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Protestantism in America: A Narrative History by Jerald C. Brauer


Jerald C. Brauer is Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor and Professor of History of Christianity, formerly Dean of the Divinity School, University of Chicago. He is also Editor of The Westminster Dictionary of Church History. Published by The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1965. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 6: New Frontiers


It was late Christmas night, 1793, in Paris. A little man sat hunched over a table in a garret room. As he wrote feverishly, the flickering candle cast strange shadows on the dark walls and low ceilings. Thomas Paine was in haste to finish a manuscript before the gendarmes would come to arrest him.

A few years before, he had been an international leader, the author of Common Sense, a tract that inflamed the determination of the colonists in their revolution against England. A friend and collaborator of Franklin and Jefferson, he had hastened to France to take part in the new revolution. When the extreme radicals gained control and the guillotine became master of France, Paine knew that in spite of his love for liberty, he was a marked man.

That Christmas night, 1793, he was taken prisoner and was led away to a long confinement. Before leaving, he was allowed to turn over his manuscript to a friend. It was entitled The Age of Reason. The second part was not completed for another two years, and the entire work appeared in 1795. Though Paine was to survive its publication by almost fifteen years, he considered it his last testament to mankind.

The purpose of the book was to combat atheism by defending what he believed to be the "true religion." He called for a rejection of the creeds and beliefs of the Churches of his day "too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice." They would, he thought, render the heart torpid or produce atheists or fanatics.

"My own mind is my own church!" This was the battle cry of Tom Paine. Men were now living in a new, vital age -- the age of reason. The superstition of Protestantism was almost as bad as that of Catholicism. But what then was the belief of Paine? Who was God and how was he known? Was God only the image of mans mind, as was the Church? No, there is a God, and he can be known. But God cannot be known in the life, death, sufferings, and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ.

Man learns to know God through His operations in nature -- in the steady movement of the seasons, spring, summer, autumn, and winter; as one gazes at the starry heaven above, as one notes the vast multitude of living forms, one recognizes that God has made them. Said Paine, "The only idea man can affix to the name of God is that of a first cause, the cause of all things."

Christianity teaches nonsense when it speaks of the holiness of God, of his absolute sovereignty, or of God as suffering love. On the contrary, says Paine, God is "the almighty lecturer" who teaches man by placing his rules and laws in the universe. Man does not learn of God through the Bible, which contains numerous errors and many vulgar passages. "The Word of God is the creation we behold, and it is in this Word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man."

Here is a new theology. "That which is now called natural philosophy . . . is the true theology." From this study one learns that there is a God who is to be thought of as a professor or a lawgiver. From his laws which govern the universe one learns of his nature and will. Man learns to be kind as God through nature is kind to him. Man learns that if he breaks the laws of life he will be punished.

Here was a direct attack on the Christian Church! Paine clearly declared that his own mind was his church, that science was his theology, and that the world was his Bible. The cross was utter foolishness. Christian worship was a deliberate misleading into the paths of ignorance. The Bible was a collection of fables, false stories, and some moral truths.

The impact of The Age of Reason was tremendous. Christian ministers attacked it as a book from the devil. The mild deists such as Jefferson were also shocked. While they agreed with many of Paineís ideas, they were not prepared to go so far as he on many points; and they were forthrightly opposed to spreading such ideas among the great masses of people. Nevertheless, Paine found a ready audience. In a vigorous new nation where men felt the full sweep of independence in their own freedom of thought and action, such a point of view held great appeal. As new land was opened on the frontier, so here was a new frontier opened in thought. Both beckoned to the sturdy son of the New World.

The fact that Paine wrote his treatise in France gave it twice its usual appeal. Not only was he one of the great leaders of the American Revolution, he was also one who spoke from within the glorious French Revolution. The newly created United States of America watched with not a little interest the struggle of the nation that had helped it to win freedom from England. So, many of the anti-Christian writings of the French, leveled primarily against Roman Catholic tyranny, but also in passing against all Christianity, found their way into eager American hands.

Soon little groups were organized around the principles set forth in The Age of Reason. Deistic literature was printed and spread up and down the coast, while men and women united in a common faith in reason or common sense. Every person was created equal and so everyone was entitled to use reason in order to understand religious truth. Clergymen were responsible for perverting the true religion of humanity.

