Populism and the Early Church

September 3, 2009 | 13 comments
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I finally got my hands on a copy of The Democratization of American Christianity, Nathan O. Hatch’s look at how the egalitarian democratic spirit that pervaded post-Revolutionary America influenced five early American religious movements: the Christians (such as the Disciples of Christ), the Methodists, the Baptists, black churches, and Mormonism.

What Religious America Was Like Back Then

An acquaintance with the messy, noisy religious culture of antebellum 19th-century America helps for understanding early LDS history. This book does a better job than any I’ve read to make the era’s religious culture comprehensible to a 21st-century reader. No blog post can do justice to Hatch’s discussion, but here’s one paragraph that is a fair summary of his argument:

Abstractions and generalities about the Second Great Awakening as a conservative force have obscured the egalitarianism powerfully at work in the new nation. As common people became significant actors on the religious scene, there was increasing confusion and angry debate over the purpose and function of the church. A style of religious leadership that the public deemed “untutored” and “irregular” as late as the First Great Awakening became overwhelmingly successful, even normative, in the first decades of the republic. Ministers from different classes vied with each other to serve as divine spokesmen. Democratic or populist leaders associated virtue with ordinary people and exalted the vernacular in word, print, and song.

See how you think early Mormonism maps onto the three ways in which Hatch thinks “the popular religious movements of the early republic articulated a profoundly democratic spirit”: (1) a rejection of orthodoxies and theologians, and of the clergy as “a separate order of men”; (2) an acceptance of the religious views of ordinary people “rather than subjecting them to the scrutiny of orthodox doctrine and the frowns of respectable clergymen”; and (3) these up and coming religious outsiders “had little sense of their limitations”; ordinary people “were given the right to think and act for themselves rather than depending upon the mediations of an educated elite.”

Comments on the Mormons

In Chapter Four, Hatch comments on each of the five movements in turn, including ten pages devoted to the Mormons in a section titled “The Populist Vision of Joseph Smith.” The majority of the section quotes passages from the Book of Mormon supporting Hatch’s view that the Book of Mormon (which Hatch reads as reflecting Joseph Smith’s opinions) is “a document of profound social protest, an impassioned manifesto by a hostile outsider against the smug complacency of those in power and the reality of social distinctions based on wealth, class, and education.”

One aspect of the Mormon case that Hatch never comments on is that Mormonism has retained much of the substance (or at least the rhetoric) of this populist vision, whereas the other movements he examines have largely adopted the practices of mainstream Protestantism: a professional clergy, a defined orthodoxy, a conservative rather than an adventurous approach to religion. If Mormonism has retained more of its early populism (a point that can be debated, I admit), the Book of Mormon is a likely explanation. The sermons of 19th-century preachers from other movements are almost entirely forgotten today; the Book of Mormon is read by all active Latter-day Saints.

Say It With A Song

Hatch includes an appendix of selected lyrics from hymns of the period, titled “A Sampling of Anticlerical and Anti-Calvinist Verse.” Sermons may be forgotten, but sometimes hymns live on. For your edification, here are a few choice verses.

From “False Prophets Contrasted with the Apostle Paul”:

“Bring forth your worldly wealth,” they cry,
“And barter for the joys on high!
Treasure bestow with liberal hands,
To save the souls in heathen lands.

Support our Missionary plan;
Reverend divines this scheme began,
But all must fail if you withhold
The needful silver and the gold.”

And here’s a special selection for Geoff from New Cool Thang, from “Against the Calvinian Doctrine”:

Can Christ our God a Moloch be,
Pleas’d with his creatures’ misery?
Dooming nine-tenths of men that fell,
To burning flames and endless hell?

A God in wrath and vengeance dress’d,
In rage which cannot be express’d?
Decreeing unborn souls to death;
Long ere they sinn’d or drew their breath?

No, Lord, thy name and nature’s love,
To all mankind thy bowels move;
Thy saving grace for all is free,
And none are doomed to misery.

13 Responses to Populism and the Early Church

  1. Ginger on September 3, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    This sounds like a very interesting book. Thanks for the review. I’ll have to add it to my list of must reads.

  2. Kent (MC) on September 3, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Sweet lyrics! When I’m on the committee I’ll make sure it gets into the hymnal.

  3. Dan on September 3, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    No, the church as seen today, is not populist, but definitely a top-down organization.

    “When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s Plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give directions, it should mark the end of controversy, God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.”

    Ward Teachers Message, Deseret News, Church Section p. 5, May 26, 1945

    Maybe we’re slowly moving away from that, but I don’t see it much.

  4. Dave on September 3, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    Thanks for the comments. Dan, what makes you think a ward teacher’s message from 1945 (64 years ago, if my math is correct) stands for “the church as seen today”?

  5. Dan on September 3, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    Dave,

    My mistake. I was under the impression that came from higher up.

