The Democratization of American Christianity, 1780-1830
March 9, 2010:
The Democratization of American Christianity
by Nathan O. Hatch
Yale University Press, 1989
Reviewed by Allan Lewis
The Democratization of American Christianity by Nathan Hatch examines the evolution of the Protestant religious
tradition in the United States during the years 1780 to 1830. It 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 most
crucial in revealing that process. Hatch looks at five institutions which emerged in the Jeffersonian era:
the Christians and the Disciples of Christ (who merged in 1830), the Methodists, the Baptists, African-American Christianity,
and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church. The thesis developed by Hatch is
that these early religious movements, which sprung from the political spirit of the American Revolution and the popular
culture of the day (both of which involved distancing of the common people from British heirarchical instutions,
authoritarianism and class systems) have had a permanent effect on American Christianity.
American cultural aspects of equality and liberty were manifested, both on the Eastern seaboard and on the frontier,
and in the north and south, in a decentralization of religious institutions. During the Second Great Awakening there
was a reaction against episcopacy and professionalism among the clergy as well as a breakdown of social conditions
based on class and race in the churches.
The five popular religious movements and their major leaders which Hatch uses to support his thesis are:
1. The Christians and the Disciples of Christ
Elias Smith of New England, James O'Kelly of Virginia, Barton Stone in Kentucky and Alexander Cambpell in Pennsylvania were
the leaders of the loosely-formed Christians and Disciples of Christ. All four men split with traditional churches. Smiths'
Herald of Gospel Liberty was one of the first examples of how these early evangelicals used the printing industry to
communicate their message of each individual's right to interpret the Bible for himself as part of a grass-roots religious
organization. Until 1800, Smith had been a Baptist Minister in Woburn, Massachussetts. This was the year in which Jefferson
was elected President, and for trivia buffs, it was also the year in which Philomen Wright (an Anglican) left
Woburn and became the first settler in the Ottawa area.
2. The Methodists
In Britain and in early America the Methodist church was strongly controlled from the center. Bishop Francis Asbury, while
authoritarian himself, infused the ever-expanding frontier with a network of itinerant ministers who catered directly to the masses.
There were no academic requirements for Methodist preachers. Unlike the Anglican and Presbyterian churches, which operated out
of permanent structures, the Methodists reached out to people however far-flung. Geographic mobility allowed young Methodist
ministers, usually travelling on horseback in rural areas, to minister to pioneers of all classes and races. Methodists
were the first denomination to reach out inclusively to African-Americans and lower-class whites.
3. The Baptists
By 1814 the Baptists in America consisted of two thousand individual churches and, with many influential adherents, were well
on their way to "respectability" as far as having direct political power and denominational colleges. However, John Leland of
Virginia, who had been a major proponent of religious freedom and who fought against the establishment of the Protestant Episcopal
(Anglican) Church in the United States, resisted the seeming move towards elitism and gentility among Baptists. Until his death
in 1841 Leland spoke out against what he perceived to be the declining democacy in his church.
4. African-American Religious Movements
Initially drawn to Christianity through the Methodist and Baptist churches, blacks were later led by preachers such as
Richard Allen. The Episcopal (Anglican) church tried, with little success, to attract black slaves into the church. The
Anglicans, patriarchal, heirarchical and class-based had little to offer the blacks who identified with a more democratic
brand of participatory religion. By 1815 the total number of Methodist and Baptist blacks was about eighty thousand.
Both churches condemned slavery and welcomed blacks into the church as participants in emotional and easily understood sermons
and camp meetings and also as preachers. Egalitarianism inside Methodist and Baptist congregations facilitated the
development of black preachers and teachers who were then able to recruit blacks to enthusiastic gospel-music filled
church events. Later as Francis Asbury and other leaders retreated from their original strong anti-slavery stances
in the church, black leaders took over and formed all-black churches. These churches became important institutions in black
communities - channeling political and social energies in order to improve their status and strengthen the identity of
the African American community.
