No Creeds! (Except What Celebrity Preacher Says)

Democratization of American Christianity  “The study of the religious convictions of self-taught Americans in the early years of the republic reveals how much weight was placed on private judgment and how little on the roles of history, theology, and the collective will of the church.”

So writes Nathan Hatch in his assessment of American religion in his excellent book, The Democratization of American Christianity.  Many of the major weak spots in the American church today were already prevalent in the 19th century (e.g. “no creed but the Bible” was a common sentiment in the 19th century).  Hatch writes,

“In a culture that mounted a frontal assault upon tradition, mediating elites, and institutions, the Bible very easily became, as John W. Nevin complained, ‘a book dropped from the skies for all sorts of men to use in their own way.’ …In the assertion that private judgment should be the ultimate tribunal in religious matters, common people started a revolution.”

Hatch calls this “populist hermeneutics” because it wasn’t necessarily a Christian hermeneutic, a churchly hermeneutic, or a confessional one – it was a hermeneutic of the common individual divorced from the church and the historic Christian tradition.  “Solo Scriptura” had its American origins in the 1800s.

Ironically, this populist hermeneutic was led by “a few strong [religious] figures imposing their own will.”  Nevin, who was critical of this hermeneutic, said this:

“The liberty of the sect consists at last, in thinking its particular notions, shouting its shibboleths and passwords, dancing its religious hornpipes, and reading the Bible only through its theological goggles.  These restrictions, at the same time, are so many wires, that lead back at last into the hands of a few leading spirits, enabling them to wield a true hierarchical despotism over all who are thus brought within their power.”

In other words, the [celebrity] leaders of this “populist hermeneutic” told common Americans to read the Bible as if they were the first ones reading it and forget about the creeds and Christian scholars before them.  On the other hand, the leaders were ultimately dominating the movement and many of the people were following them.  Rather than follow in the footsteps of those Christians in history who went before them, these people were forgetting those who had gone before them and following the current popular [celebrity] leader.

Sadly, this still happens today.

The above quotes were taken from pages 182-3 of The Democratization of American Christianity.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

American Hymnody: The Musical Dark Ages

Democratization of American Christianity Around the turn of the 19th century, Christianity (and religion in general) was undergoing a change: it was becoming more and more democratic (a religion of the people, for the people, and by the people).  Not only did this democratization affect doctrine, ecclesiology, and piety, it also affected Christian and religious hymnody.  Here’s how Nathan Hatch explains it:

“What are the dimensions in the early republic of this popular gospel music – the ‘numerous ditties’ that the respected churchman Nathan Bangs claimed had ‘almost deluded’ the Methodist Church, and that Phillip Schaff decried as ‘a rude singing of the most vulgar street songs, so that it must be loathing to an educated man’?”

“A definitive answer is impossible, because this homespun, religious music began as an oral phenomenon, was taken up by scores of rustic and anonymous song-makers, and was only later compiled and printed.  Yet the importance of the process itself has gone largely undetected by historians because its manifestations do not conform to regional or denominational boundaries and fall outside the normal purview of church music history.”

“One historian, in fact, characterized this period as the ‘musical dark ages’ – a time when ‘men of correct taste…let go their hold, and the multitude had the management of it and sung what and when they pleased.’  It is clear that this upsurge in religious folk music is yet another aspect of the democratic impulse in American Christianity.  The same imperative that sent many ordinary folk into preaching and writing compelled some to express themselves in song.  In all the populist religious movements with which this study deals – from Christians to…Mormons – people developed their own traditions of religious folk music.  The public, in turn, seemed to have an insatiable appetite for new strains of spontaneous and lively gospel music” (p. 147).

We’re still dealing with the democratization of Christian music.  Many churches sing what people like and want – hence Christian top-40 songs make it into the pews (even if they don’t have one ounce of clear Christian truth).

However, we must remember that Christianity is not a democratic endeavor.  Choosing songs for worship isn’t a matter of what “we the people” desire.  Rather than ask what we want and like in music, the primary and pressing question is this: what does God want us to sing?  Music in worship has to do with the Regulative Principle of Worship (the RPW).  In the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism, “The duties required in the second commandment are the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God has instituted in his word” (Q/A 108).

Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

shane lems

The Bible and America’s Founding Fathers

Many of us have heard the argument that America needs to get back to its biblical (or Christian) roots which our founding fathers established.  But it isn’t quite that simple.  We have to ask this twofold question: what did our founding fathers think about the Bible and about Christianity? Noll, Hatch, and Marsden answer it in The Search for Christian America.  Here are a few excerpts.

