Monday, November 15, 2010

Religion of the People, by the People, for the People

In my earlier post on Joseph Smith I talked about the egalitarian flavour of 19th century New England religion. In this blog post I will be suggesting that such egalitarianism was also apparent in the 18th century North American religion. My discussion will explore the peculiar conjunction of revivalism and republican politics that was the special province of the North American evangelical.

I begin by defining a crucial term: republicanism. Republicanism, in its original sense, did not refer to the political philosophy that lawmakers ought to be representatives of the citizenry. It differed from democracy in that republicanism favoured checks and balances to prevent government from collapsing into a populist free for all; it differed from constitutional monarchy in that its advocates almost universally assumed that liberty was inherently antithetical to nobility or any social privileges derived from a person’s birth. On this last point Alexander Hamilton could not have been clearer, stating, “the prohibition of titles of nobility…may truly be denominated the corner-stone of republican government.” Similarly Thomas Jefferson believed that “a foundation laid for a government truly republican” involved “a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of ancient or future aristocracy”. Republicanism thus became a conduit for Enlightenment egalitarianism, and the entire network of ideas that the language of equality could invoke.

In his book America’s God, Mark Noll shows that prior to the mid 18th century, Christians throughout both Europe and North America had generally associated the language of republicanism, especially when laced with egalitarian rhetoric, with heterodoxy rather than Christian orthodoxy.  The example of France seemed to confirm the connection between the new equality rhetoric, on the one hand, with explicitly antireligious sentiments, on the other. This association began to change in the thirteen American colonies during the period of the French and Indian Wars (1756-63). Evangelicals began to progressively align themselves with republicanism and with a subtle egalitarianism that, though a popular feature of the Enlightenment, had generally been eschewed by the Christian community. Various ideas have been put forward as to why this transition took place, including the suggestion that the ideology of republicanism served as an attractive antidote to the Catholicism of the colonies’ French enemies.
It is doubtful that there is one single explanation as republicanism seems to have emerged as a response to a number of different factors. However, one of these factors may certainly have been the disruption of the parish system and stable church communities that I have discussed in my earlier post “The Problem of Mediation in the First Great Awakening.
The breakdown of the trilateral relationship between community, land and religion, and the emerging consumerist mentality that religion began to embody, may have deprived Americans of a basic sense of rootedness. The sense of place was no longer indissoluble with one’s religious identity. In this vacuum, the ideology of republicanism may have offered an attractive substitute. This suggestion becomes plausible when we consider the extent to which political narratives actually became the new de facto religion for the colonists. The sermons and pamphlet literature from the period show this happening in two ways: through the politicizing of religion and by making political ideals (especially those connected with “liberty” and “equality”) themselves the object of a new type of civic religion. Sometimes this was quite explicit, as when Declaration signatory Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) wrote to Thomas Jefferson and said that “It is only necessary for republicanism to ally itself to the Christian religion to overturn all the corrupted political and religious institutions in the world” or when he wrote to Granville Sharp that the language of American independence “has for many years appeared to me to be the same as that of the heavenly host that announced the birth of the Saviour of mankind.”  At other times the intersection of republicanism with colonial Christianity was more subtle for being the more thoroughly fused. But the net result, in the words of Hatch, was that “Christians in America began to redeem a dual legacy. They yoked strenuous demands for revivals, in the name of George Whitefield, with calls for the expansion of popular sovereignty, in the name of the Revolution.” (Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, 6-7.)
Over time the strains of this double legacy had become so thoroughly fused that the 19th century French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, could remark that everywhere he expected to find a clergyman, he found a politician. Edmund Morgan noted with irony that “In 1740 America’s leading intellectuals were clergymen and thought about theology; in 1790 they were statesmen and thought about politics.”
The key issue was not that Christians suddenly became interested in government. Reformed Christianity had always encouraged reflective engagement with politics, as it had encouraged engagement with every sphere of life. Christ’s lordship, Calvin and the reformed tradition had taught, applied to art, science, music, law, economics, politics and every other area of life and culture. Nothing was neutral or independent of the need for proactive Christianization. What was different in mid to late 18th century America was the subordination of the faith to political principles – principles derived more from the general societal mood than from careful biblical reasoning. What emerged would be a new narrative of “liberty and justice for all” that invoked a vague connection with the once robust religious categories but was rarely substantiated through careful reflection from theological first principles. In short, the “American way” forged in the fires of Enlightenment republicanism, and the evangelical way forged in the fires of the democratic revival, were merely assumed to be synonymous. Paradoxically, this would have the long-term effect of bringing evangelical political reflection to a standstill.

