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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Christ's Poor

Historian Gary Nash on the
Religion of the Average "Joe Sixpack"

When studying any topic of history, one of the main "sins" that is regularly committed is to focus on the stories of the "great man" while ignoring the sometimes boring and mundane tales of the average Joe. After all, the lives and legacies of the select (and often elite) few tend to be more exciting for both the reader and the researcher. As a result, the story of the subaltern often goes lost in the shuffle.

Such is the case with early American religion. When we stop to think about what our nation's earliest citizens believed we tend to focus on the select few (usually the Founding Fathers), whose beliefs, though important, sometimes differed from those of the common man/woman. While belief systems like deism, theistic rationalism, theological unitarianism, Christian orthodoxy, etc. each played a role in shaping the religious constructs of those we affectionately call the founders, these same forces were at work, in a very different way, on America's colonial "Joe Sixpack."

One of the best works of history in recent years on the life and influence of the common American during the American Revolution is Gary Nash's The Unknown American Revolution. In this book, Nash dissects how average colonial Americans (most of whom would have thought of themselves as British) played some of the most fundamental roles during America's quest for independence. And, among a plethora of other factors, Gary Nash mentions just how important religion was for the common American.

According to Nash, "Christ's Poor" as he refers to them, were the heart and soul of America's firestorm of religious enthusiasm, which literally devised new religious concepts for how an individual could commune with the divine. This "Great Awakening" as historians call it today, began to rebuke the traditional religious institutions, which had maintained a spiritual monopoly on the souls of common American for over a century. As a result, the colonial "Joe Sixpack" began to see religion as a personal endeavor that did not require the traditional sacraments or assistance of the clergy. As Nash states:
God did not operate through the elite corps of the learned clergy and their aristocratic allies. Rather, god worked through the inner light given to every man and woman regardless of their station in life, with lack of education or even slave status posing no barrier to achieving grace through the conversion experience (8).
In addition to this newfound sense of personal ecclesiastic independence, Americans of the founding generation began to see church attendance not as a prerequisite for salvation but rather as an optional alternative. In 1776, only 17% of Americans were official members of an organized church, as opposed to the estimated 80-85% from a generation before. And while some of the low attendance figures can be attributed to the difficulties surrounding a commute to church (colonial roads were poorly maintained and churches often located far from family farms) the reality is that Americans of the founding generation put less emphasis on habitual church attendance as a necessary component for salvation.

Not only were the traditional concepts of religious authority and Sunday worship questioned, but the very doctrine of Christianity had begun an evolutionary process, which developed independently from the traditional clergy of the 18th century. This evolution toppled the pulpit as a source of ecclesiastical domination, which had sought to subjugate the citizenry under its religious umbrella. By toppling the status quo, Americans were, for the first time, put on equal footing with their former clergymen. As Nash points out:
The message was one of social leveling, for it put all people on one footing insofar as the conversion experience was concerned. Moreover, the message was one that condemned the clergy as unconverted and deplored their love of velvet garments and other luxurious trappings (9).
With the emergence of enthusiastic preachers like George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, etc., "Joe Sixpack" religion became the religion of the "uneducated masses that had no minds of their own." At least this was the fear of the ecclesiastic and gentry class.

Even slaves, who, for the first time, were taught the principles of emerging evangelical Christianity, grabbed hold of the "good news" and found a refuge from the tyranny of servitude. As Nash points out, it was the gospel of early evangelical Christianity that gave Blacks the hope for freedom, even if it was only to be obtained in the world to come.

And while Nash devotes only a few pages to the impact of "Christ's Poor," the importance of the religion of the masses is not lost. For Nash, it was in this "Great Awakening" that Americans, as a mass movement, first challenged the authority of their day. It was under the fires of religious revolution that Americans learned to throw their first punches, all of which was to hone their skills in their eventual bout with the "Motherland" itself.

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