The trouble with historians, and perhaps writers with too little space to write, is that they are hopelessly reductionistic. In order to bring order to the sweep of our lives, we tend to jettison anomalies and subtleties like so much dead weight. We come up with a single unifying theme, say, the Industrial Revolution, and it becomes a Procrustean bed—that is, as in the ancient Greek myth, what doesn’t fit the paradigm gets stretched or lopped off. If the Highlands of Scotland were untouched by the machine age, then they just weren’t a part of history. The trouble is that real people lived in those backwaters.
Nathan Hatch is something of an anomaly—a historian given to subtlety. In The Democratization of American Christianity, he manages to produce a clearer picture of the early American republic by demonstrating how two distinct streams of thought converged to become a cultural tsunami that still shapes who and what we are today.
In this landmark and multiple-prize-winning book, Hatch shows us how the democratic spirit of that age influenced the structure and understanding of the Christian faith, and how the Christian faith in turn influenced the understanding of what we were as a political people. He writes of a time when our European legacy of hierarchy gave way to an egalitarian spirit. With the opening of the Western frontier, the old standards did not, indeed could not, apply any longer. The spirit of independence that was so necessary for the taming of that wilderness was quick to reject the aristocratic rule of the formerly dominant educated clergy of New England. Instead, “revival” came, but in a never-before-seen form.
Hatch shows us the populist nature of the revivalists of this age. Gone was the even-toned, Bible-based admonition to repent and turn from sin. Now came the carnival atmosphere of the tent revival. When the numbers looked good, however, this same style—loose, unaffiliated, and emotional—spread back east to affect the entire country. And the evangelical church has never been the same.
What makes this history so fascinating is that it allows the reader to see the roots of many of the problems we confront in the evangelical world. The excesses of the church-growth movement, the hysteria of some portions of the charismatic movement, and the boot-strap jingoism of prosperity theology are all here, writ small, but showing signs of growth and seeming permanence.
Dr. Hatch, who is an evangelical professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, has done the church a great service in writing what is both a history and a prophetic warning. The book is published by Yale University Press.