Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Book Review: The Democratization of American Christianity

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on March 17, 2010 at 6:53 am

Book Review

Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University Press, 1989):  312 pp.

Note:  As a general rule, book reviews are done for works that are newly published.  The Democratization of American Christianity is not a new book.  The manuscript for this book won the Albert C. Outler Prize in Ecumenical History in 1988, and it has been printed in paperback form since 1991!  A good book, however, should be worth reading, remembering, and even reviewing as much as twenty years after being published.

I finally got around to reading Nathan Hatch’s book The Democratization of American Christianity.  I had heard the book praised by the likes of Reformed historian D. J. Hart for its cogent explanation of the rise of egalitarian views and the decline of Calvinism in early American evangelicalism and wanted to read it for myself.

From the start, Hatch argues “both that the theme of democratization is central to understanding the development of American Christianity, and that the years of the early republic are the most crucial in revealing that process” (p. 3).  He concludes that the “central force” in American Christianity has been “its democratic or populist orientation” (p. 213).  Hatch traces three ways in which popular religious movements in the early republic articulated a “democratic spirit”:  (1)  They denied “the age old distinction that set clergy apart as a separate order of men, and they refused to defer to learned theologians and traditional orthodoxies” (pp. 9-10); (2) They “empowered ordinary people by taking their deepest spiritual influences at face value rather than subjecting them to the scrutiny of orthodox doctrine and the frowns of respectable clergy” (p. 10); and (3) These “religious outsiders” had “little sense of their limitations” (p. 10).

Hatch traces the influence of populist preachers like the Methodists Lorenzo Dow and Francis Asbury, the Baptist John Leland, the Restorationist Alexander Campbell, and the Mormon Joseph Smith.

Of the Campbellites, for example, Hatch notes, “People were expected to discover the self-evident message of the Bible without any mediation from creeds, theologians, or clergymen not of their own choosing.  This explicit faith that biblical authority could emerge from below, from the will of the people, was the most enduring legacy of the Christian movement” (p. 81).

At one point, in his discussion of Baptists, Hatch contrasts the views of early American Baptist leader Isaac Backus with that of firebrand John Leland:

“While Backus never doubted the right of all to worship as they pleased, he was unconvinced that laymen could articulate their own theology.  He defended the primacy of Calvinism and reminisced about ‘the imminent fathers of New England.’  Leland, on the other hand, rejected the idea of natural inequality in society—as if some were set apart to lead and others to follow.  He depicted the typical clergyman as venal and conniving, rather than capable of rising above self-interest” (p. 99).

Hatch notes, in particular, how religious populism led to a revolt against Calvinism.  There were at least four major complaints, he says, against “Reformed orthodoxy:  its implicit endorsement of the status quo, its tyranny over personal religious experience, its preoccupation with complicated and arcane dogma, and its clerical pretension and quest for control” (p. 171).  Of interest here is the book’s Appendix (pp. 227-43) which offers an amusing “sampling of anticlerical and anti-calvinistic verse.”

The revolt against Calvinistic orthodoxy included a new interpretation of the Reformation concept of sola scriptura.  Hatch notes:  “For the Reformers, popular translations of the Bible did not imply that people were to understand the Scriptures apart from ministerial guidance” (p. 179).  Likewise, Hatch continues, “It is equally clear that the eighteenth-century evangelicals John Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Isaac Backus, and others, did not think of viewing the Bible as a source of authority independent of theology and the mediations of clergymen” (p. 180).  It was the egalitarian populists of the mid-eighteenth century who began to set private interpretation of the Bible over against theology, history, and tradition.  Hatch’s line of argument here anticipates Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Canon Press, 2001).

Hatch concludes the book with an epilogue in which he discusses “the recurring populist impulse in American Christianity” (pp. 210-219).  The last line reads, “American Christianity continues to be powered by ordinary people and by the contagious spirit of their efforts to storm heaven by the back door” (p. 219).

After a lifetime in conservative Baptist circles and 20 years in public ministry there is much with which I found to resonate in Hatch’s book.  It helps explain how Baptists in America drifted from their Calvinistic roots.  It also explains how moderate Baptists came to focus on “empowering the laity” and how even conservative Baptists continue down this track with egalitarian views of “every member ministry,” “democratic” views of church government, anticlericalism, and egalitarian views of church leadership.  The Democratization of American Christianity can still be read with profit.

Jeffrey T. Riddle, Pastor, Christ Reformed Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Virginia 22901

  1. Thanks for this review (even of an “old” book!). Hatch’s analysis helps make sense of the state of most Baptist and evangelical churches today. How much of what we think is the “normal” or “Biblical” way to do church has been shaped by our culture? This includes everything from “democratic” processes in church government to private interpretations of the Bible (“this is what is means to me”).

