Over at The Junto, Roy Rogers discusses the impact of Nathan Hatch’s seminal The Democratization of American Christianity on the study of religion in the early republic. When I started graduate school Hatch’s book was a hot new interpretation of early 19th century evangelicalism. Everyone was talking about it and critical reviews were rare. I have taught the book on at least four different occasions over the years–all to great effect. It is hard to believe that next year marks the 25th anniversary of its publication. Hatch’s book has certainly stood the test of time.
Younger scholars like Rogers, a graduate student at CUNY Graduate Center, continue to wrestle with Hatch’s argument. His post is very helpful in chronicling some of the most substantial critiques of Hatch’s democratization thesis that have appeared over the years. (Jon Butler, Amanda Porterfield, Christine Heyrman). Here is a taste of his post:
The central problem faced by critics of the “democratization thesis,” myself included, is that no scholar has come up with an interpretative scheme to replace it. While, perhaps, “the democratization thesis” is teetering on the edge of the historiographical abyss, no work of synthesis has come along to give it that final shove. The closest potential executioner would be the excellent Conceived in Doubt (discussed above) but Porterfield’s book is too new and carefully argued to have such an immediate, startling impact. While the foundations of the analytic house that Hatch built are damaged it still stands.
From my point of view if we are going to move beyond the legacy of The Democratization of American Christianity we need to pay more careful attention to the role the state continued to play in shaping post-Revolutionary religious life. While expanding evangelicalism did open new possibilities to many groups with in the new American society this was not a clear or straightforward process. It does not seem clear to me that we should describe denominational competition in the early republic as “democratic” with Mormons, Millerites, Methodists and more competing, fiercely and always honestly, for both souls and cultural-political influence. What unites scholarship working under the “ democratization thesis” and that interpretation’s critics is a focus on cultural explanations for the rise and success of evangelicalism in the new United States. What might be needed is to shift the focus of our analysis towards institutional and legal factors, over directly cultural ones. Law and political conflict continued to shape denominational building and competition after the Revolution. The new state governments of post-Revolutionary American continued to be the primary force defining the religious marketplace – through incorporation laws, through tests oaths, through moral legislation, through a general tax assessment to support Christian churches. Evangelicals, and their rivals, sought to use law to shape (and reshape) the religious marketplace in their favor and at their competitors’ expense. Keeping in mind this continuing relationship between state power and religious practice might allow us to devise a new, more persuasive interpretative framework for the chaotic world of early national Christianity.