  6. James Olsen on September 3, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Looks like a great book Dave. Does he by chance discuss the incredibly un-democratic visions given in the Book of Mormon (the clerical and political elites, the pre-Mosiah authoritarian govt followed by the post-Mosiah authoritarian govt, repeated themes of choseness, etc.)? I know Bushman has commented a great deal about this (see “The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution,” “My Belief,” and RSR). What’s your opinion on how well he analyzes the BofM text? Regardless, it’s great to see early Mormonism getting serious (if brief) treatment in a book like this.

  7. Dave on September 3, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    Dan, “populist” does not necessarily mean democratic. Hatch did note and discuss a degree of tension between populism and authoritarian institutions.

    The Methodists under Francis Asbury, for instance, used authoritarian means to build a church that would not be a respecter of persons. … Similarly, the Mormons used a virtual religious dictatorship as the means to return power to illiterate men. Yet despite these authoritarian structures, the fundamental impetus of these movements was to make Christianity a liberating force; people were given the right to think and act for themselves …

  8. Dave on September 3, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    James, it appears Hatch did actually read the Book of Mormon, but the six-page discussion in the book suggests he focused on passages that illustrated the populist themes he was working with. Keep in mind the book was written in 1989, so it was published before Underwood’s The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (1993) and the same year as Hill’s Quest for Refuge. Before presenting his own interpretation, Hatch did briefly note alternative views of the main thrust of the Book of Mormon:

    Recent interpretations of the Book of Mormon have emphasized its rationality in contrast to the religious enthusiasm of American revivalism, its calm millennial hope in contrast to Millerite enthusiasm, its progressive optimism in contrast to Calvinist determinism, and its quest for order in contrast to romanticism.

    The first two interpretations he attributes to Thomas O’Dea; the third and fourth he attributes to Klaus Hansen.

  9. David G. on September 3, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    Cool, Dave. I think this is a must-read for people interesting in how Mormonism fits into a wider read. Hatch’s book has flaws, as Stephen Fleming and others have shown, but it’s still an important work. To add to the summary quote you provide, it’s important to put Hatch’s work in historiographical context. Hatch is responding to Paul Johnson’s Shopkeeper’s Millennium, which argues that the merchant class used revivals as a means of social control. This model appeals to the semi-Marxist bent of many historians, who see religion as just a cover for materialist concerns. Hatch was able to show that Johnson’s model really doesn’t work in explaining JS and the other religious populists who were attracting large numbers of rural and working class Americans.

  10. Vader on September 4, 2009 at 11:44 am

    Dan, are you not aware that President George Albert Smith repudiated the “thinking has been done” publication very shortly thereafter?

    The leaflet to which you refer, and from which you quote in your letter, was not “prepared” by “one of our leaders.” However, one or more of them inadvertently permitted the paragraph to pass uncensored. By their so doing, not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.

    I am pleased to assure you that you are right in your attitude that the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church. Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church, which is that every individual must obtain for himself a testimony of the truth of the Gospel, must, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, work out his own salvation, and is personally responsible to His Maker for his individual acts. The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion in His desire and effort to give peace and salvation to His children. He gives the principles of life and true progress, but leaves every person free to choose or to reject His teachings. This plan the Authorities of the Church try to follow.

  11. Bob on September 4, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Dave, In my opinion, Populism only exist at the botton level of a Culture. Be it Mormonism or your office staff. Yes, I believe there was a lot of Populism in the early Church. But, I am not sure JS was a populist (?) I am also unsure that the leadership of the Church, at any point in time, was populist (?)
    I feel today, the heart of Church populism is outside it’s formal Leadership, and in it’s blogs and academic thinkers.

  12. Daniel on September 4, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    What does the principle of “common consent” (D&C 26:2 and
    D&C 28:13) imply about populism or democracy in the early Church or the current Church?

  13. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 10, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    I am not sure how “Populism” corresponds with democracy. My understanding is that Huey Long was considered a quintessential Populist, but he was also a petty despot. A goodly share of modern dictators seem to have been “Populists” who managed to convince a broad swath of their fellow citizens that their own interests were best served by concentrating real power in the hands of one leader who really cared about them. On the other hand, a more democratic dispersal of authority, in which people primarily rely on themselves rather than on a benevolent despot, is not called “Populism” but usually “conservatism.”

    So based on my personal understanding of “Populism” I would agree it is not a characteristic of the modern LDS Church. I would suggest that the leadership principles the church teaches specifically reject that kind of “Populism” as being an enemy to proper exercise of the priesthood.

    On the other hand, I would take the position that the Church is “democratic” in fundamental ways, with unpaid, volunteer leadership, regular turnover in positions, and broad dispersal of responsibility and authority, where the leader of a congregation delegates to ordinary members the giving of sermons on most Sundays. While the local members do not elect leaders and teachers, or make decisions to approve new scripture or doctrine, the very process of participation is voluntary and “elective” in nature, and all have the opportunity to express themselves as both teachers and class participants.

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