Sunday, July 4, 2010

Mark David Hall: The Influence of the Reformed Tradition on the American Founding, Part V

By Mark David Hall

Adherence Rates, Calvinism, and the American Founding

A significant argument made by scholars who dismiss the influence of Christianity, generally, or Reformed theology, specifically, in the founding era is that the founders were not particularly religious. In modern scholarship this argument can be traced back to the 1930s when W.W. Sweet estimated that only 20% of New Englanders in the founding era took their faith seriously. In recent years, the most important advocates of this position are the sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, who claim that on “the eve of the Revolution only about 17 percent of Americans were churched.” Such assertions have made their way into polemical literature, as evidenced by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore’s statement that “Americans in the era of the Revolution were a distinctly unchurched people. The highest estimates from the late eighteenth century make only about 10-15 percent of the population church members.” Although all of these authors acknowledge that “adherence” rates varied by region, Finke and Stark still conclude that New England adherence rates were no more than 20% of the total population.

James Hutson, Chief of Manuscripts Division at the Library of Congress, has demonstrated that Finke and Stark make numerous factual, methodological, and historical errors. For instance, they misstate Ezra Stiles’ estimate of the population of New England in 1760, and they ignore the best calculations of the American population in 1776. More significantly, by relying on church membership rates in an era and for denominations where it was exceedingly difficult to formally join a church (particularly in New England), they grossly undercount the number of Americans who were active in their churches. As well, Hutson notes that many of Finke and Stark’s data come from decades after the era about which they write, and that some of data comes from fledgling denominations such as the Methodists. Using their methodology but the more reliable data offered by Ezra Stiles, Hutson contends that 82% of New Englanders were involved in Congregational churches—and this does not include New Englanders who were active in Baptists, Anglican, or other churches. Patricia U. Bonomi and Peter R. Eisenstadt similarly conclude that in late-eighteenth-century America “from 56 to 80 percent of the [white] population were churched, with the southern colonies occupying the lower end of the scale and the northern colonies the upper end.”

In New England, citizens overwhelmingly attended churches firmly within the Reformed tradition. In 1776, 63% of New England churches were Congregationalist, 15.3% were Baptist, and 5.5% were Presbyterian. Thus 84% of the region’s churches were in the Reformed tradition, and the Congregational churches generally had the largest congregations. In Connecticut, for instance, Bruce Daniels estimated that in 1790 “dissenting societies comprised about one-third of the total number, [but] they were only about 20 percent of the population.” Moreover, members of Congregational churches tended to have more influence in their communities and states than did dissenters.

It is worth noting as well that 95% of Congregational ministers were college graduates—usually from Harvard or Yale—and they were among the most educated and influential members of their communities. Within these churches, congregants would gather twice on Sunday to hear theologically and exegetically rich sermons lasting about one-and-a-half hours and to engage in other acts of worship. Where possible, congregations would gather on Thursday as well for an additional sermon. Harry S. Stout calculated that the “average 70-year old colonial churchgoer would have listened to some 7,000 sermons in his or her lifetime totaling nearly 10,000 hours of concentrated listening. This is the number of classroom hours it would take to receive ten separate undergraduate degrees in a modern university, without even repeating the same course!”

Outside of New England Calvinism was less dominant, but by 1776 Reformed congregations accounted for 51% and 58% of the churches in the middle and southern colonies respectively. Particularly noteworthy in these regions were Scottish and Scotch-Irish immigrants, most of whom were Presbyterian. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Presbyterians accounted for 30% of the population by 1790 and held 44% of the seats in the state legislature by the late-1770s. In the south most political elites were Anglicans, but in the late-eighteenth century Presbyterianism was the fastest growing faith in the region and its adherents were rapidly becoming a significant factor in state politics. J.C.C. Clark points out that well over a majority of the leaders of North Carolina’s militia were Presbyterian elders, and that Presbyterians dominated the proceedings that produced the famous Mecklenburg Resolves which reportedly declared that “all Laws and Commissions confirmed by, or derived from the Authority of the King or Parliament, are annulled and vacated” more than a year before the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress.


