To mark the 25th anniversary of Nathan’s Hatch’s seminal book, The Democratization of American Christianity, Wake Forest University will host a half-day symposium February 6, 2015 sponsored by the School of Divinity, the Departments of History and Religion, the Humanities Institute, and the Office of the Provost. Seven highly respected scholars of American religious history will offer reflections on the influence of Dr. Hatch’s seminal study and critically assess the work, including challenges since its publication. An award-winning publication, The Democratization of American Christianity has been described as one of the three most significant books on American Christianity written in the last century.
“As a young historian, I fell in with a remarkable set of colleagues tilling adjacent vineyards. We took on projects together and met in the summer – with our families – to read and criticize each other’s work. This scholarly community was deeply formative – a rare gift for those whose scholarly path could also be a lonely one.” – Dr. Nathan Hatch
Continuing in this tradition of collegial but critical scholarly engagement, participants in this symposium will include some of the most distinguished scholars in the U.S. on early American religion. They are:
Friday, February 6
12:00 – 12:15 p.m. Welcome and Introduction
12:15 – 1:45 p.m. Session I: Assessing the Influence and Impact of The Democratization of American Christianity after 25 years
1:45 – 2:00 p.m. Break
2:00 – 3:30 p.m. Session II: Recent Voices and Critical Assessment of The Democratization of American Christianity
3:30 – 4:30 p.m. Session III: Nathan Hatch’s Response and Discussion with all visiting scholars
The following Wake Forest offices have generously sponsored this symposium:
In this prize-winning book, Nathan O. Hatch offers a provocative reassessment of religion and culture in the early days of the American republic, arguing that during this period American Christianity was democratized and common people became powerful actors on the religious scene. Hatch examines five distinct traditions or mass movements that emerged early in the nineteenth century—the Christian movement, the Methodists, the Baptists, the black churches, and the Mormons—showing how all offered compelling visions of individual potential and collective aspiration to the unschooled and unsophisticated.
Democratization was regarded as a classic before most people had a chance to read it: it won the Albert C. Outler Prize from the American Society of Church History while still in manuscript. Once published, it went on to earn awards from Christianity Today, the American Studies Association, and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. Reviewers routinely used the word “classic” and praised the breadth of Hatch’s research, the insightfulness and ambition of his argument, and the book’s sheer readability as a work of scholarship written for a variety of constituencies. Even critical reviewers predicted that it would, in the words of one, “shape scholarship in its field for many years to come.” That prediction has unquestionably proven accurate: the book is a staple of exam lists, and a Proquest search shows that Democratization has been cited in nearly 1,000 dissertations and theses in the last 25 years. The book has become, as another reviewer predicted, one that “every student of American religious history must read, savor, and incorporate into his or her thinking of American religion and culture.”
What readers have found in Democratization is a paradigm for understanding the religious ferment of the early national period and its effect on the subsequent development of Christianity in America. Hatch argued that the empowering of ordinary people wrought by the American Revolution has been as central to the history of American religion as it has been to American political history, and that the years between 1780 and 1830 were formative for what has come since. “The Revolution,” he wrote, “dramatically expanded the circle of people who considered themselves capable of thinking for themselves about issues of freedom, equality, sovereignty, and representation” (6). Hatch argued that the fruits of this expansion were a rejection of traditional authorities in favor of an optimistic appreciation for the abilities of the common person. For religion, this meant that American Christianity would not develop in the theologian’s study or through confessions formulated by ecclesiastical bodies, but in the revival tent and through moments of solitary, self-guided bible reading. “American Protestantism has been skewed away from central ecclesiastical institutions and high culture; it has been pushed and pulled into its present shape by a democratic or populist orientation” (5).
Hatch pursued his argument by presenting studies of five movements in American religion that were ascendant in the early nineteenth century: Methodists, Baptists, Christians (Disciples of Christ), Mormons, and African-American churches. Focusing on the practical ways in which these groups got their message out more than on the message itself, Hatch argued that the leaders of these groups succeeded while representatives of older denominations faltered because they recognized that the new democratic assumptions of the American laity demanded that both preaching and religious print speak directly to practical concerns in an approachable style. “Their coarse language, earthy humor, biting sarcasm, and commonsense reasoning appealed to the uneducated but left the professional clergy without a ready defense,” Hatch wrote (135).
“Rarely do works of scholarship deserve as much attention as this one. The so-called Second Great Awakening was the shaping epoch of American Protestantism, and this book is the most important study ever produced of it.” James Turner, Journal of Interdisciplinary History
“The most powerful, informed, and complex suggestion yet made about the religious, political, and psychic ‘opening’ of American life from Jefferson to Jackson. … Hatch’s reconstruction of his five religious mass movements will add popular religious culture to denominationalism, church and state, and theology as primary dimensions of American religious history.” Robert M. Calhoon, William and Mary Quarterly
“Hatch’s revisionist work asks us to put the religion of the early republic in a radically new perspective. …He has written one of the finest books on American religious history to appear in many years.” James. H. Moorhead, Theology Today