The Theological Populists

Theologians of the academy felt confident that theological learning would serve the cause of the church. From the beginnings of the seminary movement, however, its proponents had to contend with an opposition convinced that the preacher called and taught by God needed "no human instruction.'' Even some educated and socially prominent pastors, like the powerful New York Presbyterian Gardiner Spring, worried that the seminaries would promote "the ideal of a learned rather than a spiritual and useful ministry.'' Within the Presbyterian churches, which had large numbers of affluent and educated lay members, such a wariness of seminaries remained muted, but even there it could be troublesome. In making a plea in 1821 for the support of the seminary at Princeton, the Presbyterian Philip Lindsley voiced astonishment at the "general prejudice against learning'' among "multitudes" of Americans: ''I am aware that some notions are prevalent in our country which perhaps do not obtain to the same degree in any other. . . . It is fashionable to believe that learning is a dangerous thing in any hands. That the people can be better served without it than with it.'' Lindsley was contending with critics who claimed that seminaries were ''better calculated to make mere scholars and fine gentlemen than hardy soldiers of the cross.'' Some of those critics would offer alternatives to the theology of the academy.23

Philip Schaff observed, with dismay, the popularity in America of self-educated theologians, unexposed to the traditions of the academy, who presumed to establish themselves as authorities in matters of religious truth. He lamented that ''every theological vagabond and peddler may drive here his bungling trade, without passport of license, and sell his false ware at pleasure.'' George Burnap also regretted the presumption of these ''illiterate'' theologians and urged the educated clergy to combat them, but the tension between academic theologians, often located in seminaries and colleges, and populist theologians who were prone to ridicule the necessity for academic learning, created divisions that marked the course of theology in America especially after the eighteenth-century Revolution.24

Schaff tended to identify populist presumption with the American ethos, but he was identifying a pattern that had long been part of Christian tradition. When the Apostle Paul, in his letter to first-century Christians in Corinth, wrote that God had chosen the weak, the low, and the despised to confound the mighty and that God's truth rendered foolish the wisdom of the world, he produced a text that would continually embolden the unlearned to challenge the authority of the learned, including the learned theologians (1 Cor. 1:18, 26-27). The Pauline distinctions helped create a tradition within the church, represented sometimes even by learned theologians, like Tertullian in third-century North Africa, who contrasted the gospel with ''human wisdom'' and claimed that Jerusalem had nothing to do with Athens or the church with the academy. Tertullian was opposing certain forms of theological heresy, but it was easy to turn Paul's words against any learned theologians.25

Distrust of learned theologians perpetually bubbled up throughout the history of the church, and the vox populi vox Dei idea had a powerful appeal throughout the Middle Ages, but it became especially prominent in certain periods. The Lollards of fourteenth-century Britain, followers of the reformer John Wycliffe, attacked the learned clergy in a manner that received expression through the ''plowman'' tradition of poetry and protest. Sometimes drawing on Thomas Langland's fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, but also giving expression to a broader cultural sensibility, the champions of the plowman trope elevated the wisdom of the simple plowman, plain of speech, above the learning of the clergy. The tradition informed the anticlericalism of the sixteenth century, and it still flourished in the seventeenth century, when radical reformers such as William Dell in England, himself an educated college master, could declare that he would ''rather hear a plain countryman speak in the church, that came from the plough, than the best orthodox minister.''26

By then the image could merge with another trope, that of the "Mechanick" preacher, who stood in contrast to the ''learned Academick'' by virtue of an ability to be "intelligible unto all.'' Appropriating the Puritan defense of a ''plain style'' of preaching, the lay preachers of the civil war era in England claimed that they could proclaim the gospel more faithfully than the learned clergy. No small degree of the appeal of the English Quaker movement was its assertion of the authority of the unlearned. The Quaker founders George Fox and James Nayler presented the populist viewpoint in 1653 when they asserted that the true ministry was a gift of Jesus Christ and needed "no addition of human help and learning.'' They used the standard argument that Jesus ''chose herdsmen, fishermen, and plowmen'' as his disciples and ''fitted them immediately without the help of man.'' The Quakers felt confident that their lack of academic theological training was an aid to the discovery of truth, not a disadvantage.27

