Religion Of, By, and For the People

I’ve mentioned Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity on this blog before and I’m sure I’ll mention it again.  This is the book you need to read if you’ve ever wondered how Christianity got so screwed up in the United States.  If you’ve wondered where goofy patriotic hymns originated, if you want to learn when Americans began to dislike creeds, confessions and church membership, if you’ve wondered about the origin of evangelical superstars, or if you want to learn about the source of the phrase “no creed but the Bible,” you must get this book.  Hatch’s book is far too detailed to summarize here, so I’ll simply quote an insightful paragraph now and blog on it again some other time.

In chapter four, Hatch discusses the 19th century democratic, republican, and populist view of religion – that each man should approach religion and the Bible independently, freely, and as his own source of authority.

“[They] called for common folk to read the Bible as if mortal man had never seen it before.  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 [this] movement.  By the 1840s one analyst of American Protestantism concluded, after surveying fifty-three sects, that the principle ‘No creed but the Bible’ was the distinctive feature of American religion.  John W. Nevin [a German Reformed theologian] surmised that this emphasis grew out of a popular demand for ‘private judgment’ and was ‘tacitly if not openly conditioned always by the assumption that every man is authorized and bound to get at this authority in a direct way for himself, through the medium simply of his own single mind.’  Many felt that the exhilarating hope that democracy had opened an immediate access to biblical truth for all persons of good will.  Americans found it difficult to realize, however, that a commitment to private judgment could drive people apart, even as it raised beyond measure their hopes for unity.”

I’m not against democracy, but I do believe Christians should be careful not to let democracy creep into the church (including hermeneutics, ecclesiology, theology, and so forth).  Also, we should be self-critical: how have our own churches been affected by democracy?  Does the will of the people rule our churches (songs, sermons, theology, worship) or God’s word given to the church?  In what ways are our own churches more democratic than Christian?  How can we exist in a democratic culture without letting it direct our churches?  What steps can we take in our churches to become less democratic?

Again, I strongly recommend this book: The Democratization of American Christianity.

shane lems

3 Replies to “Religion Of, By, and For the People”

  1. the problem is no so much democracy as the 5th commandment issue of indifference to history – and this is not restricted to the pew. given the debacles of tyler, auburn av, new perspective, etc, clergy too have ignored the purity and peace of the church by rabble-rousing via conferences, publications, turning churches into theological boutiques, etc ad nauseam.


  2. Hi Shane,
    Hatch is always a good read (though I have yet to read this particular work). What I found intriguing about his quote is the fact that many people assume that what he describes is Protestantism’s doctrines of “sola scriptura” and the perspicuity of scripture. To be sure, the 16th century appeals to biblical authority were highly subversive towards Roman Catholic authority, yet the reality is that the Reformed and Lutheran churches were never really democratic. We have retained hierarchy though we have shifted it in a more conciliar direction.

    In the end, as Hatch notes, the current anti-creedalism and sectarian mindset owes more to 19th century bumbling.

    I also find it interesting that Hatch quotes Nevin. Nevin would make such a comment! Have you had a chance to read D. G. Hart’s biography of Nevin? Nevin intrigues me. He was much more high church in his tendencies than many Reformed folk would be comfortable with. However, I have a sense that some of his “tendencies” might be good antidotes to current silliness.


  3. Thanks, Nevada. He does mention sola scriptura in there, and even hints how people took it to mean “solo” scriptura (just me and my Bible).

    Hatch also quotes Nevin quite a bit – as well as Nevin’s cohort (so to speak), Philip Schaaf. In fact, he referenced a few Nevin and Schaaf articles that I’ve tracked down and mean to read soon. To be sure, he quotes several other confessional men who were against all these anti-creed and anti-church movements in the 19th century.

    I’m sure you’d like this book a lot. BTW, I’ve heard Hart lecture a bit on Nevin, and I’ve read some of Nevin’s stuff, and have come to appreciate him (Nevin) quite a bit.


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