007 Worthy History

One of the best historical works I’ve read in some time is The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). by Nathan Hatch. As a professor of history and vice president for Graduate Studies and Research at the University of Notre Dame, Hatch clearly occupies an established niche in academia and writes as a professional historian. This book received the 1988 Albert C. Outler Prize in Ecumenical Church History from the American Society of Church History as well as the 1989 prize for best book in the history of the early republic from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. But it’s more than a learned treatise for historians–it’s a well-told, masterful tale, one which helps us grasp important aspects of this nation’s religious experience.

The title announces the book’s thesis: Hatch “argues both that the theme of democratization is central to understanding the development of American Christianity, and that the years of the early republic are the most crucial in revealing that process” (p. 3). In that era revivalism, a “wave of popular religious movements,” mainly inspired and directed by Baptist and Methodist preachers, christianized the fledgling nation by mid-century.

Given the democratic tendencies sparked by the American Revolution–“the most crucial event in American history” (p. 5)–those religious movements which incorporated democratic ideology and polity most easily prospered. Between 1780 and 1830, uniquely American approaches established what we no label “evangelical” churches, and this emergence “of evangelical Christianity in the early republic is, in some measure, a story of the success of common people in shaping the culture after their own priorities rather than the priorities outlined by gentlemen such as the framers of the Constitution” (p. 9). Ordinary men and women, many of them marked by the rough practicality of the frontier, installed an Americanist version of the Christian faith in the new nation. They had little interest in European traditions, formal education, or theological subtleties.

Thus they nurtured and followed “populist” preachers–largely self-educated leaders like the Methodist itinerant Lorenzo Dow who freely charted their own course. According to Dow, “larning isn’t religion, and eddication don’t give a man the power of the Spirit. It is the grace and gifts that furnish the real live coals from off the altar. St. Peter was a fisherman–do you think he ever went to Yale College?” (p. 20).

Democratic forces tended to dis-establish the learned professions, law and medicine as well as the ministry. In “back country” regions, dissent thrived and democratic impulses throbbed. “In the wake of the Revolution, dissenters confounded the establishment with an approach to theological matters that was nothing short of guerilla warfare. The coarse language, earthy humor, biting sarcasm, and commonsense reasoning of their attacks appealed to the uneducated but left the professional clergy without a ready defense. The very ground rules of religious life were at stake” (p. 34).

The ground rules shifted. People embraced populist preachers and democratic evangelicalism triumphed. New evangelistic methods, most notably the camp meeting, took American Christianity in novel directions. When Lorenzo Dow tried to implant the camp meeting in England, Methodist leaders opposed it, finding offensive its “uncensored testimonials,” emotionalism, and “use of folk music that would have chilled the marrow of Charles Wesley” (p. 50). But America, the camp meetings helped Methodists and Baptists reach “common” men and women; just as Andrew Jackson inaugurated the era of the “common man,” so too evangelicals inaugurated the church of the common man. With some accuracy Michael Chevalier described frontier camp meetings as “‘festivals of democracy'” (p. 58).

The individualism, as well as the democracy, of the new nation also shaped American Christianity. The proliferation of new religious movements, ranging from Freewill Baptists to Universalists, from Disciples of Christ to Mormons, from Cumberland Presbyterians to Shakers, testifies to the fact that individuals freely launched and embraced a multitude of denominations, sects, and cults. The freedom which enabled Methodist circuit riders to adapt to their audience and call into being a distinctive American Methodism also enabled less “orthodox” prophets to successfully cast their nets into the turbulent waters of the new republic. In a democratic society, where the will of the majority prevails, religious as well as political leaders must court the masses. Still more: they must grant each person the right to think for oneself, for the “new ground rules measured theology by its acceptance in the marketplace” (p. 162). Charles Finney, clearly the most successful revivalist, openly “called for a Copernican revolution to make religious life audience-centered. He despised the formal study of divinity because it produced dull and ineffective communication” (p. 197).

Alarmed by such tendencies, Philip Schaff and John Nevin, scholarly architects of the Mercersburg Theology, asserted: “Anyone who has, or fancies that he has, some inward experience and a ready tongue, may persuade himself that he is called to be a reformer; and so proceed at once, in his spiritual vanity and pride, to a revolutionary rupture with the historical life of the church, to which he hold himself immeasurably superior” (p. 165). As German Reformed theologians, they knew traditional theologies, such as their own Calvinism, stood at a disadvantage in the struggle for the hearts of independent-minded Americans who instinctively sided with “free will” Methodistic proclamation.

Hatch argues that the churches which reached the common man, preeminently the Methodists and Baptists, democratized American Christianity. They are, he argues, more important than the more sedate and scholarly churches which have frequently provided the focus for historians’ presentations of American church history. Much like Timothy Smith, in Revivalism and Social Reform, Hatch insists we understand the religious dynamic of this nation by getting in touch with the distinctively democratic movements which shaped it. Rich with anecdotes and illustrations, thoughtfully analytical, balanced and judicious, this is a marvelous historical work.

