Chapter 9: New Life in the Spirit
It was an overcast day in August, 1806, when several young men students at Williams College in Massachusetts set out to find a secluded spot for meditation and prayer. This was a common practice for those who had experienced conversion, but this meeting was to have unusual consequences. They found a quiet, deserted little grove close by the campus. There they began their devotions and mutual edification.
The one great concern that burned in their hearts was that of missions to the heathen. Since his conversion in 1802, Samuel I. Mills, the natural leader of the group, had desired to become a missionary. Wherever he went he talked about this basic task of the Church. Had not the Church received the commission to go and teach all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost? The other young men agreed with Mills.
In the midst of their devotions a thunderstorm struck and sent them scurrying for shelter to the lee side of a haystack. While the lightning flashed through the skies and thunder rolled and rumbled overhead, they reached just as earthshaking a decision. Mills proposed that they send the gospel to India, that they become personally responsible for the task. They all agreed that they could do it, if they wanted to.
This was no vague promise born of the emotion of the hour. Just as, three centuries before, Luther was struck down by a thunderstorm and entered the religious life, so these men determined to pledge their lives. The first step was the formation of a private society in 1808 that made formal the resolution of the haystack group. They drew up a constitution that made clear their purpose to develop a mission to the heathen. No members were to be admitted who, because of other commitments, would not be free to engage in foreign mission work.
The discipline and intent of the holy group was expressed in the words, "Each member shall keep absolutely free from every engagement which, after his prayerful attention, and after consultation with the brethren, shall be deemed incompatible with the objects of this Society, and shall hold himself in readiness to go on a mission when and where duty may call."
By 1810 several of this group were students in Andover Theological Seminary. Their interest in missions never ceased, and the faculty encouraged that interest. The British had set an outstanding example in missions which was eagerly watched by American Protestants. In June of that year the young men presented their concern to the Congregational General Association of Massachusetts. They felt that it was time for "New World" Christians to take up the work. A resolution was presented by students Judson, Hall, Newell, and Nott stating that "their minds had been long impressed with the duty and importance of personally attempting a mission to the heathen . . . ," and so they sought the advice of the Association.
A committee reported that a foreign missions board should be established and made responsible for finding "ways and means and adopting and prosecuting measures for promoting the spread of the gospel in heathen lands." The result was the formation, in 1812, of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Within a short time it raised substantial funds and found a number of men willing to serve on foreign fields.
In 1812, five men sailed for India and missions were established in Bombay, Ceylon, and later in Burma. These were the first outposts of American missions in the East, destined to become the first fruits of a rich outpouring of dedicated men and women who wanted to win the world for Christ. Within a short time the Presbyterians decided to co-operate with the American Board, as did the Dutch Reformed, with the consequence that the work was greatly expanded.
Though two of the men who sailed for India were on different boats, strangely, as they read their New Testaments, they came to similar conclusions. They determined to become Baptists. Then, when Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice landed in India they did not feel justified in retaining their connection with the American Board. Mr. Judson went up to Burma and became the founder of one of the greatest of American mission fields. Mr. Rice was compelled to return home.
Rice arrived home at the same time as the news of Judson’s conversion and desperate plight. Here was a converted Baptist on the field waiting to act as the official missionary of the Baptists. What could be done? Luther Rice toured the South urging the formation of Baptist missionary societies to support Judson and others. He was eminently successful.
Baptists were noted for their fear of synods or any central Church authority; thus, many looked with suspicion on the formation of any national organization or agency to support anything. In the spring of 1814 a meeting was held at Philadelphia where a General Missionary Convention was established. A board of managers was elected, which was to meet annually. Also, it was determined to hold a General Convention triennially. They decided to retain Mr. Rice as an itinerant and voted officially to acknowledge and support Mr. Judson. This was not only the beginning of Baptist mission work, it also marked the beginning of the only national organization the Baptists were willing to construct.
Meanwhile, the Presbyterians were carrying additional mission work beyond the support of the American Board. In 1817 their General Assembly decided to join with several other Calvinistic Churches in forming the United Foreign Missionary Society. By 1826 they found it expedient to join forces with the larger American Board, so all their magnificent Indian work was united with that of the Board, and the Presbyterians worked as one with the groups supporting the Board.
