Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Christ's Poor

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

by Brad Hart

Here at American Creation we have endeavored to piece together the religious influences that shaped the perspectives of our founding fathers and other notable and influential individuals. However, such a pursuit has often caused us to neglect the important role that religion played in the lives of the common American of the 18th century. While deism, theistic rationalism, theological unitarianism, orthodoxy, etc. each played a role in shaping the religious construct 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 Americans -- most of them 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, which did not require the traditional sacraments 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).
Not only were the traditional concepts of religious authority 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 homeland itself.

19 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

Very apt, Brad. The idea of---and the status of---the "individual," and as Kristo touches on, the "individual conscience" is much at issue here, then and now.

The question becomes, is there something about the Western tradition, or the Judeo-Christian tradition, or the Western-Judeo-Christian tradition that leads to Western-style democracy-republicanism-liberalism, either necessarily or at least by disposition, where other traditions do not? What are we and where did we come from?

Now, I often argue for the Aquinas strain in Western philosophy, but it's often noted [even by the Catholic-minded] that the "individual conscience" aspect of reading the Bible---every man a minister, a distrust if not rejection of clergy---is a Protestant phenomenon, and is inseparable from the American theologico-political landscape of the Founding era. Freedom and liberty must follow therefrom: If one is free to interpret the very Word of God for himself according to his conscience, surely more temporal liberties must follow, eh?

A fine contribution to our inquiry around here, Brad, and thanks.

Pinky said...

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Some reader may find these opening lines of the Last Will and Testament of one of my ancestors to be of interest:
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"In the name of God Amen, this 27th day of December anno Dom 1754 I Joseph Rumsey of Reading in ye Town and County of Fairfeld, and Colony of Connecticute in new England: being dangerously sick but of Sound Mind & Memory. Do make and ordain this my last Will and Testament:~~~
Firstly and principlely I commend my Soul to God who gave it, and my Body to the Earth whence it was taken to be buried with a decent Christian Burial at ye Discretion of my Executors, nothing Doubting of a glorious Resurrection, and hoping for eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord And as touching my worldly Estate which God in his good Providence has bestowed upon me; my Will is as followeth; ...."

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Here is some from another ancestor, "I Hezekiak Bulkley of the Town and County of Fairfild being far advanced in Age and Under bodily infirmities tho comfortable and calling to mind my own Mortality and knowing that it is appointed for all Men Once to die Do ordain this my last Will and Testament: first I commend my Soul to God who gave it hoping for eternal Life throu' the Death and Merits of Jesus Christ my Ascended Lord and Dear Redeemer: And my body I commit to ye Earth to be buried at the Discretion of my Executors herein after named Nothing doubting of the Resurrection thereof at the last Day by ye mighty power of Tod And as to such worldly Estate wherewith it hath pleased God to bless me: I dispose of the Same in the manner following ~~~~~..."
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Maybe that will say something about one of that "Joe Sixpack"?

Charles said...

Just as Tom sees a possible early source of the idea of individual freedom in this history, one can perhaps see a possible early sign of today's anti-elitism - and of its inherent danger. Although I wouldn't use the quoted condescending phraseology of the "enthusiastic preachers", I do agree with the underlying sentiment that the "uneducated masses" (which in today's complex society really is all of us, since we are all of necessity "ignorant" in most specialized arenas) really do need some help from "the elite", AKA, those who actually know what they're talking about in their individual areas of specialization. And now, as presumably then, the danger is in getting that "help" from "elites" who are basically just skilled con-artists.

Eg, in the specialized area of preaching there apparently is a current tendency to forget that the original anti-elitism was (according to Nash's quote) a rebellion against the clergy's "love of velvet garments and other luxurious trappings" - a memory lapse suggested by the appeal of televangelists, megachurch pastors, et al, many of whom quite obviously share that love.

(I single out that area of specialization only in an attempt to stick to the post's theme - the danger is clearly present in other areas, in particular politics.)

- Charles

Pinky said...

ERATA
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This line in my post above, "ye mighty power of Tod", should have read, "ye mighty power of God". Sorry for the typo.
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The original source material was posted to show what two colonists actually wrote regarding their religious belief.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Very interesting, Phil. It seems there's a convention of commending soul to God and body to the earth; still, each uses his own words instead of a formula.

Charles, I wonder if the anti-elitism of the Founding era is the same thing as anti-authoritarianism. They have overlap to be sure, but I'm not ready to make them synonymous.

