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From the Soil--and Soul--of America : AWASH IN A SEA OF FAITH The Christianization of the American People, 1550-1865 by Jon Butler (Harvard Press: $19.90; 347 pp.) : THE DEMOCRATIZATION OF AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY by Nathan O. Hatch (Yale University Press: $25; 312 pp.; 0-300-4470-4)

January 07, 1990|Robert S. Michaelson | Michaelson, professor of religious studies, emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of "The American Search for Soul" and co-editor of "Liberal Protestantism: Realities and Possibilities." and

St. Paul, an astute observer of things religious, pointed out to the skeptical Athenians that they were "in every way . . . a very religious people." Professors Jon Butler and Nathan O. Hatch, impressively astute in their studies of religion in America, offer fresh insights and substantial documentation regarding the pervasive religiosity of the American people. While they concentrate on earlier periods in American history and deal primarily with Protestant Christianity, they do shed new light on the overall picture and on the American religious scene today.

As with the religious beliefs and practices of the Athenians, those of the American people are, as these studies substantiate, bewilderingly complex. As something of a foil in his story of the complex process of the Christianization of Americans, Butler includes informative treatments of magic, the occult and similar "heterodox" phenomena. Hatch focuses much of his attention on different individuals such as Francis Asbury, the pioneering Methodist bishop; Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet; Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Alexander Campbell, leading figure in the shaping of the Christian or Disciples of Christ movement.

Fresh insights? Hatch devotes attention to such significant phenomena as the development of American gospel music, an important story that is generally slighted among scholars. And Butler attends to "the religious landscape"--the changing architectural manifestations of religion in America--another area largely overlooked in studies of religion in America.

What is most refreshing about these works, then, is that they eschew the more typical way of dealing with religion in America in terms of elites and organizations, and concentrate instead on the religious beliefs and practices of the people. Theirs is a story of the laicization of religion, religion in and as populist movements, religion sprung from the American soil and soul.

Hence, Butler, e.g., takes on the generally accepted view of the primacy of the Puritans and the dominating influence of the "so-called Great Awakening" of the 1740s in the larger story of religion in America. Similarly, Hatch sees the Second Great Awakening, the usual designation for an outburst of Evangelical revivals in the early years of the new republic, as being more divisive than unifying, more identified with what Alexis de Tocqueville, French observer of American democracy in the early 1830s, called the "seething mobility" of people and ideas than with any singleness of purpose or character. These American migrants--"adventurers," Tocqueville called them--were "impatient of any yoke, greedy for wealth, and often outcasts . . . . There is nothing of tradition, family feeling or example to restrain them."

The most common religious feature among these emerging Americans was their desire to begin anew, to build their own religion or to find that religion which, stripped of nonessentials, consisted of nothing more or less than the straight line to the supernatural and to salvation.

That route typically involved not only thinking for oneself but experiencing of oneself. And above all, it required relying on and interpreting for oneself that rock-bottom source, the Bible. "I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me," asserted Alexander Campbell. (A common claim of those active in the Christian movement of the early 19th Century was: "Where the New Testament speaks, we speak; where the New Testament is silent, we are silent.")

Paradoxically, this reliance on self produced not only the rich variety of expressions that one might expect but also some highly disciplined and even centralized and authoritarian movements.

Butler stresses "the role of authority and coercion in advancing Christianity in America." Hatch points out that while his book is "about popular religion (it) focuses, ironically, upon elites"--i.e., "upon those persons who rose to leadership positions in a wide range of popular American churches and religious movements."

These leaders were not of the elite in a class or social sense; they were of the people. Individuals of considerable native abilities who were remarkably attuned to popular sentiment, they had the capacity to mobilize that sentiment into powerful popular movements that became lasting organizations: Baptist, Methodist, Christian, African Methodist, Mormon and others.

Tocqueville noted in amazement of such American religious leaders that "where I expect to find a priest I find a politician." These were not "organization men" in a narrow sense. They understood their parish, as John Wesley understood his, to include the whole world. Religion was for them a public as well as a private matter.

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