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.