As for "experts," I'm not yet quite ready to turn the running of society over to them. For one thing, experts disagree. Which experts? The "consensus?" God save us.

Charles said...

Tom -

I didn't mean to suggest that equivalence. The only parallelism I had in mind between your comment and mine was the then-now structure, not the content.

My wife shares your suspicion of "experts", so we go round and round about this. My only response is that I don't consider "expert" and "guru" synonymous, so one still has to use judgment in deciding to whom to listen. But if one wants to understand an issue in economics, getting opinions - even if inconsistent - from professional ecomomists seems a more promising approach than getting opinions from political pundits - even if there's a concensus.

Or more to the present point, competing opinions on the religious postures of the founders from contributors to this blog instead of concensus opinion from the Christian Nation crowd.

But when there is concensus among real experts - at least in a "hard" discipline like biology as opposed to a "soft" one like political theory, I'd say the smart money bet is to go with it. Obviously concensus views can be wrong, but my impression is that they mostly aren't.

- Charles

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, I agree, Charles, and frankly I see what I believe are gross misunderstandings of the Bible itself by so-called "experts."

Economists are a bad example though, hehe. As they say, if you laid all the economists on earth end to end, they still wouldn't reach a conclusion.

As for anti-elitism, I was set to agree until I ran across some John McWhorter on linguistics, and it occured to me that anti-authoritarianism is a component of the dynamic you describe without being an anti-elitism per se. The irony of richly clothed televangelists disappears thereby, but many evangelical churches, and the wacker the better, thrive on their opposition to the ruling elites, which today, of course, are secular. In the olden days, the bad guys were the papists, and sometimes crypto-Catholics like the Anglican types.

Even as I was poking through the documents of England in the 1600s, you always called your opponent some sort of papist no matter which side you were on, and indeed, anti-Catholicism has a rich and wonderful history in America.

Brad Hart said...

Charles:

Interesting take on the difference between experts and laymen. It is something I have thought about myself. Tom is right to point out that even "experts" often quarrel with one another and are often unable to come to any consensus. However, I think there is an important distinction that needs to be made here. When "experts" quarrel or debate the result is often an expansion of knowledge, being that "experts" are generally well-versed in their subject. However, when laymen attempt to intervene in the same discussion the result is often nothing more than an exchange of ignorance.

I think your point is clear, Charles. Anti-elitism can often result in a general disregard for intellectualism, which can often result in some unfortunate consequences.

Pinky, thanks for including those Last Will and Testaments. Very interesting to read!

Charles said...

Brad-

Agreed on all points. I don't require concensus since I philosophically don't believe there is a correct answer to the most vexing questions we face. So, as you suggest, what one should expect from "experts" isn't the answer but only informed perspectives which help in appreciating the difficulty of deciding what to do.

Which is one of the problems I have with the anti-elitists, who often accept as "gospel" the ill-informed but adamant position of their guru du jour - which in a sense is elitism inverted.

BTW, thanks for the post.

- Charles

Pinky said...

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The points being worked out by Charles and Brad about experts, etc., is sort of interesting.
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The thought that "experts" as such re-present some level of value in any intellectual exchange might throw a person off track. Experts might be better seen as scholars. And, what scholars know is all about what others have come up with. They are not necessarily thinkers.
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It's a complicated subject and probably won't get worked out here. But, expertise on any subject is no qualifier of intelligence.

A layman can be a great thinker. To slough one off as ignorant is a serious mistake. At least, I think so.
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Charles said...

Pinky raises the critical point that in a really serious exchange about intellectual capability, the terms need to be carefully defined. For example, I am aware that in my comments neither "elitist" nor "expert" was explicitly defined. But given Brad's response, apparently we more or less communicated notwithstanding that deficiency.

I agree that "expertise", "scholarship", "intelligence", "critical thinking skill", "creativity", et al, aren't synonymous. However, using "ignorant" as implicitly defined in my first comment and "expert" as synonymous with "elitist", which is also implicitly defined therein, I'll stick with my contention that given a specific discipline with a corpus of knowledge, if you are ignorant of most or all of that corpus you are in no meaningful sense an expert in that discipline no matter how good your critical thinking skills. For example, I fancy myself as having pretty good critical thinking skills but claim expertise in no discipline despite having a fair amount of knowledge in several (ie, I'm a dilettante).

- Charles

Pinky said...