In his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll has tried to show that this fact was one of the many factors leading to the breakdown of the evangelical intellect. “So deeply entwined were publican and Christian themes” he writes,

“that there seemed to be no need for re-examining the nature of politics itself. It could simply be assumed that the American way was the Christian way. That assumption is not necessarily baseless. But as long as it functioned as an assumption, that belief was not conducive to the development of a Christian mind. …the greatest damage from the assumption that linked Christian faith and republicanism was its very character as an assumption. If the Christian truth about politics was so clear, there was no need to think about politics at all.” Mark Noll, Scandal, pp. 71-72.

It was the conflict Britain that solidified this dual legacy into a single indivisible movement, permanently altering the contours of New World evangelicalism. The struggle that followed the Stamp Act would cement the fusion of egalitarianism with evangelicalism through the symbiotic relationship between revival with revolution that emerged under the revolutionary shadow. The significance for the present study is that the implicit egalitarianism took root not simply with the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration, but with a democratized Protestantism that radiated a populist hue. It became an American distinctive to think for yourself, and what that meant in practice was that all inherited authorities, including the Christian creeds and catechisms, became the subject of deep suspicion.
Previously, it had been left to sceptics such as David Hume (1711-1776) to condemn religious authorities as being the enemies of liberty and free government. By domesticating the Enlightenment’s categories, however, American evangelicals were able to join the chorus of egalitarianism, now appropriated to their own ends, and raise the revolutionary banner against ecclesiastical tyranny. Anti-British sentiment helped to solidify this, especially among colonial non-convormists who were quick to associate anything resembling Anglicanism with British oppression, even as the French and Indian wars had amplified the anti-Catholic mood. It wasn’t just foreign religious authorities that came under fire. In 1740 Gilbert Tennent preached a sermon at Nottingham Maryland urging believers to leave their churches if they judged that their pastors were unconverted.
By contrast, in Canada where the winds of political revolution never blew hard enough to foment armed conflict, traditional structures remained much more intact, while the effect of the Enlightenment was mitigated. No one has documented these dynamics better than Mark Noll who has noted that

In their shared efforts, both political and religious figures were tailoring the project of republican independence to fit the language of traditional Protestant religion. After only a few years, America’s religious population, with Protestant evangelicals in the forefront, began in similar fashion to tailor their religious projects to fit the language of republicanism. The implications for both politics and religion from this tailoring were momentous. In the immediate context, the argument against Parliament acquired the emotive force of revival. In the longer term, religious values migrated along with religious terms into the political speech and so changed political values. But the migration also moved the other way: a religious language put to political use took on political values that altered the substance of religion.
The populist, anti-authoritarian nature of colonial Protestantism was not overlooked by the astute Edmund Burke. When the Anglo Irish statesmen statesman urged Parliament to reconcile itself with the colonies on 22 March 1775, he did so on the ground that the colonists were “protestants; and of that kind, which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.” The linkage of the colonists’ religion with their aversion to authoritarian structures is a significant signpost to the fact that late 18th century colonialism had comfortably aligned itself with popular Enlightenment egalitarianism.

