Populism and the Crisis of American Methodism
Keywords:Populism, American Methodism, American People's Party
A rich literature on ‘populism’ and ‘religion’ has flourished in the preceding decade. Following a now consensual vision of ‘populism’ as ‘anti-pluralism’, scholars such as Cas Mudde, Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, and Duncan McDonnell have homed in on how populists weaponize religious themes and live off the decline of organized religiosity. This paper revisits these theses through a re-examination of the first self-declared populist movement in history, the American People’s Party of the late nineteenth century and two of its most prominent political personalities – Georgia Populist Thomas E. Watson and Boston radical Benjamin O. Flower. Both Watson and Flower were convinced Methodists all their lives and saw Populist farming associations in the 1890s as a natural extension of previous church networks. After the movement’s defeat in 1896, however, both remodulated their Methodism for specific ends: anti-Catholicism, opposition to Protestant missionary efforts, anti-vaccination sentiment and, in case of Watson, aggressive anti-Semitism. Rather than seeing these instances as deviations from a populist creed, this paper investigates how Flower and Watson’s Populism saw the crisis of American Methodism as part of a broader republican decline, and how this insight can inform contemporary discussion on the interrelation between populism, pluralism, democracy, and religion.
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