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Charles writes, "...given a specific discipline with a corpus of knowledge, if you are ignorant of most or all of that corpus you are in no meaningful sense an expert in that discipline no matter how good your critical thinking skills."
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Yup. That's correct.
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The problem is that being an expert(?) can close a person's mind off to possibilities outside the body of knowledge involved. For example, to be an expert in the economic conditions regarding the automobile industry does not mean that the person is expert about what is the best course of action for society in regards to the current problems being experienced by the Big Three. Albeit they may have some very good ideas about what should be done to patch up an old Chevy clunker.
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Brad Hart said...

Pinky writes:

"A layman can be a great thinker. To slough one off as ignorant is a serious mistake. At least, I think so."

So do I, and you make a valid point.

I often like to use the analogy of becoming a pilot. Any "layman" can obtain a license to fly, so long as they meet all of the qualifications. However, pilots that are trained in the Air Force are, for the most part, far superior in their skills and training.

I like this analogy because I think it applies to other disciplines. For example, a historians with a Ph. D. in a particular field are, for the most part, the experts on their given era of history. However, a number of successful "laymen" historians have contributed some excellent -- and in some cases superior -- works of history.

So, being an "expert" does not automatically eliminate the "laymen" of society from making substantial contributions.

Charles said...

Not meaning to beat a dead horse, but ...

It depends on how one defines "layman" and "expert". I infer that Brad and Pinky are including in their definitions of "expert" and "layman" the attributes "credentialed" and "not credentialed" respectively and then observing (correctly, IMO) that a layman so-defined can be quite knowledgeable and that someone's opinion shouldn't be dismissed just because they aren't credentialed. I don't think most reasonable people would dispute that conclusion.

Now, I am definitely an "elitist" in the sense that I only care about the opinions of experts. But by that I don't mean to suggest that credentials are either necessary or sufficient for expertise. Just as Brad and Pinky's comments (and my first one as well) suggest, the primary qualification for being an expert is (by definition, actually) having special knowledge in a field. So, I think we are all in agreement on that issue.

But the issue I raised earlier was anti-elitism, by which I mean prejudice against those who are credentialed (in a broad sense). What else could dismissive expressions like "east coast ivy league elite" or "living in an ivory tower" imply? And while it is true that credentials don't necessarily imply expertise, it is (or should be) obvious that being credentialed, having prestigious academic positions, and being acknowledged in one's field don't imply lack of expertise.

And I consider this anti-elitism to be not only foolish but potentially dangerous as well. Because an apparently popular alternative is to get one's "insights" from charlatans who instead of those "elitist" attributes establish their "expertise" not only by claiming that they share their audiences' anti-elitism but also by being glib, caustic, combative, inflammatory, etc, while often lacking even a basic understanding of the topics on which they pontificate.

- Charles

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, but the rub is when theory must meet practice. The quite valid "living in an ivory tower" critique is directed at those who cannot translate the former into the latter, an admittedly difficult task for even the best of us.

As the William F. Buckley once said---and he a member of an effete elite himself, mind you---he'd rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard, a sentiment I share. [And it looks like the latter will be running things for the next 4 or so years.]

This is not a defense of what we might call "ignorism," but a recognition of the fact that bad ideas tend to find places to congregate together.

Now to move past my partisan snark, I do see a real danger in leaving our society's moral and philosophical judgments to technocrats or social science "experts," or even "philosophers." When it comes to these, I'm a democrat along the lines of Nino Scalia: I cannot say that one man's moral judgment is any more worthy than the next man's, Joe the Plumber or Peter Singer. Democratic solutions seem to me the only reasonable answer.

Pinky said...

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I tend toward agreeing with Tom except for Joe the Plumber who seems to be nothing but an opportunistic fake.
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Society has most often been managed by credentialed elites. Spraenger and Kraemer, the Jesuit priests who led the European Inquisition were among the most highly credentialed men of their time.
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That seems to cast a cloud of doubt on the value of putting only credentialed elites in charge of society.
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But the whole idea of thinking credentials are what it takes to cut the mustard comes out of one philosophy or another.
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Pinky said...

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Me being a person without credentials.

Pinky said...

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But....
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This talk of anti-elitism, experts, and laymen reminds me of the talk of liberty and the loyalists and colonial revolutionaries during the 1770s. Thomas Paine could not very well be described as an expert having failed at just about everything he had tried. Even so, he was infused with ideas he brought with him from Europe. His ideas were heard in every place and he was not credentialed. So much for the value of experts when it came to great ideas during America's Founding.
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