The new populism became a potent force for disrupting the foundations of the North American religious establishment as much as it had been for disrupting Parliamentary taxation. Under the new canopy the concept of liberty acquired a semantic range that was used interchangeably in both political and religious discourse. Liberty could be invoked to justify the persistent levelling and the rejection of all status, whether monarchical, intellectual or clerical. Liberty could also be invested with messianic overtones, as when Madison spoke in 1792 of the new epoch liberty had brought to America and France which had bypassed all previous generations.
In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example and France has followed it, of charters of power granted by liberty. This revolution in the practice of the world may, with an honest praise, be pronounced the most triumphant epoch of its history and the most consoling presage of its happiness.” James Madison, cited in Bernard Bailyn The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press, 1967), p. 55.

“Liberty”, among the propagators of revival, was not without a similar sense of entering into a new epoch, unlike anything that had ever occurred in the past. Under the banner of the new liberty, Christians were liberated from the routines, structures, governments, institutions and confessions that had previously defined the churches. “The shift towards a democratic or informal Christianity,” D.G. Hart observed, “nurtured by revival and revolution, turned American Protestants’ piety from forms and routines oriented around the church and the ministry of its officers to religious practices geared towards the experience of the individual, the reformist activities of voluntary associations, and small groups of zealous converts.”
By the 1790s the evangelical Episcopalian Devereux Jarratt (1733-1801) expressed fear for what Hatch has prescriptively termed “the volatile mix of things evangelical and egalitarian.” Jarratt objected that Christianity had passed “under the supreme control of tinkers and tailors, weavers, shoemakers, and country mechanics of all kinds.” “In our high republican times,” Jarratt complained in 1794:
there is more levelling than ought to be, consistent with good government. I have as little notion of oppression and tyranny as any man, but a due subordination is essentially requisite in every government. At present, there is too little regard and reverence paid to magistrates and persons in public office; and whence do this disregard and irreverence originate but from the notion and practice of levelling?
What emerged in both politics and religion is what can be described as the era of the common man. Wesley’s dictum “plain truth for plain people” took on a new and radical meaning. The war for independence not only instilled in ordinary people a conviction that they had a responsibility to think for themselves: it gave them a sense of entitlement to be heard. In religion this included lay people as well as clergy, women as well as men, self-appointed ministers as well as ordained pastors. Patrick Henry’s admonition to the King of England, that he must “bow with utmost deference to the majesty of the people,”  became the watchword for the churches. One concomitant of that is that by 1800 it had become anachronistic to speak of dissent anymore, since there was no commonly recognized centre by which new groups could be measured. The new liberty meant more than merely freedom to worship as one liked; it meant the necessity that Christianity must cast off all external encumbrances even as the colonists had cast off British rule. As a Presbyterian minister said in 1781:

This is a time in which civil and religious liberty is attended to…It is a time in which a spirit of liberty prevails, a time in which the externals of religion may properly be new modelled, if needful, and fixed upon a gospel plan.”
Hatch has identified the dominant features that which emerged out of the populist milieu.

“…the popular religious movements of the early republic articulated a profoundly democratic spirit. …they denied the age-old distinction that set the clergy apart as a separate order of men, and they  refused to defer to learned theologians and traditional orthodoxies. All were democratic or populist in the way they instinctively associated virtue with ordinary people rather than with elites, exalted the vernacular in word and song as the hallowed channel for communicating with and about God. …these movements empowered ordinary people by taking their deepest spiritual impulses at face value rather than subjecting them to the scrutiny of orthodox doctrine and the frowns of respectable clergymen.
“This stringent populist challenge to the religious establishment included violent anticlericalism, a flaunting of conventional religious deportment, a disdain for the wrangling of theologians, an assault on tradition, and an assertion that common people were more sensitive than elites to the ways of the divine.”
To Hatch’s observations we might add that egalitarianism also helped to solidify the obsession with the invisible church which is itself one of the first signs of a community that has begun to succumb to the Gnostic impulse. In the 19th century many Christians would stop attending church altogether, and feel pious for doing so. In 18th century America it was still unthinkable that a Christian would choose not to go to church. However, the Great Awakening and the crude revivalism that followed in its wake had begun to prime colonists for this transition. It did so, not only by undermining the authority of established churches and their parish boundaries, but by rendering redundant the role of the clergy. If everyone is equal, then why is a clergyman necessary to administer communion? If everyone is equal, then why should I give special heed to the teachings of ordained ministers? If everyone is equal, then why should the traditions of my people’s ecclesiastical past be allowed to exert any primacy over what I do, how I think, or where I worship? 18th century America raised these questions, and 19th century America would answer with a chorus of egalitarianism tinged with Gnosticism.
In the egalitarianism atmosphere that was emerging in the Enlightenment’s wake, it began to be easier to think in terms of the invisible church – that nebulous non-gathering of non-tangible souls, possessed of no tangible authority, observing no liturgy, partaking of no sacraments and making no demands that controverted the inclinations of the autonomous self.