All the American Churches turned their attention to foreign missions. Because of the presence of the Indians, American Protestantism always had an incentive for mission work. With the everexpanding frontiers of the world, they received further stimulation to send men to such strange, remote places as Ceylon, India, Africa, and later China and Japan.
The Methodists and Episcopalians were not to be left behind. Both founded missionary societies and sent many men overseas. Because so much of the Methodist work was in reality home missions, their missionary society founded in 1819 made little effort to distinguish between home and foreign missions. In fact, it was not until the 1830’s that the first Methodist missionary was sent overseas from America.
In the late 1850’s the General Synod of the Lutheran Church founded a missionary society, but the first American Lutheran foreign missionary was C. F. Heyer sent by the Ministerium of Pennsylvania. This grand old man became almost a legend in India as he founded new fields and also built up the work started by earlier German Lutherans. He made several trips back to America, and after he had returned permanently to America he heard that the Lutherans were going to abandon their work in India; so, at the age of seventy-seven, he went back to the mission field. He traveled to his posts with his coffin, using it as a bed by night and as a cart on wheels by day. Finally, after his work was firmly established and held by younger hands, he made his final trip home to die in America.
Thus the mission spirit swept the American Churches. From whence did it come? It came largely from the impulses created by the revivals. People were made aware of their responsibility as converted Christians for the conversion of the heathen. They formed societies that cut across denominational lines. They collected pennies by the week to give to mission societies. The outpouring of God’s Spirit brought new life to the Churches, and they saw their responsibility to shed abroad in the hearts of all men the light of the gospel.
In 1820, Peter Cartwright, Methodist western preacher, was passing through Kentucky on his way home. Saturday night found him m a region of the Cumberland Mountains, "where there was no gospel minister for many miles around, and where, as I learned, many of the scattered population had never heard a gospel sermon in all their lives, and where the inhabitants knew no Sabbath only to hunt, and visit, drink and dance."
Cartwright was forced to stay in a lodge where a dance was being held that night, and he determined to stay over so he could preach to these heathen people. He was a missionary to the godless. As he sat in a corner musing on the spiritual condition of the dancers, a young woman walked up to him and asked him to dance. Undaunted he seized upon this as an opportunity for evangelism.
"A beautiful, ruddy young lady walked very gracefully up to me, dropped a handsome courtesy, and pleasantly, with winning smiles, invited me out to take a dance with her. I can hardly describe my thoughts or feelings on that occasion. However, in a moment I resolved on a desperate experiment. I rose as gracefully as I could, . . . with many emotions. The young lady walked to my right side. . . . We walked on the floor. The whole company seemed pleased at this act of politeness in the young lady shown to stranger. The colored man, who was the fiddler, began to put his fiddle in the best order. I then spoke to the fiddler to hold a moment, and added that for several years I had not undertaken any matter of importance without first asking the blessing of God upon it, and I desired now to ask the blessing of God upon this beautiful young lady and the whole company, that had shown such an act of politeness to a total stranger.
"Here I grasped the young lady’s hand tightly, and said, ‘Let us all kneel down and pray,’ and then instantly dropped on my knees, and commenced praying with all the power of soul and body that I could command. The young lady tried to get loose from me, and I held her tight. Presently she fell on her knees. Some of the company kneeled, some stood, some fled, some sat still, all looked curious. The fiddler ran off into the kitchen saying: ‘Lord a marcy, what de matter? What is dat mean?
"While I prayed, some wept, and wept aloud, and some cried for mercy. I rose from my knees and commenced an exhortation, after which I sang a hymn. The young lady who invited me on the floor lay prostrate, crying earnestly for mercy. I exhorted again, I sang and prayed nearly all night. About fifteen of that company professed religion, and one meeting lasted next day and next night, and as many more were peacefully converted. I organized a society, took thirty-two into the Church, and sent them a preacher."
So the western missionary operated. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, he preached the Word and formed a church. The Methodist circuit system could be called one great home missions agency. It was set up in such a way that it could get the maximum service from each preacher in reaching the maximum number of people.
