A Waco Farmer has responded with two questions to my post on Uniting Baptists?. Each question is worthy of its own posted reply. My reply to one of the questions is here. Now, the Farmer's other question:

2. Historical question: the early nineteenth century has been depicted by most American historians as a period of "Democratization of Religion." The big idea that seems to emerge from this thesis is that the Baptists and Methodists appealed to the Americans of the Early National period. In essence, the Baptist and Methodist style was much more attractive to the consumers of religion during that era. Do you agree with that? If so, do you see our era as more consumer-driven than then?

The brief answer is, Yes. The longer answer is below.

Farmer, you are correct that many historians of the Early National period, most famously Nathan Hatch, stress this concept of democratization, arguing that Methodists and Baptists better responded to the new American situation by striving to appeal to their audiences. A religious development paralleling the developing market economy. But the reality on the ground is a bit more complicated for the following reasons:

1) This thesis tends to ignore the large ethnic groups. While Baptists and Methodists snared some Germans and Irish, the majority of these communities remained with their traditional Christianities: Germans by and large remained Roman Catholic or Lutheran, Irish by and large remained Roman Catholic. After the large Irish and German immigrations the largest single religious group in the US was the Roman Catholic Church (still outnumbered by the combined total of Protestants). Family and community and ethnic loyalties mostly trumped Baptist and Methodist appeals to the individual in these groups.

2. As has also been pointed out by many historians of the period, the response of Christianity to the new American situation of disestablishment was the creation of denominations--denominationalism. During the Early National period denominations grew, and attracted loyal followings. Boundaries were drawn between groups: there are tons of pamphlets from the period in which Baptists defend the Baptist way against Methodists and the Stone/Campbell movement ("Christian", Church of Christ, etc), and vice versa. Also religious debates were popular in the 19th century, sometimes lasting for several sessions over many days--a Baptist preacher would debate a Methodist preacher over baptism, for example. Denominational loyalty was intense, paralleling the rise of political parties in the same period and the loyalty given to them. Denominationalism was one of the rocks on which the ecumenical agencies foundered. (Soon after the Revolution, there was a push for like-minded Protestants to cooperate on joint ventures in areas of reform and even evangelism. By the 1840s it is becoming obvious that denominationalism, not ecumenism, will be the American future.)

3. While hard data is not as available as one would like, it appears that once in a denomination, the person and then the family tended to stay. I propose two reasons for this loyalty: first, the pressures of family and community--parents raised their children as Baptist or Methodist or Church of Christ, people were loyal to congregations which nurtured denominational loyalty; second, these denominations stressed doctrine-- particular understandings of salvation, baptism, the Christian life. One had loyalty to Truth, as it was understood.

Today, the network of family and community and ethnic loyalty ain't what it used to be. And the commitment to Truth seems quaint. Modern society is closer to an atomistic consumerism than the earlier National Period. (The sociologist Peter Berger has an interesting book on this phenomenon in modern religion, The Heretical Imperative).