In David F. Wells’ book, “God in the Wasteland”, a fair amount of time is spent discussing the trends of American Christianity after the Revolution. This is done in conjunction with a work by Finke and Stark, called “The Churching of America,” and a work by Nathan Hatch called, “The Democratization of American Christianity.” I believe this study provides some insight and yields some interesting data that somewhat relates to my previous post.
First, denominational changes are documented in terms of membership in 1776. Specifically, over half of America’s church goers were Congregationalists (20.4%), Episcopal/Anglican (15.7), and Presbyterians (Reformed) (19%). However, by 1850, these denominations numbered 4%, 3.5%, and 11.6% respectively. In contrast the Baptists (16.9-20.5%) and Methodists (2.5-34.2%) experienced substantial growth during this time period. Methodist churches went from 65 in 1776, to 13,302 in 1850. The obvious question of course is, why? Finke and Stark believe that much of this can be explained by the political, economic, and sociological climate that arose out of the revolution. Since Baptists and Methodists were democratic at the local level, this gave them an enormous advantage in the days after the Revolution. As Wells puts it, “The young nation offered an environment in which ordinary, often untrained people found the freedom to act on their own impulses, unhampered by the doctrines of the past, whether Christian or political…” (Wells, 65).
Because many of the “common folk” associated the well-educated clergy with the old world and the like, an anti-clerical and anti-intellectual undercurrent took hold, with the leaders of these populist movements wanting to “…destroy the monopoly of classically educated and university trained clergymen” (Hatch, 162). In fact, some have estimated that only 100 of 2,000 Baptist clergy had a college level education, and in 1844, only 50 of the 4,282 Methodist circuit riders had an education beyond grade-school. This is coupled with the shift towards democracy, where “the church-centered faith …retreated before itinerant revivalism, reasoned faith retreated before exuberant testimony, and theological confession retreated before the self-evident truths of experience” (Wells, 67). One can imagine what this has done in areas such as worship and theology.
This being said, it is not my intention to imply that this change was completely bad or lacking any merit. On the contrary, the ability of some of these Pastors/Teachers to be among “the people,” can be an asset, and some of the institutions associated with the old world contained clergy that were spiritually dead. And while clergy/pastors should be as educated as possible, extenuating circumstances can of course dictate otherwise. However, the wholesale rejection of many historic Christian practices, the glorification of democracy, and the overemphasis on “personal experiences/conversion experiences” has created or contributed to the sort of democratic, informal social club gatherings that are called “worship services.” It can easily be seen how such an environment capitulates to modern/postmodern culture in the name of “being relevant.” Also, it is hard not to believe that many in the western world have made democracy out to be some sort of god or idol. Some churches that wisely reject much of the modern/postmodern culture still contain some of these same tendencies as well, instead substituting 19th century revivalism as the norm or goal.
While much of this information takes time to digest and process, it seems clear that historical knowledge and theological wisdom would go a long way in remedying some of these phenomena. At this time, the present author still longs for the intellectual, cultural, and historic inheritance of the church, while remembering the church’s obligation to also be among the people. Perhaps this makes one a “high-church Baptist/Methodist,” which some may consider a contradiction in terms, especially in light of the above. Any thoughts or solutions?