In New York, in 1794, a former Baptist preacher gathered a group of like-minded people and formed the first official Deistic Society. Elihu Palmer, though blinded by a plague, was a gifted, capable leader. He was bitterly opposed to all organized Churches and said that "Moses, Mohamet, and Jesus can lay as little claim to moral merit, or to the character of the benefactors of mankind, as any three men that ever lived upon the face of the earth. . . . Their existence united perhaps cost the human race more blood, and produced more substantial misery, than all the other fanatics of the world."

Against the superstitious beliefs of the Churches, Palmer cried that he upheld the pure, undefiled principles of nature. He announced that the new age of reason and philosophy had dawned. His mission in life was to see that the true religion was spread. So the Society became the center from which to work.

Soon other societies were developing, none very large and none having sufficient money; nevertheless, they survived. In addition to preaching and lecturing, they spread deism through newspapers and pamphlets. Several newspapers and magazines were started, but none proved too successful. Meanwhile, the organized movement spread to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Newburgh, New York.

Tom Paineís writings proved to be one of the major factors accounting for the spread of deism. Skepticism and unbelief were rampant. So serious did matters become that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church issued a public warning in 1798 that unless America turned from deistic infidelity, God would assuredly visit his wrath upon it.

Though such radical views were widespread all along the Atlantic coast, they were perhaps even more prevalent on the frontier. Many of the people who moved westward were largely indifferent to Christianity to begin with. Deism appealed to these men and women who in their rough freedom fought out their own battles. It was good to have oneís own mind as oneís own church.

It was not surprising that large numbers of people in America were not interested in Christianity. Many had come only to seek economic security. Furthermore, the war did its usual job of lowering morals and turning the peopleís attention to other matters. Less than ten per cent belonged to the Churches. When religious liberty was established by the Federal Constitution it meant that in many states people had no formal ties with the Churches unless they joined by choice. Thus, the Churches received no support from the Federal Government and had to find their own solution to the problem of winning people to Christ.

Tom Paine was eagerly read on the frontier. Subscriptions to the deist papers were gathered from Kentucky. Deism had spread out over the mountains into the Ohio Valley, into Tennessee, and into Kentucky. The capital, Lexington, became the center of deistic freethinking. By 1793 the Kentucky legislature no longer wished to have a chaplain present. The Presbyterians feared that most of the people in the state were infidels.

So the Church faced a genuine threat. This was no genteel deism satisfied that the churches were a great force for moral good in society. This was a movement that attacked the Christian conception of God, scoffed at the Bible and sacraments, detested the ministry, and denied the necessity of the Church. It was not satisfied to confine these beliefs to a small circle of learned people; rather, it wished to preach from the housetops, win the rugged common man, appeal through lectures, newspapers, tracts, and magazines. The Churches were in a desperate battle.

Westward ho! New frontiers were calling. A promised land lay beyond the eastern seaboard mountains. Before the war men began to find their way through the barrier to the wilderness region. Tall tales were brought back concerning the fabulous wealth of the new section. But these were not simply fables; the stories were based on fact. West of the mountains lay a vast region threaded by rivers that emptied into the mighty Father of Waters, the Mississippi. Bounded on the north by the Great Lakes, on the south by the Gulf of Mexico, and on the west by the Mississippi, it contained a territory so large that France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium could be fitted in, with room to spare.

This was a beautiful region rich in virgin timber, resplendent with rolling hills and gentle valleys, full of vegetation and wild game -- a prize waiting to be captured. There was a variety of climate to fit the widest range of temperaments. Cold, freezing winters in the north; long balmy springs in the central part; hot, humid summers in the south. The earth offered an overwhelming harvest of all types of crops and an unbelievable quantity of minerals and metals. Here a new empire could be built.

People to conquer the frontier were plentiful. Within the new nation itself there were large numbers of those who were dissatisfied with their lot on the Atlantic coast. Some had come over as bonded servants, had served out their time to pay for their passages, and were eager to move on and find a place for themselves. Others had failed in the east and wanted a fresh start.

The War of Independence prepared the nation for the westward movement. Soldiers, having fought the British and won the victory, looked about them for the spoils of that victory. What could be a better prize than unlimited land? George Rogers Clark had gone out to the frontier capturing British forts and laying claim to the Mississippi and Ohio valleys for the colonies. The British gave in.