44. William Warren Sweet, “The American Colonial Environment and Religious Liberty,” Church History 4 (March 1935), 43-56. Sidney E. Mead offered a similar figure in “From Coercion to Persuasion: Another Look at the Rise of Religious Liberty and the Emergence of Denominationalism,” Church History 25 (1956), 317-37. However, both of these estimates are simply based upon conjecture. Finke and Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990, 15, 27. Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996), 17.

45. James Hutson, “The Christian Nation Question,” in James Hutson, Forgotten Features of the Founding: The Recovery of Religious Themes in the Early American Republic (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2003), 111-32. Scholars who argue for a lack of religiosity among Americans in the founding era are often led astray by laments about the lack of denominational commitments among Americans or jeremiads decrying what was perceived to be insufficient attention to religious and moral concerns. The point applies with equal force to claims by Calvinists that other ministers, university professors, or parishioners were embracing “Arminianism” or “Arianism.” Of course some of these laments were accurate, but often they were overstated. For further discussion of these issues and an excellent overview of Christianity in eighteenth century America see Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven, 1-127.

46. Hutson, “The Christian Nation Question,” 118. Hutson also provides an excellent critique of historian Jon Butler’s work, which purports to build upon and offer additional evidence for Finke and Stark’s figures (120-25). See Jon Butler, “Why Revolutionary America Wasn’t a ‘Christian Nation,’” in James H. Hutson, ed., Religion and the New Republic (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 187-202 and Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).

47. Patricia U. Bonomi and Peter R. Eisenstadt, “Church Adherence in the Eighteenth Century British Colonies,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 39 (April 1982), 275.

48. Finke and Stark, Churching of America, 29; Bruce C. Daniels, The Connecticut Town: Growth and Development, 1635-1790 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1979), 104 and passim.

49. Finke and Stark, Churching of America, 45; Frederick Lewis Weis, The Colonial Clergy and the Colonial Churches of New England (Lancaster: Society of the Descendants of the Colonial Clergy, 1936); Mary Latimer Gambrell, Ministerial Training in Eighteenth-Century New England (New York: Columbia University Press, 1937); Stout, “Preaching the Insurrection,” 12.

50. Finke and Stark, Churching of America, 29; David Hackett Fisher, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 431, 606, 608; Howard Miller, “The Grammar of Liberty: Presbyterians and the First American Constitutions,” Journal of Presbyterian History 54 (1976), 151-52; Clark, The Language of Liberty, 351-63; Tiedemann, “Presbyterianism and the American Revolution.” There is some dispute about the authenticity of the text of the Mecklenburg Resolves.

An Anglican minister wrote to London that “after a strict inquiry” he could find no Presbyterian minister “who did not, by preaching and every effort in their power, promote all the measures of the Congress, however extravagant.” Quoted in Adrian C. Leiby, The Revolutionary War in the Hackensack Valley: The Jersey Dutch and the Neutral Ground, 1775-1783 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1962), 228. However, some southern Presbyterians may have been exceptions to this rule as indicated by the July 10, 1775 letter from four Presbyterian ministers in Philadelphia (Francis Alison, James Sprout, George Duffield, and Robert Davidson) to their co-religionists in North Carolina urging them to join the Patriot cause. Clark, The Language of Liberty, 123.


Tom Van Dyke said...

This "unchurched" controversy pops up often, seldom with Hutson's dumurral.

Still, it's a "dueling scholars" situation; anyone who wants to argue a low level of religious observance will argue the lower figure.

You did your best, though, at least that the fair-minded might hold the issue as uncertain, and consider the rest of the evidence.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Good that Dr. Hall takes this controversy on, at least to put the "unchurched" argument into some doubt.

One should therefore consider all the other evidence, then.