Righteous Indignation

Righteous Indignation: Religion and the Populist Revolution by Joe Creech

For generations historians have been attempting to cut “the Populist knot.” This vast field of historical literature has been dominated for decades by three warring interpretations of this (in)famous late nineteenth century political movement. The first interpretation, which could perhaps be called the “liberal school”, posits that the Populists were just another American liberal reform movement, a forerunner to twentieth century Progressivism. An opposed school, made famous by Richard Hofstadter, sees Populists as rural reactionaries and not proto-progressives or liberals but as proto-McCarthyites. The third interpretation, embodied by the work of Lawrence Goodwyn, sees Populism as the last great attempt at true American democracy; with Populism’s failure true American democracy breathed its last breath. Joe Creech attempts to cut through his scholarly knot by combining aspects of all three interpretations through looking at southern Populism’s religious core.

Creech argues that, fundamentally, southern Populism was a political and evangelical Christian movement. While not all southern Populists were evangelical, the movement was rooted deeply in evangelical culture, concerns, and even Populism’s non-evangelical members and advocates spoke in an evangelical discourse As a corollary to this evangelical perspective, Creech argues that Populists were “Christian reconstructionists.” They sought to bring southern and American society back in line with God’s choosen path – agrarian, localized, Christian, yeoman Jeffersonian (or in the case of African-American Populists, Lincolnian) democracy. Creech’s final insight is to argue that while Populists had economic concerns, they primarily saw the solutions to these problems as not being economic but as being political and religious. Changing political institutions and infusing society with Christian values would solve Populists’ economic woes.

This evangelical frame allows Creech to bring in aspects of all three of the above interpretations into his argument. The “liberal school” was correct to see Populists is as progressive/liberal reformers who sought to make American society more just, but Hofstadter was also right to view Populists as reactionaries for their sense of history was a narrative of declension – they wanted to return America to its more godly past.  Goodwyn was right as well, for Creech sees “the demise of Populism also brought with it the loss of a uniquely democratic vision of America.”[1] The idea that the voice of the people was the voice of God was discredited, at least for now.

Creech is quick to note that Populist’s enemies (and the ultimate victors) in the conservative branch of the Democratic Party were evangelicals as well. Populists and their foes present, to Creech, two positions on the evangelical spectrum. Populists were “countercultural” evangelicals who challenged the political and social norms of their society in the name of a radical, decentralized Christianity. Populism’s foes were “conservative” evangelicals who sacralized the present and saw Populists as challenging a godly order. From this perspective the defeat of the Populists had dire consequences for the history of Christianity in American – especially in the south.

In his book Creech is not just intervening in the historiography of Populism but in the broader history of nineteenth century American Protestantism. For at least two generations, historians of American Church history have attempted to puzzle out how optimistic, post-millennialist, reform-minded antebellum evangelical Protestantism morphed into pre-millenialist, dire, conservative twentieth century evangelical Protestantism. Creech argues that the defeat of Populism is a key explanatory device for this massive and important shift. Creech sees the Populists as the heirs to the optimistic, post-millennialist, reform-minded antebellum evangelicalism.[2] Their total defeat at the hands of their conservative foes was profoundly disillusioning; society had rejected God’s vision. This disillusionment left Populist evangelicals open to recruitment pre-millennialist holiness movements or pushed them towards disengagement from the political world and to focus solely on church life.  In this disillusionment, then, is the origin of the shift between nineteenth and twentieth century evangelicalism.

TIE-IN: Creech profoundly disagrees with the prospective of Charles Postel’s The Populist Vision. Postel sees Populists as modernists, seeking to bring the benefits of modern life and economics to the common man on the common man’s terms, while Creech sees them as seeking to restore a lost Christian past. Despite their difference in kind, Creech lines up well with Lawrence Goodwyn’s work on Populism.

[1] Joe Creech, Righteous Indignation: Religion and the Populist Revolution (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 183.

[2] For Creech’s stance on the antebellum historiography see: Ibid, 187n14.


Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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