Yet the Methodist preachers did not have the support many missionaries received. They had little education, few books, and seldom more than fifty dollars a year income. As Cartwright put it, the Methodist preacher hunted up "a hardy pony of a horse, and some traveling apparatus, and with his library always at hand, namely, Bible, hymnbook, and Discipline, he started, and with a text that never wore out nor grew stale, he cried, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!’ In this way he went through storms, wind, hail, snow, and swamps, swam swollen streams, lay out all night, wet, weary, and hungry, held his horse by the bridle all night, or tied him to a limb, slept with his saddle blanket, if he had any, for a bed, his saddle or saddlebags for his pillow, and his old big coat or blanket, if he had any, for a covering. Often he slept in dirty cabins, on earthen floors, before the fire; ate roasting ears for bread, drank buttermilk for coffee, or sage tea for Imperial; took with a hearty zest deer or bear meat, or wild turkey, for breakfast, dinner, and supper, if he could get it."
The entire Methodist organization tended to be a home missions society. Men were appointed to their area of work; they did not choose it. They chose only to serve the Lord; the Church through the bishops and district supervisory elders determined where they were most needed. The men were constantly shifted about so they could not become settled or stale. Of course there were great dangers in this practice in that a man never had the time to develop a full understanding ministry in any one place, but the system paid off in the numbers of people contacted and converted.
Under the missionary impulse and through the use of revivalistic preaching and methods, the Methodist Church experienced a phenomenal growth. At the end of the Revolutionary War, it was one of the smallest Christian groups in the colonies. By 1830 they were surpassed in numbers only by the Baptists. Their growth occurred out on the frontier, in the west. In 1819 they founded the Methodist Missionary Society, but its work was primarily an extension of the mission work to the Indians and Negroes.
Meanwhile, mission work by other groups such as the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, and the Lutherans was carried on in a more customary fashion. All these Churches advocated a settled ministry rather than an itinerant ministry; therefore, in order to expand and take the gospel to the frontier, they had to appoint and support home missionaries for the task.
The need for such work was impressed upon the Churches by the constant movement of population from the midst of settled communities with churches to the frontier with few social and no religious institutions. At first, local congregations tried to take care of the needs of their former members and friends. Soon the problem grew out of hand. It was at that point that societies for home missions were contemplated. Because of British opposition to any such groups, it was not until after the Revolution that they were begun.
The Connecticut Congregationalists formed one of the first local or state missionary societies in the 1790’s, and it sent a number of men to labor among the new settlers in Vermont, New York, and Pennsylvania, and "New Connecticut" or the Western Reserve in Ohio. At the same time the Presbyterians recognized the need for a specific mission organization to carry their work to the unchurched. And so the pattern penetrated among most of the denominations. Missionaries were called with the specific task of going out on frontier tours in order to gather people into congregations. Later a regular pastor was sent. One of the great services performed by these local missionary society representatives was the survey of religious conditions in the west, which indicated the great need for Bibles, pastors, and literature for the frontier.
In addition to the work carried on by various Presbyterian synods, the General Assembly of 1802 formed a standing committee on missions to handle the home missions problem. But the most important factor in the work of the Presbyterians and Congregationalists on the frontier was the operation of the Plan of Union of 1801.Under it the two groups worked together in developing a frontier ministry.
Thus all the Churches recognized their responsibility to the people on the frontier. The question was what method should be employed to reach them. The Methodists with their circuit system and the Baptists with their lay preachers held a distinct advantage. But the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists were un-dismayed. They doubled their efforts to supply educated pastors and educational facilities as well as a simple gospel of conversion. This was no small task and was a real contribution to the development of American culture.
By 1820 the United States possessed all the territory west of the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains with the exception of the California region and Texas, which were claimed both by the United States and Spain. To the north was Canada, and in the northwest was the Oregon territory claimed by United States and Great Britain. Having procured Florida from Spain, the young giant nation was beginning to take shape. Nationalism and patriotism vied with sectionalism as the nation continued to expand westward. Under President James K. Polk, Texas was annexed in 1845 and a war broke out between Mexico and the United States. As a consequence most of the California territory and New Mexico were added to the nation. Also under Polk, the Oregon territory was divided between Canada and the United States; thus, by 1846 the boundaries stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Mexico to Canada.
