and leader. One reason why this book is important is because it shows us how popular culture often changes practice and, in some cases, the theology of Christianity. The rise of evangelical Christianity in the early republic is, in some measure, a story of success of common people in shaping the culture after their own priorities rather than the priorities outlined by gentlemen (pg 9). Hatchs book goes to the heart of what made the common early American tick. Its importance to the common man of that day, both white and black, male and female, helps us to better understand ordinary, everyday life in those days.
Hatch demonstrates that the egalitarian, populist impulses behind Jeffersonian anti-federalism were just as strong, if not stronger, in the early American church as he covers the rise to prominence of five Protestant sects/movements in America: the American Methodists, American Baptists, Mormons, Christians (American Restoration Movement), and the African-American church. Nevertheless, the democratic impulse has remained strong in American Christianity and the populism and decentralization that it inherited from the Second Great Awakening has helped fundamentalism resist the threat of modernity and secularism.
Chapter One: Introduction: Democracy and Christianity Hatch opens by noting the explosive growth in Baptist and Methodist denominations from the Revolution to the middle of the 19th Century, at which time they greatly overshadowed the once dominant Congregational establishment of New England. These denominations' growth was the fruit of the Second Great Awakening, and it was this movement that did more to Christianize the American nation than at any other time in its history. But the other major effect was the "democratizing" of religion: Abstractions and generalities about the Second Great Awakening as a conservative force have obscured the egalitarianism powerfully at work in the new nation. Though the individual denominations may indeed have brought forth internally authoritarian structures, the movements themselves extolled the common people and loosed a new experiential (and emotional) Christianity. Focusing on the leadership of these democratic Christian movements, Hatch traces the rise of a full-fledged "populist" clergy. As Tocqueville commented, these new religious leaders were as much politicians as they were priests -- a tribute to the art of democratic persuasion which allowed these men to rise to lead movements. The Spartan Mission of Francis Asbury Seeking a return to the primitive apostolic order of Christianity, Francis Asbury called the clergy of the Methodist Episcopal Church to a life of sacrifice and itinerancy. Black Preachers and the Flowering of African-American Christianity Hatch discusses the willingness of Methodists and Baptists during a period from the Revolution until the end of the 18th C to include blacks, free and slave, as full participants in Christian worship. It was during this period that African-American Christianity took root, and it did so inside of mixed-race congregations of Methodists and Baptists. As both Baptists and Methodists retreated from their earlier anti-slavery position in the early 19th C, the black preachers increasingly formed their own congregations in secret and in public. Chapter Seven: Upward Ascent and Democratic Dissent Reverend Peter Cartwright wrote his memoirs at age 71 in 1856, in which he decried the modern tendency for the Methodist clergy to seek the trappings of respectability. A second generation of Methodists, Baptists and Disciples all yearned for (and gained) respectability. Firebrands of Democracy Despite the cooptation of Methodists and Baptists at the time of the Civil War, there were still splinter Christian groups which grew up on the fringe under the influence of powerful leaders ... Refining the Second Great Awakening: A Note on the Study of Christianity in the Early Republic Why has more attention not been paid to this chapter in American religious history?
Popular phrases such as "Just me and my bible", "I have no creed but the bible", etc., were especially prominent after the American Revolution, reflecting the attitude of time (and the enduring, autonomous attitude of Americans even today), and it was enlightening to see the host of heresies and errors that sprang out of such.
I also recommend it to anyone wanting to learn how present-day American Christianity has been formed.