This populist tradition rose to the surface in seventeenth-century New England, and it formed part of the rhetoric that supported lay exhorting in the eighteenth-century revivals. It appeared with special force, however, after the American Revolution. Inspired in part by the Revolution's egalitarian rhetoric, an enterprising company of religious leaders threw off any remnants of deference to the educated and powerful, including the educated theologians of the schools, seminaries, and fashionable pulpits. They spoke of their weariness of ''subtle arguments'' and their dislike of ''obscure erudition'' and insisted that the gospel of the New Testament had been intended not for ''learned doctors'' but for the "common people.'' They took up the ancient refrain that true Christian knowledge did not require academic learning and that the Bible was as clear to the uneducated farmer as to the genteel professor, indeed, that the learned and fashionable had lost sight of the gospel. Combining religious fervor with egalitarian social protest, they often broke away from established denominations and created alternative institutions, sometimes voicing an anticlerical animus, sometimes following authoritative clerical leaders, but always insisting that the ''right of private judgment'' made everyone a theologian. They promoted a theology of the common people.28

By no means did they reject theology. What made the populist groups important for the history of theology in America was that they produced their own theologians, who in the fluid and free atmosphere of religious disestablishment could also become the leaders of mass movements. John Murray and Hosea Ballou led a "Universalist" movement directed against Calvinist theology. Sharing some of the same complaints as the more literate Unitarians, they espoused a form of theological liberalism that appealed to small farmers and laboring people. Spreading outward from the middle colonies, an upstart Methodist movement employed a similar populist rhetoric, boasting that Methodists offered a theology for the common people. They had broken away from the Church of England in 1784, and on most questions they agreed doctrinally with the American Episcopalians, but they spoke in a different accent.

The populist theme found a home in the Baptist movement, but it became even more prominent in the "Christian" enthusiasm sparked in New England by the former Baptists Elias Smith and Abner Jones, who promised that a return to primitive Christianity would overcome denominational divisions and shatter unchristian innovations like theological seminaries. In Pennsylvania and Virginia, other "restorationists," led by Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, employed the same populist theme as part of their movement to restore New Testament Christianity. Debates over theological populism left a lasting mark on African-American traditions. And the populist impulse also led in unconventional directions, as converts poured into Shaker, Hicksite Quaker, and Mormon communities that stretched the boundaries of traditional Christian understandings. Rather than reject theology, however, the populist movements promoted it, sometimes insisting that they alone had discovered the theological truth.

It did not take long for the populist groups to emulate the established denominations, build colleges, create seminaries, produce textbooks in systematic theology, and begin scholarly journals. Alexander Campbell's Millennial Harbinger (1830), the Methodist Quarterly Review (1840), the Universalist Quarterly and General Review (1844), and the Quarterly Review of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1846) would eventually become indistinguishable in style and format from the journals connected to the seminaries. In fact, the theologians who wrote for those journals, whether self-educated or trained at the new denominational schools, adopted many of the ideas, as well as the institutions, of the academic theologians.

Both groups — the professionals and the populists — advertised the practicality of theology and shared in the quest for the reasonable. The populists scorned the academics as elitists, but rather than rejecting the academic interest in the reasonableness of revelation they announced the superior rationality of their own convictions. The academics deplored the upstarts, but they and their populist opponents had a similar understanding of what reasonableness meant. And the populists rarely questioned the underlying assumptions of the academic rational orthodoxy. With the exception of the majority of Baptists, they usually opposed the Calvinism that held sway in the Reformed schools, but they normally accepted the evidential logic, the confidence in natural theology, and the commonsense philosophy that guided much of the academic quest for reasonableness.

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