This was one great mission field facing American Protestantism. The Churches needed all the enthusiasm, manpower, experience, and organizational ability available in order to cope with the situation. It was not strange that the smaller local missionary organizations could not adequately meet the demands. Vast, well-organized national societies were required to handle the needs of such a tremendous territory.
Formation of the United Domestic Missionary Society was the first step in a fresh approach to home mission work. When founded m 1822, it drew into itself a number of smaller local groups and determined to pursue a new policy of missions. It wanted to go on record with the "earnest hope that the practice of employing missionaries to travel from place to place preaching here and there a sermon . . . and remaining at no one point long enough to accomplish anything likely to be permanent, will be universally abandoned."
Instead of supporting men who traveled from group to group, they determined to support ministers in local situations where the congregation could not yet afford to be self-supporting. When they reached that stage, national support was no longer necessary. The United Society felt that its object was to supply full-time pastors who did not have to depend upon some other job for support. Their men were to create permanent, stable churches which, in turn, would help to support other infant congregations.
At the urging of six Andover Seminary graduates of 1825 and at the entreaties of a number of clergymen, the United Society initiated the participation of interested Churches in the formation of an American Home Missionary Society. This was established at a meeting in New York in 1826. The Congregationalists and Presbyterians were the largest contributors. Here was a new experience at co-operation in the face of an overwhelming need. Within eight years it had 6o6 men on the field laboring in 801 congregations and districts. This was one way to face the national problem.
In 1824, a group of theological students at Yale Divinity School signed a compact "to go to the State of Illinois for the purpose of establishing a seminary of learning such as shall best be adopted to the exigencies of that country -- a part of us to engage in instruction in the seminary; the other to occupy, as preachers, important stations in the surrounding country."
These men sent out by the American Home Missionary Society were known as the Yale Illinois Band. They established Illinois College in Jacksonville and became pastors in several key towns close by. In fact, they set somewhat of a precedent as other bands later went forth from seminaries. One of the most famous was the Iowa Band of 1843.
The spirit with which these home missionaries went forth was ably expressed by one of the Iowa Band when he said: "The understanding is among us all, that we go west not for a temporary purpose, unless the great Head of the Church shall make it so. We go to remain permanently -- to live and die there -- and God grant us grace to carry out this purpose."
The eastern Churches were well aware of their responsibility to the people in the west. In fact, they looked upon the west as an area to be saved from infidelity, Roman Catholicism, and antirepublican sentiments. They felt that the minister had to do more than convert men from being sinners. The Church had to provide schools and education, culture and learning.
The general instructions of the American Home Missionary Society to its missionaries stated: "Although the preaching of the gospel holds the first and highest place in . . . the ministerial office, yet there are a variety of subordinate measures, which . . . require the diligent attention of every pastor and every missionary." They were encouraged to establish Sabbath schools and Bible classes, to promote education, to diligently instruct the church members, to take a deep interest in both home and foreign missions, to promote the various Christian tract societies and the temperance movement.
Lyman Beecher saw the importance of the west for the future of America. While on an eastern tour seeking support for Lane Theological Seminary he delivered a famous address, "Plea for the West." In it he stated that "if this nation is, in the providence of God, destined to lead the way in moral and political emancipation of the world, it is time she understood her high calling, and were harnessed for the work." First one had to recognize that "it is equally plain that the religious and political destiny of our nation is to be decided in the west. There is the territory, and there will soon be the population, the wealth, and the political power."
He saw the importance of the west in relation to the entire nation and so in relation to America’s destiny of moral leadership for the world. Thus the cause of missions for the west was of the highest importance. "It is equally clear that the conflict which is to decide the destiny of the west will be a conflict for the education of her sons, for the purpose of superstition or evangelical light, of despotism or liberty."