As soon as the war was over, the streams of European people began again to flow into America. They settled first on the coast and then pushed back over the mountains and westward. Here was a chance for the common man! What if the speculators did control the land? A good man could wrest out his living and become his own master. Fortune and adventure, hard but promising work, beckoned the unfortunate, the dispossessed, and the wealthy.

Four routes were open to those pressing westward. The earliest, most popular, and easiest route was through the famous Cumberland Gap into the bluegrass region of Kentucky. Shortly before the Revolution, Daniel Boone had pioneered this route. A more difficult passage could be made from Alexandria, Virginia, over the mountains and into Kentucky. The gateway to the southern part of the Ohio Valley was provided by the Ohio River, on which the pioneer could embark at Pittsburgh. To the north, eager settlers could leave from Albany, New York, travel to Buffalo, and follow the shores of the Great Lakes.

The first push was in the south from Virginia and the Carolinas into Kentucky and Tennessee. Starting slowly before the Revolution, slackening during the fighting, the migration burst as a flood after the peace. By 1790 two districts boasted populations larger than Rhode Island and Delaware, two of the original colonies. By foot, wagon, horse, and boat people moved into the new territory.

This became the age of road building, for without adequate roads contact could not be maintained with the settlers. To the north and to the south turnpikes were constructed so people could move into the wilderness. Rivers were dredged and canals were built. And the people poured through by the thousands. By 1790 slightly over 100,000 people had settled in the Mississippi Valley, but within ten years, by 1800, over 375,000 were to be found there.

Where did all these people come from? Many came directly from the states. The Ohio River Valley was settled in the north by New Englanders and In the south by Virginians and folks from the Carolinas and later from Kentucky. The British Isles supplied most of the immigrants who moved out on the frontier, but Germany sent its share as well.

There was a rhythm to the settlement. Sometimes a whole community or a large section of a New England town would move west to the frontier. When this happened all the institutions of society and civilization were transplanted, the schools, churches, and political organization being carried with the people. But such a plan was followed only by certain New England communities.

Mostly frontier settlements were made by individuals. The genuine frontiersman was the hunter who broke the paths into the wilderness and lived by his wits, his rifle, and his brawn. His was a rough, crude life full of danger. A family was not unusual for this pioneer, but families also shared the dangers and hardships of the woodsman.

Their homes were crude shelters made of unhewn logs and roughly tanned skins. Food was provided by the slain wild game, the fruits of the forest, and a few crops cultivated in the most primitive fashion. Clothes, candles, and other household necessities were made by the mother and children. Few were the things provided by civilization -- the rifle, the ax, gunpowder, pots and pans, and occasional trinkets.

Isolation and constant danger were the lot of the woodsmanís family. Cut off from neighbors by miles of forests and hills, utterly self-reliant, they faced the challenge of the primeval land alone. Only the barking of the family dog, the neighing of the horse, or the cries of the children broke the silence of the woods, and a few hundred yards beyond the cabin clearing these faint sounds of civilization could no longer be heard. Silence and isolation breeds strength but also a vague uneasiness.

To make the silence more ominous there was the constant threat of death. Prowling through the forests were bands of Indians. In the midst of the silence one had to keep alert for the telltale sounds and signs of the dreaded savages. Often they would strike without any warning, killing the entire family and leaving the cabin and clearing in flaming ruins.

One frontier farmer of the 1780ís expressed the constant fear and the effect upon the human spirit in the following way: "We never sit down either to dinner or supper, but the least noise immediately spreads a general alarm and prevents us from enjoying the comfort of our meals. The very appetite proceeding from labor and peace of mind is gone: we eat just enough to keep us alive: our sleep is disturbed by the most frightful dreams; sometimes I start awake, as if the great hour of danger was come; at other times the howling of our dogs seems to announce the arrival of the enemy: we leap out of bed and run to arms; my poor wife with panting bosom and silent tears takes leave of me, as if we were to see each other no more; she snatches the youngest children from their beds, who, suddenly awakened, increase with their innocent questions the horror of the dreadful moment. She tries to hide them in the cellar. . . . Fear industriously increases every sound; we all listen. . . . We remain thus, sometimes for whole hours, our hearts and our minds racked by the most anxious suspense: what a dreadful situation, a thousand times worse than that of a soldier engaged in the midst of severe conflict. . . . At last finding that it was a false alarm, we return once more to our beds; but what good can the kind sleep of nature do to us, when interrupted by such dreams. . . I am not a superstitious man, but since our misfortunes, I am grown most timid, and am less disposed to treat the doctrine of omens with contempt."