“It is difficult for modern Americans to recapture the religious spirit of the country’s great early leaders – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and their colleagues.  The difficulty arises because these brilliant leaders, surely the most capable generation of statesmen ever to appear in America, were at once genuinely religious but not specifically Christian.  Virtually all of these great men had a profound belief in ‘the Supreme Judge of the world’ and in ‘the protection of Divine Providence,’ to use the words of the Declaration of Independence.”

“Yet only a few believed in the orthodox teachings of traditional Christianity – that, for example, Christ’s death atoned for sin, that the Bible was a unique revelation from God, or that the miracles recorded in Scripture actually happened.  There were, to be sure, a few founding fathers who affirmed the cardinal tenents of orthodox Christianity [i.e. Witherspoon, Henry, and Jay]. …Most of the other great early leaders, however, did not share the Christian convictions of a Henry or Jay.  The God of the founding fathers was a benevolent deity, not far removed from the God of eighteenth-century Deists or nineteenth century Unitarians.”

“The conclusion must be that nearly every important person in America’s early political history had extensive experience with Scripture, even if many of them did not hold to traditional beliefs about the Bible, or to the beliefs which Christianity traditionally had derived from Scripture” (pp. 74-76).

“[America’s founding fathers] knew a lot about ‘Christian’ nations.  Most of the European wars of the preceding centuries had some ‘Christian’ motivations.  The American founders also knew a lot about Protestant Bible commonwealths; these were a major part of their recent British heritage.  So, while the founders appropriated secularized versions of some Puritan ideas about the dangers of monarchy, they purposely chose not to set up a Bible-based republic” (p. 137).

It isn’t so easy to simply “go back” to America’s biblical and Christian roots.  The roots aren’t biblical in the historic Christian sense of the term, nor are they Christian in the biblical sense of the term.  Further, trying to make America a Christian nation would go against the intentions of our founding fathers.  You’ll have to get the book if you want to wrestle with this topic: The Search for Christian America (Helmers & Howard: Colorado Springs, 1989).

Also, if you’re interested, HERE and HERE are two earlier posts on this book.

shane lems

The Impossibility of Returning to ‘Christian’ America

A few days ago I promised to return to this outstanding book: The Search for Christian America.  Here are a few paragraphs from the latter part of the book.  These words will be a tough read for those of us schooled with textbooks that exaggerated the “Christian” influence in America’s formative years.  I’m still amazed by the words found in America’s treaty with Islamic Tripoli in 1797 (don’t miss that below!).

“It is historically inaccurate and anachronistic to confuse, and virtually to equate, the thinking of the Declaration of Independence with a biblical world view, or with Reformation thinking, or with the idea of a Christian nation.  In other words it is wrong to call for a return to ‘Christian America’ on two counts: First, for theological reasons – because since the time of Christ there is no such thing as God’s chosen nation; second, for historical reasons, as we have seen – because it is historically incorrect to regard the founding of America and the formulation of the founding documents as being Christian in their origins.  Yet, this error is one of the most powerful ideas of our day; and on this confusion rest many of the calls to make war on secular humanism and to ‘restore’ the Bible as the sole basis for American law and government.”

“The Declaration of Independence, however, rests on a different view.  It is based on an appeal to ‘self-evident’ truths or ‘laws of nature and nature’s god.’  The reference to God is vague and subordinated to natural laws that everyone should know through common sense.  The Bible is not mentioned or alluded to.  The Constitution of 1787 says even less concerning a deity, let alone Christianity or the Bible.  The symbolism of the new government was equally secular.  In fact, the United States was the first Western nation to omit explicitly Christian symbolism, such as the cross, from its flag and other early national symbols.”

“Further incidental evidence of the founders’ own views is the statement from a treaty with the Islamic nation of Tripoli in 1797.  This treaty was negotiated under Washington, ratified by the Senate, and signed by President John Adams.  The telling part is a description of religion in America: ‘As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion – as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen [i.e. Muslims]…, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.’”

“Why does this make a difference?  Does it really matter if people hold to the mistaken view that America is, or was, or could become a truly Christian nation?  Yes, it does matter.  It matters because, if we are going to respond effectively to relativistic secularism, then we need to base our response upon reality rather than error.  This is not to deny the positive influence that Christianity has indeed had upon the American way of life.  Nor is this to minimize the seriousness of secularism.  Rather, it is to take it all the more seriously so that we may respond to it all the more effectively” (p. 130-131).

