Review: Shelby M. Balik, Rally the Scattered Believers

Shelby M. Balik, Rally the Scattered Believers: Northern New England’s Religious Geography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Rally the Scattered BelieversAt the beginning of February, Wake Forest University hosted a symposium marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University Press). The list of participants was a “who’s-who” of American religious history: Catherine Brekus, Sylvester Johnson, Mark Noll, Amanda Porterfield, Harry Stout, Grant Wacker (on more of a “who’s-that?” note, I was there, too, feeling honored but absurdly under-credentialed in that company). Each offered reflections on the book’s influence and reach, on his or her personal experience with it, on how its arguments have aged. Hatch, now the president of Wake Forest, offered an eloquent response. (Video of the event is available here.)

The extent to which Democratization persists as the organizing frame for scholarly discussion of Protestantism in the early national period is testament to its scope and perspicacity. Whether subsequent scholarship has adopted or challenged Hatch’s findings about the era’s “populist orientation” in religious matters, it has not been able to ignore them. I bring this up here because it was in the middle of preparing for the symposium that I encountered Shelby M. Balik’s Rally the Scattered Believers: Northern New England’s Religious Geography (Indiana University Press, 2014). Balik’s is another entry in the discussion of early-national Protestantism—a good one that works squarely within Democratization’s frame even while pushing against it. Balik deftly balances the populist impulses of upstart religious groups emphasized by Hatch with their institution-building and even authoritarian interests. At the same time, she embraces Hatch’s assumptions about the sovereignty of individual religious actors, which I think limits the reach of her broader argument about relationships of religious authority across space.

The book is a geographical approach to Protestantism in northern New England in the early-national period. “Geography” means a couple of different things for Balik, and one of those meanings does better work for her than the other. “Religious geography,” she writes, “unfolded in two different dimensions: physical space—the actual and relative locations of institutions, clergy, and layfolk—and spiritual space—the ways clergy and laity arranged their relationships to give shape to religious communities” (4). This study is generally stronger where Balik focuses on the former. She notes how the topography of northern New England frustrated easy applications of the Congregational model that prevailed farther south. “Mountains and ravines carved up parishes; narrow gorges walled in tiny settlements, leaving impoverished inhabitants unable to support ministers; and thin, rocky soil forced would-be farmers into lives of perpetual migration, untethered to communities and congregations”(5). (The focus on frustrated Congregationalism in northern New England makes this book a nice partial sequel of sorts to Laura Chmielewski’s The Spice of Popery: Converging Christianities on an Early American Frontier (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), which chronicles the back and forth between Catholics and Protestants in Maine into the early eighteenth century.) Balik’s attention to the practical effects of landscape is wonderful, opening up her analysis to insights obscured in discussions of itineracy and church-founding abstracted from actual landscapes. I will say I was hoping for a lot more of it—there are plenty of enlightening maps that reconstruct, for example, actual Methodist circuits, but I think more in-depth discussion of road construction, say, would have been useful in driving home arguments about the practical effects of topography.

The other sort of “religious geography” Balik has in mind is more challenging. Religious communities formed and interacted in virtual space, she argues, as much as in topographical space. “[M]any believers who felt surrounded by strangers looked beyond their town lines when they joined virtual spiritual networks” she writes (112). This is undoubtedly so, but Balik’s treatment of this concept here is insufficiently theorized. At the very end of the introduction there is a reference to Benedict Anderson and a footnote naming Jürgen Habermas, but no sustained engagement with their ideas, and Balik lightly collapses private correspondence and the print public sphere into a single virtual-community-creating enterprise. She also engages in some vagaries about “sacred space”—I’m not convinced that the term can be applied both to something “tightly bound, as when a single believer retreated to a private room for secret prayer” and also to something “nearly boundless, as when two faraway correspondents spilled the depths of their souls into letters” (12). Balik, further, wants to apply the concept of sacred space to “movement across landscapes,” which is an interesting thought but one that needs to be elaborated, since it suggests a sacralizing of action as much as space, verbs as much as nouns (9). (Tom Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (Harvard 2008) might have provided some guidance here.)

Nevertheless, Balik’s examination of the ways Methodism, for example, incorporated far-flung believers into a hierarchical denominational community that transcended the immediate space of any one circuit, church, or monthly meeting is well-sourced and definitely a move in the right direction. Virtual space is central to her argument, setting up an opposition between the traditional New England town church model—each “an independent polity, a covenanted  society of believers and their clergy who united to improve the community’s spiritual and moral well-being”—and itineracy, represented here primarily by Methodists, Universalists, and regular and Freewill Baptists, groups that employed “a hierarchical and centralized administrative style that enforced uniformity in doctrine, discipline, and practice over a broad region” (4-5).

This book is, at heart, a study of these relationships of administration and affiliation across space. I think Balik’s desire to focus on relationships—among members of the laity, between the laity and the clergy—is a clear bid to move beyond Democratization, which generally focused on upstart religious leaders at the expense of the laity. Balik’s approach is hampered, though, by assumptions about individual sovereignty in religious matters that are her clearest debt to Hatch. Everything here radiates from the individual. “Personal piety—individual collections of spiritual beliefs and habits—moored religious experience and stood at the hub of believers’ spiritual maps,” she writes (112). Further, “the conversion process was largely a private ordeal” (114). Balik’s characters are Hatch’s—empowered individuals who interact with religious authorities and peers but who, in the end, are self-constituted. “Christians and hopeful converts tried to achieve godly experiences in many ways: through reading the Bible, attending worship, taking communion, and consulting with ministers, to name a few. As they did so, they came to embrace particular doctrines and rituals that best fit their sensibilities, but they also forged new spiritual paths when personal belief demanded it” (112). There is little room here—paradoxically in a study so otherwise successful at articulating the authoritarian impulses of upstart denominations and “democratic” leaders—to observe the limitations placed on individual religious decision-making by discourses shaped and promulgated by denominational, familial, cultural, national, and political authorities.

Still—and this is why Democratization itself continues to resonate—the valorization of individual decision-making gestures toward something both alluring and, well, true: the inevitably incomplete effectiveness of institutional religious authority. Balik is at her best when she’s talking about the practicalities of her characters’ religious lives, topographical and otherwise. “Whereas some people either rejected or embraced religion definitively,” she writes, “most lived their lives in a hazy zone between perfect devotion and complete depravity” (125). Her sources are a full of these lives, and she makes the most of them.

Balik sets up a number of dichotomies—devoted and depraved, clerical and lay, town and rural—but she draws these lines only so that she can then carefully and eloquently smudge them. If there is a single word to characterize her attitude toward early-national Protestantism, that word is fluid. The fluidity that Balik sees extends, most impressively, to dissolving the generally-assumed connection between the content and the forms of evangelical preaching. One of Balik’s most valuable contributions here is to bring Universalists and Congregationalists into discussions of the sort of “exciting” preaching for which evangelicals are typically given credit. Preachers in these non-evangelical denominations also, she shows, “tapped into the tradition of charismatic preaching that evangelicals like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield had introduced during the Great Awakening” (49). Chapter 5 is dedicated to forcefully conjuring the previously (to me, at least) oxymoronic “Congregational itinerant,” by placing that denomination’s missionary societies in their proper context.

Balik’s work, like so many others of the last 25 years, broadens our understanding of the early-national period while never escaping the powerful gravitational pull of Democratization. As the discussion at Wake Forest bore out, though, for all of the questions we now bring to that book, if we continue to find ourselves in its orbit, the view is still pretty good.


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