Many history textbooks practically ignore the spiritual ferment of the early 1800s. Yet recent historical research reveals that religious enthusiasm was widespread and that it had a profound effect on our nation. To better understand this era, Christian History talked with Nathan O. Hatch, professor of history and vice-president of advanced studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is author of the award-winning The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale, 1989).

Early America was a time of tremendous religious energy. How significant was this era?

The American population grows spectacularly in the early republic. But the growth of the churches far surpasses it.

Between the American Revolution and 1845, the United States grew from 2.5 million to 20 million—about eight-fold. But the number of clergy per capita tripled, from 1:1,500 to 1:500. Methodists and Baptists grew from a few thousand to 1.5 million each. By the Civil War, America was essentially an “evangelical nation.”

Why the spiritual ferment at this time?

Coming out of the American Revolution, there is a tremendous political upsurge, a revolt against traditional authority. Common people asked, “Why should we defer to our ‘betters’?” There’s a revolt against the clergy, who have been to college, who read their sermons, who are “gentlemen,” who don’t work with their hands.

The democratic ferment sweeping the land helps empower popular religion. You see the rise of all kinds of groups led by common people, men and women without college education, who speak the common idiom. Someone like Lorenzo Dow, who became a phenomenal character in the early republic, was untutored and unlearned and made no bones about that. It was almost a badge of honor not to be educated.

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