Reading Hatch, with his perceptive examinations of Methodism, prodded me to re-read an older (c. 1956), recently re-printed work by John Leland Peters, Christian Perfection and American Methodism (Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, c. 1985). The doctrine of Christian Perfection, so evident in the works of John Wesley, became, in the opinion of W.W. Sweet, “‘little more than a creedal matter among the main Methodist bodies'” within 100 years of his death. Peters seeks to discover why.

He first explores the “doctrine” as it took form in the thinking and teaching of John Wesley. Calls for holy living had been quite common in 17th century England, so he hardly announced a radically new theme. For example, in a sermon preached in 1647, Ralph Cudworth, Regius professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, declared: “‘The end of the Gospel is Life and Perfection, ’tis a Divine Nature, ’tis a Godlike frame and disposition of spirit; ’tis to make us partakers of the Image of God in Righteousnesse and true Holinesse, without which, Salvation itself were but a notion'” (p. 17). In Wesley’s own era, of course, William Law wrote similarly, calling believers to a “devout and holy life,” and exercised some influence in Anglican circles.

After preaching and writing and refining his own views for a quarter of a century, Wesley seems to have arrived, with the 1777 edition of the Plain Account of Christian Perfection, at his final position. The process of sanctification begins with regeneration, takes form in an instantaneous deliverance from sin, and flourishes as one grows in grace.

Wesley’s followers in the American colonies naturally sought to transplant his theology, including the doctrine of Christian Perfection, a delicate task of husbandry since even in England Wesley struggled to restrain his own followers who tended to distort–either overstating or minimizing or even denying–his teaching.

American Methodists in the 1770’s, especially Freeborn Garrettson and Devereaux Jarratt clearly called their converts to enter into “a deeper work,” to “go on to perfection,” to experience the divine work of entire sanctification. Following the Revolution, especially as Methodism flourished on the expanding frontier during the Second Great Awakening, the doctrine of Christian perfection was retained, though somewhat muted, as the main focus became simply converting the lost. Thus by 1819 one writer said: “‘How few and feeble are the efforts of … ministers of the gospel in particular, to raise the standard of Christian perfection in the Church'” (p. 99).

Then, too, other issues, such as millenialism, abolitionism, and the Mexican War diverted Methodist energies. Consequently, by the eve of the Civil War, while Methodism had become the largest Protestant denomination, the doctrine of Christian Perfection had been largely forgotten. In reaction, small churches–the Free Methodists and Wesleyan Methodists–emerged to reclaim the doctrine, though both movements tended to reduce holiness to “an individualistic puritanism” quite unlike Wesley’s teaching.

Once the Civil War ended, many Methodists, most evidently in the National Association for the Promotion of Holiness, sought, with some success, to bring their denomination back to Wesley’s concern for Christian perfection. Holiness camp meetings flourished and holiness evangelists were in demand. But increasingly some influential and powerful critics of the doctrine gained sway within Methodism. By 1890, holiness associations were being condemned for their “come-outism,” and holiness advocates found their opportunities limited within the Methodist Episcopal Church. Self-defensively, they lamented the “crush-outism” which forced them out of their own church.

Consequently, during the final six years of the 19th century “ten separate religious bodies were organized with entire sanctification as their cardinal doctrine” (p. 148). One of these, of course, was Phineas Bresee’s First Church of the Nazarene.

Peters himself was reared and educated as a Nazarene, though he transferred his credentials to the Methodist Church in 1948. In this book, the published version of his Yale Ph.D. dissertation, he clearly considers Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection a biblical distinctive needing renewal. Not only Methodists, but Protestants in general, he argues, should follow after and attain holiness of heart and life.

As the Church of the Nazarene approaches its centennial mark, much about its development gain clarity through Peters’ historical delineation of Methodism. There are certainly many parallels–numerical gains, for instance, almost necessarily divert a church’s attention away from “deeper life” emphases. Yet there are dissimilarities as well, indicators that a denomination can in fact preserve a commitment to the doctrine of entire sanctification despite the erosive passing of time.

For thirteen years Pat Apel practiced law before attending seminary and embarking upon his present vocation as a Presbyterian pastor. In Nine Great American Myths: Ways We Confuse the American Dream with the Christian Faith (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, Inc., c. 1991), he employs that personal background, as well as his wide-ranging studies (largely done, it appears, at Reformed Theological Seminary), to address the important relationship between Christ and culture. I admire Apel’s ambition! Few writers seek to think so broadly and religiously about American history and its relevance to the Christian Church. Yet Apel does. And doing so he encourages us to join him in the challenging work of reflecting on the meaning of “the American Dream” and its all-too-frequent equation with Christian worldviews. Thus, though I often differ with Apel, though I question many of his sweeping generalizations, I praise his effort and the way it involves me in the “doing” of history.