The one thing needful was to establish in the west strong colleges and seminaries, good Protestant churches, and plenty of well-trained ministers. Simply sending Bibles, tracts, and itinerating missionaries was not enough. Actual institutions had to be established. Beecher argued that democracy could not survive without a strong spiritual foundation. People had to be educated in their beliefs and practices. Freedom was everyman’s gift but everyman had to grow in it and understand how to live it. When Beecher looked about the west he saw great masses of people untouched by schools and churches.
He thought that something had to be done, and it had to be done at once! He cried: "Whatever we do, it must be done quickly; for there is a tide in human things which waits not -- moments on which the destiny of a nation balances, when the light dust may turn the right way or the wrong. And such is the condition of our nation now. Mighty influences are bearing on us and a slight effort now may secure what ages of repentance cannot remove away. We must educate the whole nation while we may. All -- all who would vote must be enlightened, and reached by the restraining and preserving energies of heaven."
The urgency of the dangerous moment was made more acute for Beecher by the growing tide of immigrants who were ignorant of American principles. They were not to be turned away but educated before they could do any damage. Particularly did Beecher feel that the Roman Catholics were dangerous. He argued that they were ignorant of the principles of republican government and encouraged a superstition that was contrary to American institutions. He argued: "Whether Catholics are pious or learned is not the question, but what are the republican tendencies of their system?"
So Beecher closed with the plea that if "we do not provide the schools which are requisite for the cheap and effectual education of the children of the nation, it is perfectly certain that the Catholic powers of Europe . . . will do it." The west had to be saved from Catholicism, superstition, and atheism because in it was the future of a free America and so of a free world. Beecher’s pleas did not fall on deaf ears. Many responded generously. Others came forward to plead the same cause.
Meanwhile many people in the west resented the implications of Beecher’s plea and others like it. They too believed that the future of the United States was in the west, but they were certain that they could provide well enough for themselves. There was no need of treating them as a field to be missionized by superior eastern brethren.
Peter Cartwright, the Methodist itinerant, disdainfully said, "About this time there were a great many young missionaries sent out to this country to civilize and Christianize the poor heathen of the west." He joked about their written sermons which they attempted to read to the people and remarked, "The great mass of our western people wanted a preacher that could mount a stump, a block, or old log, or stand in the bed of a wagon, and without note or manuscript, quote, expound, and apply the Word of God to the hearts and consciences of the people."
Many of the western frontier preachers resented the implications that their work had not been sufficient. They realized that a good deal remained to be done, but they wanted it clearly understood that they had labored to save the west for the Lord and that only their methods were the proper kind for the frontier. It was an affront to them to speak of the west as if there were not a godly people to be found there. The fact was that there was need for something besides the uneducated revivalist or the itinerant who conceived of his task principally in terms of fervid preaching and loud praying.
Spurred on by the revival preaching of Beecher, Finney, and a host of others, the east continued to pour out funds to save the west. There was not a territory overlooked. In the 1830’s several missionaries of the A.H.M.S. made the long, tortuous trip to Oregon to undertake work among the Indians and the trappers. Frontiersmen were hard on the easterners who could not take the rugged western life, but they had only respect and esteem for men such as Marcus Whitman, Presbyterian doctor and missionary.
Dr. Whitman made his reputation with the frontiersmen when he removed a barbed-iron arrowhead from the back of the famous trapper Jim Bridger. A large crowd of trappers and Indians witnessed the operation, criticizing and giving advice. Nothing bothered Whitman. When the operation was over and Whitman remarked to Bridger that he could not understand how the trapper could have gone so long with such an object in him, the trapper replied, "In the mountains, doctor, meat don’t spoil."
Furthermore, Whitman had another thing in his favor in the personage of his very attractive and friendly wife. She was a fine singer in addition to being a most beautiful woman. The trappers, who had not seen a white woman for years, were more than pleased when they met her. The Indians, who often wondered if there were any such beings as white women, were enchanted with her goddesslike beauty. They loved to strut and dance before her. Under the leadership of the Whitmans and the Spaldings the Oregon mission was started. Baptists and Methodists also had men and women on the scene.