I completely agree: Christians would most likely get a better hearing in the public square if we’d drop the “Return to Christian America” rhetoric and more accurately present the history of America’s beginnings.  This book, The Search for Christian America, has convinced me of this.  Did I mention that I highly recommend it?

shane lems

The (Futile?) Search for Christian America

Here’s a book that deserves to be brought back into our discussions and onto our reading lists: The Search for Christian America by Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden.  It was first published in 1983 and then expanded in 1989.  But the message is completely relevant for Christians today.

Here are some questions the book tackles: How “Christian” is America’s religious past?  Is the “Christian Nation” concept harmful or helpful to effective Christian action in society?  Was/is America God’s treasured nation among all nations?  Should we try to “go back” to “Christian America?”  What relationship does idolatry have with patriotism, if any?   How is the First Great Awakening related to the American Revolution?

If those questions didn’t grab your attention, here’s the two-fold argument of the book (in the authors’ own terms):

“1) We feel that a careful study of the facts of history shows that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly, or even predominately Christian, if we mean by the word ‘Christian’ a state of society reflecting the ideals presented in Scripture.  There is no lost golden age to which American Christians can return.  In addition, a careful study of history will also show that evangelicals themselves were often partly to blame for the spread of secularism in contemporary American life.”

“2) We feel also that careful examination of Christian teaching on government, the state, and the nature of culture shows that the idea of a ‘Christian nation’ is a very ambiguous concept which is usually harmful to effective Christian action in society” (p. 17).

I’ll come back to this book later.  For now, let me simply say that I highly recommend it.  Though it flies in the face of many American evangelical beliefs, I believe it is a must-read for Christians living the U.S.  The Search for Christian America will help the today’s church remain distinct from the world and able to engage culture in a wise, biblical, and prophetic way.

FYI, at the time of this post there are quite a few used copies on Amazon for less than $10 shipped.  It’s certainly worth that!  And my thanks go out to one of our readers for mentioning this book last week.  I trust he’ll back up my recommendation!

shane lems

sunnyside wa

In (the) God (of Deism) We Trust

Product Details It is no secret that many of America’s influential founders and leaders weren’t Christians, but deists.  Much more could be said about that statement, but I simply want to point our readers to a book that chronicles American religion – specifically the movement from Christianity and deism to atheism between 1700 and 1900.  Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America by James Turner is an excellent account of those 200 years of American religion. 

I’m not quite finished with it, so I won’t yet comment on it extensively.  So far I’ve found it very easy to read, clearly written, and more than a little fascinating.  The only gripe I have with it is that sometimes it seems that Turner doesn’t quite “get” the Reformation, nor does he seem to appreciate the nuances of Calvinism.  Aside from those issues, I’m really enjoying the book.  Here’s what he writes about deism – which is helpful even in our day where quite a few Americans are still deistic in their religious beliefs.

“Deism professed to be a religion founded on reason alone, composed solely of truths about God evident in the order of nature, subjecting all beliefs to the tests of reason and experience.  In fact, it usually amounted to a severely stripped down version of Christianity, with all that smacked of mystery and superstition pared away” (p. 52-53).

The fundamental tenets of most Deists are “that a Supreme being exists and requires worship, that a moral life is the best worship, and that God will reward virtue and punish vice in an afterlife” (p. 52).

“Thoroughgoing Deists expunged everything unsuited to a clockwork God: anything irregular (miracles, special providences, divine revelations), anything inaccessible to reason (the Trinity, the divinity of the man Jesus, the Resurrection).  Deists took rational religion with full seriousness” (p. 53).

“Alexander Pope…deified (Isaac) Newton as a demiurge of rational clarity: ‘Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night / God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and All was Light.’  …As Newton was deified, so the temptation was great to Newtonify the Deity” (p. 49).

For those of you interested in the history of American religion, you simply must get this book: Without God, Without Creed.  Again, it is not overly difficult to read; you can find a used copy on Amazon for a decent price.  It goes hand in hand with Nathan Hatch’s fine work, The Democratization of American Christianity.  Studying the history of American religion is important.  Not only does it teach us as Christians what pitfalls to avoid, it also gives us the background of many cults that exist in the United States today. Finally, it shows us why, as one author famously said, modern American religion is moralistic, therapeutic deism.

shane lems

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