A Comparative Reflection on Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation
Great books are like great cities: each has a splendor of its own, a distinctiveness that it possesses, whatever similarities it may have with its peers – or with also-rans, for those that seem peerless. Despite such incomparable qualities, anyone hoping to understand the nature of books, as well as cities, would do well to compare the greats. As a scholar of religious history, I am particularly concerned with how books in my field bear the marks of their authors’ own religious backgrounds and historical contexts.
I have recently had the good fortune to read two singular works, as per this post’s subtitle. Each is the magnum opus of its respective author and each possesses a geographical and historical focus, scope, and methods very different from the other. The conclusions that their authors reach are diametrically opposed. Nonetheless, both works demonstrate the viability of diverse genres of scholarly writing, the value of transcending periodization and geography in exploring implications, and the tendency – perhaps inevitability – of scholars writing themselves into their work.
Microscope vs. Wide-angle Lens
Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale, 1989) is a paragon of traditional historical research. Hatch analyzes the populist impulse in revivalist religion in the U.S. in the early 19th century, especially among Methodists, Baptists, African-American denominations, Mormons, and the Restoration Movement. He argues that these denominations were able to grow exponentially by becoming “incarnate” in popular culture, elevating the common man over social and religious elites, abolishing or diminishing clergy/laity distinctions, embracing spontaneous expressions of faith as authoritative, and adopting a generally optimistic approach to the future, both with regards to their own congregations and to American society generally. Through such means, American Christianity was democratized and American Democracy was, to an extent, Christianized, if not through church establishment and formal legal status then through the culture of the common citizen. Hatch conducted significant archival work, using the personal journals, letters, and hymnody of various individuals to demonstrate these tendencies. Even a few decades on, Hatch’s work remains arguably the definitive work on the Second Great Awakening.
As his subtitle indicates, Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation (Harvard, 2012) seeks to show “how a religious revolution secularized society.” Gregory’s scope is unconventional to the point of being radical. In each of six chapters, he traces the secularizing tendencies of trends in the present back to their roots in the Reformation and often a few centuries prior. After his first chapter, which makes significant progress toward demonstrating Gregory’s thesis about secularization in general, each chapter shows the trend and its roots with regard to a particular theme: the place of doctrine in public discourse, church-state relations, ethics, economics, and epistemology. In every case, divisiveness caused and perpetuated by Protestants toward Catholics and toward each other created the functional impossibility of all Christians sharing a cohesive worldview in common. I admit, I came to the book as a skeptic. Gregory’s sweeping yet meticulously researched approach was foreign to me. A certain amount of teleological proving what the author set out to find seemed inevitable. Yet it is because of Gregory’s scope and attention to detail that his thesis is plausible. Already one of the most talked-about monographs of the year in historical/theological circles, Gregory’s work is likely to remain one of the most significant books of the decade in any number of sub-fields. Even those students of early modernity utterly hostile to his premise will find Gregory’s bibliography worth the price of the book. Those even mildly open to the possibilities he presents would do well to set aside a month or so and savor his proofs. This is not a book for the faint of heart.
Who We Are: What has Washington to do with Wittenberg?
One of the beautiful characteristics of both books is their transcending of traditional chronological and geographical boundaries. For both Hatch and for Gregory, the event of the Reformation and the formation of the United States are inextricably intertwined, albeit in complex ways, putting the views of each author in tension with the other.
While Hatch spends most of his work exploring how and why American Protestantism acquired a populist flair during the era in question, he devotes a substantial portion of his epilogue to exploring its broader implications, concluding that America owes its spiritual vitality to its religious diversity. Anyone lacking something in his current spiritual community need simply look a little further down the street to find what he seeks elsewhere. Such religious pluralism was possible in America as a direct result of the fragmentation wrought by the Reformation. The vitality that this has facilitated has been a good thing, especially in comparison to the spiritual deadness manifest in other locales where a given confession possesses an effective monopoly on public religiosity.
With his sweeping scope and methodology, Gregory makes frequent reference to the struggles of life in the contemporary United States in light of the Reformation. Fragmentation, in his eyes, has become the source of the irrelevance of things spiritual in mainstream discourse and the apparent impossibility of dialogue across the most deeply entrenched sides of the religious-secular divide, particularly in public life. Indeed, because the integrated worldview that constituted medieval Christianity has been long lost to us, it seems that further fragmentation and mutual intelligibility are inescapable. By presenting the “truths” they enshrined as “self-evident,” the Founding Fathers made it difficult for their successors to engage in a genuine discussion, particularly in the present, when no truths seem universally self-evident.
Who They Are: The Predicaments of Authorship
Hatch and Gregory are brilliant exemplars of their respective sub-disciplines within history (social/religious and religious/philosophical/intellectual history, respectively). Their conclusions, however well-supported, are certainly at odds. This is not to say that they are irreconcilable. In terms of the Reformation’s effect on America, one might plausibly attribute to it some of America’s spiritual vitality, its secular individualism, and its political dysfunction – stemming, in large measure, from the confluence of sub-cultures divergently embodying spiritual vitality and secularism.
The theses that Hatch and Gregory argue are novel and creative on their own terms, whether due narrow focus, on the one hand, or expansiveness, on the other. At the same time, the conclusions that the two scholars reach are less surprising considering who they are and when they wrote. Writing in a time of apparent spiritual vitality and relative political functionality in the late 1980s, Hatch could conclude as a Protestant that religious diversity was a good thing. Writing in a time of waxing epistemological ambivalence and political dysfunction in the early 2010s, Gregory could conclude as a Catholic that the unwitting damage done by Protestant reformers had been lasting.
When Protestants write works praising Catholics and Catholics write works lauding the positive effects of the Reformation, for example – that is when readers should note that something truly strange has taken place. Then readers will know: this work was not merely its author’s banner to wave; it was his cross to bear.
One might forgive Gregory for his apparently flippant dismissal of Hatch’s primary thesis, when he ignores the distinction between professorial theology and the theology of the common folk in early 19th-century America, scare-quoting and citing Hatch’s title in the process (p.354). There is ample room, indeed, urgent need for a full-orbed dialogue between the two perspectives that these scholars represent. When the social and intellectual historians, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike, can agree about what went wrong in the history of Christianity, then and only then might they have hope of putting their hypothetically common house in order.