5. The Mormon Church
Joseph Smith grew up poverty-stricken in New England. As a young man he was discouraged by the difficulty of making his way
in a society based on heriditary land holding and accumulation -- a society controlled by monarchical elites and based on
wealth and education. In 1830, by now a self-proclaimed prophet, Smith published the Book Of Mormon. This book
re-wrote the Old Testament and called for a return to the religious life of 1800 years earlier. He believed that church
institutions had become overwhelmed by organizational matters and internal power struggles among ministers. The Book of Mormon
is also a book which urges radical social change. Brigham Young was an early disciple of Joseph Smith.
How did these five religious movements, according to Hatch, impact American Christianity? What common elements did they
share which made American Christianity unique? Above all, the involvement of the laity in church functions was developed.
A bottom-up Christianity evolved which rejected the tradition of passive listening to sermons preached by educated and
entrenched upper-class ministers. Sermons were to be preached in the vernacular to demonstrative recipients foreshadowing
the present day penchant for evangelicals in the United States, persons of both sexes and all classes who reach the
common person directly via television, radio, books, music and the internet. Much of this movement originated with the
independent, self-directed lifestyle espoused by Thomas Jefferson beginning in the late eighteenth century. The use
of storytelling, rousing music (including black spiritual music) and gut-wrenching emotionalism by preachers, in speech
and in print, aided an intense missionary zeal which attracted new converts.
There was an explosion in the communications industry. Printing presses were installed in every city and town and the
growth of literacy and literature boomed after the revolution. Early in the nineteenth century the American Bible Society
and the American Tract Society produced millions of Bibles - usually the first book acquired by increasingly literate
families. As well, the market was flooded with denominational religious newspapers, tracts and hymn books, all directed
at not just the religious community, by often containing political and social commentary, at society in general.
During the early nineteenth century there was also a democratization of church music across all five of the denominations
studied by Hatch. Formal and traditional hymns sung by choirs to the congregation were replaced by lively local folk music
melodies which incorporated down-to-earth biblical tenets. Spontaneity of singing and demonstrative, emotional preaching
allowed congregations to interact with their preacher and with each other. This was again a reaction against traditional
Another feature of the democratization of American Christianity was a belief by the five organizations in the need to
return to the original pure form of Christianity which existed before religion had been sullied by monarchs and popes
during the past 1800 years. The emphasis was placed on the ability of each individual to interpret the Bible on his own,
without a cumbersome intervening and politicized clergy. This phenomen is known as restorationism and is related to
the American republican ideals of liberty and equality.
By focusing on original source documents (this is a footnote-heavy book), such as personal diaries of early leaders and
excerpts from contemporary printed materials, Hatch provides convincing arguments.
The main conclusion reached by Nathan Hatch is that "by 1840 populist dissent had diminished in American Christianity but
the democratic revolution had left a permanent imprint on the denominational landscape". For Canadian students of North
American religious history, Hatch's book can be supplemented by A Concise History of Christianity in Canada, edited by
Terrence Murphy and Roberto Perin in 1996. Neither book is organized along the usual denominational lines. The
democratization of religion in the United States is shown by Hatch to be in sharp contrast to contemporary Christianity
in Upper and Lower Canada where the traditional denominations of Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Presbyterians were
solidly entrenched with ecclesiastical heirarchies, European traditions and professional clergies. An interesting
development in early nineteenth century Upper Canada were the beginnings of Methodist and Baptist movements which spread
from the northern United States. However, popular and democratic religion did not become widespread in Upper or Lower Canada
in the nineteenth century. Republicanism in religion (as well as in government) became strongly entrenched in the United States.
This book is very well written and documented. It successfully impresses upon the reader the importance of the democratization
of religion during the first half century after the American Revolution and its lasting effect on American society
Hatch, Nathan O., The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989)
Murphy, Terrence and Roberto Perin, eds. A Concise History of Christianity in Canada (Oxford University Press, 1996)
Reid, Daniel G., Robert D. Linder, et al, eds. Concise Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1995)
See also the Holiness Movement in Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec, Canada.
E-mail Al Lewis
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