In addition to the Indians, death threatened through the forces of nature. Long, hard, freezing winters took their toll. Dreaded diseases would strike and, with no help present, the family fought alone either to triumph or to death. Wild animals also were a menace. Many were the ways nature could curse as well as bless the man of the frontier.

After the hardy woodsman and his family came the settled farmers who made their livelihood not directly from the forest but from the soil. And after the farmer there came small villages, the need for churches and schools. But even then the frontier placed its stamp on the lives of these people.

In the earlier stages of the westward movement there was little evidence of civilized manners. Life was crude, tough, and hard. Because of the isolation of families there was a real self-sufficiency, a rugged individualism, and an independence. People were not interested in social niceties but in survival. They worked hard, they swore hard, they drank heavily, and when they played, they played with abandon.

Underneath the rough exterior of the frontier there was a genuine social concern. Once the farmer class began to take over, a social co-operation was evident. Men and women got together to build homes and barns for each other. On such gala occasions there was heavy drinking, singing, and great funmaking. The frontier relaxed just as thoroughly and completely as it worked. There was also hospitality on the frontier for all who traveled the lonely trails. Having left behind the securities and niceties of civilization, they had not totally forgotten a concern for their fellow men in the wilderness.

When Peter Cartwright, famous Methodist frontier preacher, was on a five-hundred-mile trip home to Kentucky, he found himself utterly destitute. An example of frontier hospitality is found in his treatment both by private frontiersmen and frontier taverns. As he said: "When I came to the first tavern . . . my money was out. What to do I did not know, but I rode up and asked for quarters. I told the landlord I had no money, had been three years from home, and was trying to get back to my fatherís. I also told him I had a little old watch, and a few good books in my saddlebags, and I would compensate him in some way. He bade me alight and be easy"

Needless to say, Cartwright was charged no money for his stay.

Just as the deism of Tom Paine posed a problem for the Churches as a new frontier in thought, so did the physical frontier present the Churches with a challenge.

As the people moved out to the frontier, how were the Churches to keep up with them? How could they meet their needs? Was there any chance of the Churches ministering in such a wilderness? With no support by taxation where would the Churches get funds to work on the frontier? Such were the questions faced by the Churches.

Several of the Churches responded nobly to the new challenge. All were concerned to work with people on the frontier. At the close of the war the largest and best equipped Churches in the new nation were the Congregationalists, the Episcopalians, and the Presbyterians. They were all concerned with the people in the West.

The Congregationalists could not escape the question of ministering to frontier folks because many of their own people had early left the settled communities of New England and had pushed north and west into the great space of New York State. In order to send ministers to and to provide Churches for such people they began to found state missionary societies in the late 1790ís. Congregationalists conceived of their task as bringing the gospel and education to the masses; so they insisted on sending only fully educated pastors who represented not only the gospel but also the best in Christian civilization.

The Presbyterians held similar views. As they had a large number of Scotch-Irish members living in western Pennsylvania, they were among the first to see the problems of the frontiersmen. They too insisted on a thorough education for the minister, whose task it was to function in a community as a teacher as well as a pastor.

For some time the two groups worked together. Though they held different views of Church government, they were quite close on their view of what was Christian truth and how it was to be preached and taught. In the early 1790ís the General Association of Connecticut exchanged delegates with the Synod of the Presbyterian Church.

As the two Churches faced the tremendous need of the frontier they saw that they could best meet the challenge by co-operation and not by competition. In 1801 they drew up what was called the Plan of Union. When Congregational and Presbyterian people were found together on the sparsely settled frontier they were to combine to form a single congregation and were to call a pastor from either denomination, depending on which they could get. The congregation would then relate itself to the denomination of the majority of the members and would so conduct its discipline. Presbyterian or Congregational churches were each to remain affiliated with their own group, but they were to call either a Presbyterian or a Congregational minister. He might retain affiliation with his own denomination. Rather complicated provisions were suggested for the settlement of disputes.

So the Presbyterians and Congregationalists were prepared to work together on the frontier in order to win the people for Godís Kingdom. They followed the people out to the frontier and formed united congregations. One thing was lacking, however; they did not have enough trained men. Since they refused to use untrained men it meant that some people would be without a ministry. How could a single pastor residing in a frontier village minister to the lonely settlers out on the fringes of the frontier? At best he could contact only those within the immediate vicinity.