In the new atmosphere that emerged, churches and revivalists began to compete for the attention. It is significant in this regard that the revivalists of the Great Awakening described their work with images drawn from the marketplace. Whitefield himself spoke of “trafficking for the Lord.” To give themselves the competitive edge in what Lambert has termed a “de facto free marketplace of religion”, it was necessary for itinerant preachers, and later pastors, to replace church music with rousing Gospel choruses, to downplay the canons of inherited understandings, to invoke novelty, spiritual innovation and whatever the current spiritual fashion might be. Richard Webster noted that the pioneers in the Presbyterian frontiers of New York and Georgia were particularly susceptible to the riveting innovation of the Awakening preachers, as they, “sought excitement rather than instruction and wearied of the customary methods..... They desire to enjoy a sensible impression on their hearts; an exhilarating cordial... They wanted preaching suited to warm and enliven them, - undervaluing the slow enlightening, the gradual process of the leaven in the three measures of meal.”
 “One observer” Lambert recounts, “called the English evangelist [Whitefield] and the religion that he brought an ‘imported Divinity,’ likening Whitefield and the revival he sparked to the latest London fashions.” This helped to create a template whereby Americans began to instinctively associate religion that was authentic with religion that was current – a template that still dominates American religion to this day. One’s own fiat, informed by personal preference, replaced land-based communities as the central organizing feature of the religious constituency. The spiritual individualism that this invoked effectively disengaged the Christian from the community, although it would not be until the 19th century that the full ramifications of this shift would become evident. But even by the mid 18th century, the implicit and unofficial theology of the Awakening had oriented Americans to look with suspicion on the visible church, its offices and ministries. The result was a levelling influence that was felt the strongest in the colonies where the population began to have political incentives for embracing the Enlightenment rhetoric of equality.

As the First Great Awakening both coincided with, was reinforced by, and helped to reinforce this new burst of republicanism, colonists easily vacillated between their objections to British tyranny and ecclesiastical tyranny. While such objections were not necessarily groundless, the new orientation both reinforced the anti-institutional bias of the Awakening as well as lending a sense of sanctification to the egalitarian mood that was a hallmark of the Enlightenment project. The net result was that Christians went from being suspicious of self-assertion to being suspicious of all authority; from being outward-looking to being introspective; from being centred on their creeds and confessions to being grounded in the latest experiential innovation; from being sources of solidity in society to being conduits of instability. As the new republican language could be invoked interchangeably in both political and religious discourse, it helped to fuse the priorities of colonial Protestantism with the new civic preoccupations. This would ultimately set the stage for the emergence of right wing political fundamentalism.

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Further Reading

The Problem of Mediation in the First Great Awakening

Resources at Alfred the Great Society

The Strange Outbreak of Canadian Gnosticism 
8 Gnostic Myths You May Have Imbibed

Resurrection or Disembodiment? Gnosticism in Evangelical Theology

Against the Protestant Gnostic

Dorothy Sayers Against the Gnostic

Alarming Survey on Bodily Resurrection

All Blog Posts on Gnosticism

Life After Life After Death

Spirit and Flesh 

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