Book Review: ‘The Democratization of American Christianity’ by Nathan O. Hatch

The Democratization of American Christianity The Garrett Ashley Mullet Show

Nestled on Ellis Island near New York City, there is a poem inscribed in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Titled ‘The New Colossus,’ the piece was written on November 2, 1883 by Emma Lazarus, and it reads as follows.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This poem by Lazarus may have been written to commemorate the Statue of Liberty and the promise of the American dream in many other ways, but I find it oddly fitting to remember it in relation to Nathan O. Hatch’s book, The Democratization of American Christianity.

And nothing is clearer in reading Hatch’s superb American church history than this fact: the same winds of change which so fundamentally altered America’s economic, civic, and political life along the lines of individual liberty also transformed the religious life of this new nation.

The Goddess of Liberty

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

For that matter, which here was the chicken, and which was the egg?

Did the political philosophy of our American forebears infiltrate the churches and lead to the formation of new movements and novel new denominations? Or did the quest for religious liberty kick-started by the Protestant Reformation and culminating in the settlement and colonization of this ‘New World’ cause the political upheavals trending toward liberalism, republicanism, and democracy?

The answer is ‘Yes.’

Truthfully, the religious and political transformations here are so intimately linked, it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins.

Either way, reading Hatch’s history of American Christianity is both enthralling and disturbing. How much anti-clericalism is healthy when there are or may be abuses endemic to the profession as we know it?

Tragically, this question seems not to have been asked overly often by the itinerant preachers and visionaries of the Second Great Awakening and on. And its easy to see how both Great Awakenings contributed to the trends toward democracy and liberalism which followed, even on up to the present plight with ‘Woke Christianity.’

The distrust of establishment authorities in every sphere of life was such a feature of the American colonies in 18th century America. But do we realize what a mark was left on many of the unspoken attitudes we have regarding discipleship, ecclesiastical authority, theological training, and biblical interpretation from the seeds planted back then?

I hazard the guess that the vast majority of us do not have any idea whatsoever about these things. But if we want to know and understand these things better – and we ought to – here I can recommend reading Hatch’s book.

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