The Episcopalians at the time of the War of Independence were a large and wealthy Church, but they suffered greatly from the war. They were suspected of being pro-English. The New England Episcopalians were, but most of the Southerners were not. Still the stigma remained, and their work was hampered. Furthermore, until they obtained bishops they were at a disadvantage. It is interesting that it was not until the second decade of the nineteenth century that they moved out to the frontier. Perhaps this is partially due to the fact that the masses of men and the common people who first settled the frontier were never much attracted by the Anglican Church. The fact was that as the Church moved westward with the people, the Episcopalians soon lost their position of leadership in the New World.

The Baptists and Methodists were more successful in meeting the needs of the frontier peoples than were any other denominations. In face of the new challenge to the Churches their view of the ministry and the Christian faith was most successful in finding and holding the people of the west. Furthermore, they were from their inception Churches of the common people, the underprivileged.

After the War of Independence and the founding of the new nation, the Baptists found themselves in an enviable position. They had fought for freedom both political and religious. Among the Protestant Churches they above all others had always appealed to the common people, to the uneducated and the dispossessed. They could claim a share in the victory.

Baptists were foremost in the first movements from the south onto the frontier. This was to be expected because of their vast supply of ministers. The Baptist preacher was often a layman who possessed a "fuller measure of the Spirit" and so could preach effectively. He was untrained and unsalaried; he worked his land as did any farmer. After he had proved his "calling" by acceptable preaching, he was licensed and later ordained to the ministry. The local congregation exercised judgment in such matters.

For the Baptists there was no waiting for a trained and educated ministry; thus there was no shortage of ministers and no impediment to the Churchís reaching the people. The frontiersman preferred one of his own kind chosen by his own approval as a member in the church. Sometimes several Baptist ministers were present in a vicinity, though one was usually official minister of the congregation. They could afford several in one community because of each supporting himself by his farming.

The Methodists suffered during the War of Independence because of their membership in the Anglican Church and because their leader, John Wesley, after first defending the Americans, later turned against the colonial cause. But the Methodists persevered in their work; and as soon as they formed a national organization in 1784, they were ready to move with the people. In their first bishop, Francis Asbury, they had a leader who was both astute and brave.

The great advantage of the Methodists was their organization worked out in England by Wesley and adapted to the needs of America by Asbury and the early preachers. The Methodist minister was not "settled," but traveled on a circuit, preaching at as many as twenty or thirty "appointments" along the way. Wherever possible these horsemen of the Lord formed "classes" of Methodists, each under the care of a lay class leader during the ministerís absence. Often those classes grew into churches. Furthermore, gifted laymen were urged to preach after first being licensed as lay exhorters. Thus there was a constant supply of men to handle preaching and discipline in the absence of the minister.

Methodist circuit riders were the shock troops of the Lord on the frontier. Unmarried, completely devoted to their work, they spent themselves freely. Often traveling with nothing in their saddlebags but the Bible, hymnbook, book of discipline, and sleeping equipment, they risked all for the Lord Jesus Christ. Quick to preach, ready to help, they worked day and night. A barn, a rude cabin, a schoolhouse, a clearing in the forest -- all places were fit to be used to preach the gospel.

If the people moved out to the frontier, the Church went with them. All groups attempted to follow their people. The foreign-language groups such as the Lutherans went with their people out on the Pennsylvania and Ohio frontier. But the work of reaching the great mass of common men who spoke English fell to the Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians.

The Methodists had always made their appeal to the poorer, uneducated, and dispossessed peoples. The frontier was no exception. With their lay preachers and circuit riders they could the more easily meet the challenge of people spread in isolated regions. Perhaps they could not bring a minister who was both teacher and expounder of the gospel, perhaps they could not supply schools in the earliest days; nevertheless they did not fail to supply large numbers of fervent exhorters for the Lord.

The Church faced not only this threat but also the greater threat of indifference and vast numbers of unchurched peoples. Circuit riders and lay preachers marshaled Christian forces for the grand onslaught. But even with the Churchís victory there went a danger. Where would Christianity find the resources to judge and criticize as well as to answer the needs and prejudices of the frontier and its gospel?

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