  2. This sounds like an interesting read. I’ll be looking for it.

  3. Dear Jeffery,
    It was a delight to meet you a couple weeks ago. I trust that you are experiencing the enabling grace of our Lord in your labors.
    I had Hatch on my shelf for a few years and finally got around to reading him in 2008. I heartily recommend The Democratization of American Christianity to anyone who wants to understand the zeitgeist of Americans who, in my mind, have a peculiar difficulty with authority. We don’t like others to exercise it over us (unless “we the people” give them our permission), and we freak out when we’re required to exercise it over others. I recall pulling up behind an old hippie at a gas station who had a bumper sticker on his car that read: “Question Authority.” I caught his eye as we filled our cars and I asked him, “Who gave you the authority to tell me to question authority?” He looked at the bumper sticker and gazed at the ground for a while. He finally looked at me and said, “Heavy, man,” nodding his head, “Yeah, that was heavy.”
    Hatch’s book goes a long way to diagnose how it is that the spirit of Americanism permeated the church in the 18th and 19th centuries and why we still contend with that spirit in our own day. Let me contribute to your review by offering our readers some excerpts from Hatch’s eighth chapter “Epilogue: The Recurring Populist Impulse in American Christianity” in the hope of stimulating their reading of this valuable volume. “In comparing the United Sates and other western democracies, particularly England, three features about this country stand out: the vitality of religion among ordinary people, the continuing prominence of populist religious leaders, and the vitality of mass democratic movements that reflect the charisma and organizational skills of these leaders” (211).
    America is the most religious of all the industrialized nations – and its religion is extensive among the common man, folksy, catering to individualism, and not characterized as being ecclesiastically structured. Americans struggle to be churchmen. They are averse to organized religion. Secondly it produces, therefore, charismatic leaders like Billy Graham, Kathryn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts, Robert Schuller, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, “a remarkable set of popular leaders, persons who derive their authority not from their education or stature within major denominations, but from the democratic art of persuasion” (211). Interestingly, American piety has been vulnerable to charismatic leaders who manufacture self-appointed authority and form cult-like sects. The third trait of American Christianity is “the recurring phenomenon of religious movements firmly identified with popular culture. As in American social and political movements, American Christianity has gained strength from opposition to centralized authority and demands for a dispersal of power… an anti-elitist and anticentralist ideology” (212). “American Christianity has muddled along in a state of anarchic, free-market pluralism” (212). American Christianity has its charismatic mega-personas, but “American clergymen have less prestige than do their colleagues in other western democracies” (213). “The clergy [in America] are assimilated to the concept of rival entrepreneurs running varied religious series on a mixed laissez-faire and oligopolistic model: their status usually is not high. Religious styles constantly adapt and accept vulgarization in accordance with the stylistic tendencies of their varied markets, sometimes in such a way as to weaken content and intellectual articulation” (ftnt #10, p.299, citing David Martin, General Theory of Secularization,1978) [I had to look up “oligopolistic” – A market condition in which sellers are so few that the actions of any one of them will materially affect price and have a measurable impact on competitors.] American Christianity brings “paradoxical extremes together: a reassertion of the reality of the supernatural in everyday life linked to the quintessentially modern values of autonomy and popular sovereignty” (213).
    Let me make an observation about viewing the clergy as “rival entrepreneurs” compelled to compete in a “market” shaped by expectations derived from an oligarchy of a few mega-personas. For some, the local church pastor is seen, not as to his biblical qualifications or whether he accurately handles the Word, but in comparison to styles characteristic of the mega-personas. He is likewise expected to manufacture weekly worship experiences akin to the revivalistic excitement that is also distinctively American, as Hatch points out. In other words, American Christians often approach the church and the preacher with a bias that has been informed by our unique religious history as a people who have, in fact, been visited by “awakenings” more than others in other countries. The challenge is to have the noble-mindedness required to measure those assumptions biblically and the courage of faith to reform to biblical directives. Otherwise we end up leading the church in competition with other churches, attempting to find the best technique to make it “work” (pragmatism should also be included in the American zeitgeist), and mimicking the mega-personas who have been “successful” – a word which is defined in a populist culture in a populist way: “popular!”
    Hatch goes on to profile American Christianity as egalitarian, anti-creedal, anti-historical, anti-intellectual, and pervasively millenarian. Quite a mission field in which to plant and grow biblical churches! I’ve found a couple other books to be of help along the lines of Nathan Hatch. Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism (Banner, 1994) and Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 both by Iain H. Murray (Banner, 2000) covers the last half of the 20th century. Everything You Know Seems Wrong: Globalization and the Relativizing of Tradition by George Van Pelt Campbell (University Press of America, 2005) looks at the changes in American religiosity from a sociological point of view in our “post-modern” climate. Campbell teaches sociology at Grove City College. The book is a bit repetitive and goes into some socio-speak, which is to be expected, but it covers changes within American Evangelicalism that will interest you, as did Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity.

  4. Thank you to both Jeffrey and Alan!

  5. Must seek to get hold of this Jeff, looks like a good read, thanks for your input Alan, certainly can highly recommend Murray on Evangelicalism Divided, great insights and help in understanding the past 50 years on both sides of the pond !

  6. Thanks, brothers. This reminds me of Horton’s Made in America. We are products of our culture and often don’t realize it until 10 years after the fact.

  7. Alan, could you email me at Thanks.

  8. Thank you, Jeff. I recently finished this book, which I heard of through T. David Gordon’s “top ten list” on his website. I have been reading through several of his recommendations. It is extremely helpful, with so much to read out there, to have some guidance. Lately I have been passing along your review whenever I recommend the book. No need to reinvent the wheel. Thank you for your help

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