So the Churches poured out men and money to win the west. They sent pastors by boat and wagon to California and the far west. The Dakotas and Montana were not overlooked. They passed on into the Rocky Mountains; they moved down into the southwest. All the denominations were conscious of their responsibilities -- in the forefront were the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, and the Methodists. Close behind but not so active were the Episcopalians, the Disciples, the Lutherans, and the various Reformed groups.
Opposition to the whole mission program, foreign and home, was particularly acute among the Baptists and the Disciples of Christ. The antimission movement was founded in the west and spread until it could claim almost 70,000 followers among the Baptists alone. When the Baptists founded their mission agencies in the General Missionary Convention of 1814 they met some opposition on the grounds that such a convention was an invasion of the rights of the local congregation, but such objectors though vocal and of considerable numbers were in the minority.
The real opposition to missions had a twofold basis -- practical and theological. Most of the opposition was rooted in the former. Many of the Baptists’ uneducated ministers resented the eastern treatment of the west as a mission field. One man was supposed to have said that he had no objection to sending foreign missionaries, "but what do they want to come among us for? We don’t want them here in Illinois." He made his objection clearer when he said, "These missionaries will be all great, learned men, and the people will go to hear them preach, and we shall all be put down."
In addition to jealousy, fear, and distrust, some of the opposition to missions came from the fact that many looked upon them as an excuse to get money out of the Churches. When Luther Rice went among the Baptists to raise funds for missions he met with much selfishness and niggardliness. People grumbled about giving money for missions. Among the Disciples of Christ, still part of the Baptist Church, the opposition was voiced by none other than Alexander Campbell, their leader. He argued that this was an unscriptural way of carrying the gospel to the heathen. Later he reversed his view and became a firm supporter of missions.
The other argument against missions came from an extreme form of Calvinism. These men argued that since God had determined from all eternity those whom he would save and those whom he would damn, sending missionaries made no sense. God would see to it that all the elect were saved. Man could do nothing to aid or hinder it. So they were opposed to all missions. Yet, strangely, these men were not opposed to extremely emotional revival preaching which attempted to convert men from a sinful state. Although it caused serious trouble among the Baptists and Disciples, the anti-mission movement never made as much headway among the other denominations.
Missions were not the only new outpouring of religious life from the Churches. The tremendous energy tapped by revivals was released through a whole series of churchly activities. One of the most important areas of new life was that of education.
Sunday schools were largely unheard of in America until the Methodists introduced them shortly after the War of Independence. At first they met with opposition among some Churches but soon became popular. In a way, the idea of educating children in the faith was always part of the Puritan heritage. The Sunday schools set about to do this for all age groups under the direction of voluntary teachers; thus they were, in reality, only a continuation of an earlier ideal. However, in the absence of sufficient public schools, the Sunday schools were just as important in performing the service of teaching such basic knowledge as reading and writing.
Just as almost every Protestant movement in the early nineteenth century became national, so the Sunday school movement developed a national organization in 1824, the American Sunday School Union. Its purpose was to promote the spread of Sunday schools and to hold conventions in order to acquaint members with the basic problems to be confronted. By 1850 over half a million pupils were enrolled in Protestant Sunday schools.
Education at public expense was becoming the common practice in the 1830’s and 1840’s. Under the leadership of Horace Mann, the Massachusetts public-school system was thoroughly revamped, and the old practice of denominational religious instruction was eliminated in favor of instruction in universal Christian principles which were to be found in all denominations. Leading educators of the mid-nineteenth century agreed with Mann that religious instruction was essential to a well-rounded education. Later, opposition to this point of view developed both from those opposed to all forms of religious instruction in public schools and from Roman Catholics who upheld the right to instruct their children in their faith. This led to one of the most serious problems in mid-twentieth century America -- the relation between religious instruction and public education.
Meanwhile other phases of education were not being neglected. As the Churches moved westward with the people they saw the need for providing colleges and academies so that true culture and godliness could be promoted. Hence great stress was placed on founding colleges. By 1800 there were only two genuine colleges west of the Alleghenies, but by 1830 that number had grown to twenty-six.