The noted historian Daniel Boorstin asserted, in The Image, that “‘We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in place of reality'” (p. 5). The ingredients of “Americanism,” Apel argues, are mainly shared images, “myths” rooted in history but larger than the realities therein. They constitute a “worldview”–an “American Dream”– giving us an identity which is too often confused with Christianity.

To sort out the illusions from the realities, to challenge Christians to rightly identify themselves with Christ rather than their culture, Apel explores nine “myths” which undergird Americanism as a worldview.

First, there’s “The Myth of Our Christian Origins: In the Beginning.” The Puritans powerfully shaped the Americanist worldview. Alexis de Tocqueville, so perceptive in many areas, said: “‘I think I can see the whole destiny of America contained in he first Puritan who landed on these shores'” (p. 26). In Apel’s judgment, “The Puritan experience, drawing upon the biblical metaphors of uniqueness, exclusive mission, and conquest, created the context from which all other American myths arose” (p. 26). Though the myth will be subsequently secularized, American history harbors illustrations of superiority (the “greatest nation on earth), manifest destiny (making the world safe for democracy), and wars of conquest.

Secondly, there’s “The Myth of Restoration and the New Beginning: Morning in America Again.” In the New World there’s always the chance to start over. Thus “the image of the restoration and the new beginning has been stamped into the American Dream so that newness is sacred, whether it is needed or not” (p. 38). Puritans fantasized that in the “wilderness” they could establish a perfect society, and the longing to restore things to a primitive perfection resurfaces with regularity in both secular and religious circles. Blind to the biblical truth that Adam and Eve sinned by seeking to run their own little paradise, their own perfect world, Americans persist in the dream of calling into being a utopia, of restoring a lost paradise.

Thirdly, there’s “The Myth of Sacrifice and Dissent,” nicely illustrated by Roger Williams. Clearly willing to live sacrificially, so long as he could pursue his own ideals, Williams stands forth as one of the earliest and greatest dissenters. At stake was not the good of the community, for Williams apparently had no real concern for the well-being of the Puritan commonwealth, but the supreme good of the individual. Each individual must be free to seek his own way, unlimited by civil or ecclesiastical restraint. Independent congregations, voluntarily supported by folks of like faith, function autonomously. The strongly separatist theme, so pronounced in Williams and many of his Baptist followers, bricked up a wall of separation between church and state, for William considered any form of religious coercion “soul rape.” (Secularized, that theme emerges in Thomas Jefferson–and his latter-day ACLU heirs.)

Fourthly, Apel focuses on “The Myth of Political Equality: ‘All Men Are Created Equal.'” Americans virtually assume all men are created equal, free to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Jeffersonian republicanism deeply indwells the American psyche. Thomas Jefferson rooted it in a biblical context, declaring, in his second inaugural address: “I shall need the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted then in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.” For Jefferson, however, the promised land of America primarily provided equal rights for all citizens. He stressed the inalienable rights of free men. Each individual was to be freed to work out his own private form of salvation. Thus he insisted the established churches be dis-established, leading the crusade to that end in Virginia.

Fifthly, there’s “The Myth of the Self-Made Man: Rags to Riches.” The Ben Franklin story, the saga of the poor boy succeeding, provides part of the Americanist worldview. It is, in fact “the heartbeat of America: the myth of the self-made man” (p. 72). Evident in the enormously successful Horatio Alger stories (Alger was a Unitarian minister in New York) as well as in the careers of notorious “robber barons” a century ago, the rags-to-riches myth endures. It flourishes in political rhetoric and indwells the agonized guilt felt by financial failures.

The next two myths Apel considers deal with “individualism.” The eighth treats “The Myth of Relativism: the Culture in Crisis.” As Allen Bloom made clear in The Closing of the American Mind, one must simply assume that folks you encounter embrace relativist assumptions. “Relativism has become our culture’s way of explaining the world around it–everything is relative; what you believe is fine for you, but don’t tread on me” (p. 109). Whether in business or academia, in law or science, relativism has conquered. It’s part of the worldview labeled “Americanism,” because it marches under the popular flags of pluralism and tolerance.

Finally, Apel focuses on “The Myth of the Christian Nation: The Congregation in Crisis.” Scholars such as Robert Bellah, Robert Linder, and Richard Pierard have persuasively documented the power of America’s “civil religion.” It’s invoked by political figures and popular entertainers. Yet it’s clearly not the historic Christian faith. It’s a national self-confidence and self-exaltation. Thus millions of Americans profess to be “Christians,” yet they neither think nor live according to authentically Christian principles. In this section, Apel reviews the eight earlier “myths” and shows how they all get bound together in America’s civil religion. Rightly analyzed, these “myths” must be defused, if not destroyed, in order to re-orient one’s worldview in accord with biblical truth.

The Christian response to these nine myths is detailed in the second half of the book. Apel discusses the importance of faith, scripture, sacraments, and prayer. Rightly focused on these traditional means of grace, one may rigorously evaluate and escape the pervasive myths of our culture. While useful, the second part (a somewhat predictable evangelical “how-to-do-it response) was less worthwhile to me than the first.