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.