Most of the colleges remained small in comparison with the older eastern schools such as Harvard and Yale, but they did an outstanding job for the west. They became centers for the reform movements of the frontier, they poured men into the ministry, and they brought education to the west. Many of them failed, but great numbers of them survived to produce something unique in education, the small religious liberal arts college. One more gift of the Churches to the nation was the small college. In some midwestern states there are ten or fifteen such schools still performing an important function for the Church and the nation.
Also at this same period the problem of an educated ministry became more acute. Revivalism was partially responsible for raising the question. But as the nation grew and the Churches expanded they found theological training in the homes of individual pastors insufficient in quantity and quality. Therefore this age became the age of seminary building: the Church built schools where young men could go after college in order to be trained in theology and divinity. These were but one more example of the vitality and energy of nineteenth century Protestantism in America.
New York City was the scene of great activity in May, 1830. People gathered from near and far. Clergymen and laymen, both men and women, made for the big city. A great conference of all the various reform movements was being held. By that date America was swarming with benevolent societies.
There was hardly an evil that did not have a society organized to combat it. There were religious tract and Bible societies to publish and spread both the Bible and various religious pamphlets and books among the godly and godless. There were groups centering around the express purpose of saving the wayward girls who had succumbed to sin in the big cities. Sailors’ rest centers were developed to keep the seamen out of evil saloons and to provide them with a place of worship. The temperance movement attacked the use of alcohol. There were prison reform societies, women’s rights groups, world peace movements, and Sabbath observance organizations. All these, in addition to the home and foreign missions and educational agencies of the Churches, were expressions of the new life in the Spirit.
They were the products of the revivals and the reawakened faith of the American people. Charles Finney preached that sin was "a deep-seated but voluntary . . . self-interest" and that holiness or virtue was "disinterested benevolence." Conversion meant a turning from self-interest to "a preference for disinterested benevolence." Once converted to the cause of the Kingdom the believer "should set out with a determination to aim at being useful in the highest degree possible."
Thus the Great Revival of the early nineteenth century produced sinners converted to action, ready to lead the onslaught against the forces of evil. Just as Cromwell had cried out as he led his hosts against the enemy, so these soldiers of Christian morality shouted, "Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered."
A large share of the recruits for the reform army were volunteers from the Presbyterian, Congregational, and Unitarian Churches. These groups had long felt a responsibility for the total society. It was not enough simply to convert men from sin to faith. The Christian faith was of consequence for all of life. With the coming of religious liberty there arrived a basic problem for the Christian faith -- how would it show its responsibility for all of society?
Men such as Beecher and Finney argued that converted Christians were to combine in voluntary organizations to combat all forms of civic and personal evil and to promote good. The Church could no longer interfere with the Government just as the Government could no longer interfere with the Church, but through voluntary reform groups the Christian citizen could, by moral pressure and a majority legislation, see to it that public morality was kept at a high level. As Beecher said, a moral influence "is needed distinct from that of the Government, independent of popular suffrage, superior in potency to individual efforts, and competent to enlist and preserve the public opinion in the side of law and order."
That is why in May, 1830, there met in New York City representatives of eight of the largest benevolence societies. Their delegates had gathered to review the year’s battles, to plan strategy for the coming campaign, to check supplies and finances. In association was strength, so these societies drew on the strength of hundreds of thousands of members. Though there was no official connection between these societies and the Churches, the fact was that most of their members were drawn from the Churches. In a sense, they were the unofficial arms of the Protestant Churches. They had members from most of the larger Churches and were considered as a vital part of the American church life.
Beecher spoke for a vast majority of the American Protestants when he said that these groups "constitute a sort of disciplined moral militia, prepared to act upon every emergency, and repel every encroachment upon the liberties and morals of the State. By their numbers, they embolden the timid, and intimidate the enemy; and in every conflict the responsibility, being divided among many, is not feared. By this auxiliary band the hands of the magistrate are strengthened, the laws are rescued from contempt, the land is purified, the anger of the Lord is turned away, and his blessing and protection restored."
Thus the new life of the Spirit pulsating through the Churches was released by revivalism and poured through home and foreign missions and a vast number of societies for benevolence and reform. The Church was not forgetting its mission and message to all of life. Under the conditions of free voluntary Churches, the Christian faith found a new way of relating itself to life.