Frontier Christianity -- What is it?


Yesterday I presented a program to members of my congregation on the Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington, Pennsylvania, a document that is considered foundational to our life as Disciples of Christ. It is a document that lays out the principles of Christian Unity on the basis of a restoration of New Testament Christianity. This document was formed both by Campbell's training in Thomas Reid's Scottish Common Sense philosophy and the realities of living on the frontier. In the Declaration and Address, Campbell argued for a "simple evangelical Christianity." It fit well the realities of post-revolutionary America. I've clipped a section of my notes that deal with the frontier and its impact on religious life. I'm wondering what this history might say to us as we consider the future of the church. Is there something in this context that suggests a way forward?

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The Significance of the Frontier in American History
and for the American Church.

In 1893 historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented what came to be known as the "Frontier Thesis." Turner's thesis held that the free expanse of America’s western territory provided Americans for three centuries with unlimited opportunities for advancement, which helped shape American culture and character. Values and attitudes such as nationalism, individualism, and egalitarianism are reflections of the freedoms of the frontier. As a result America matured into a much different country from its European origins. Although the thesis has been heavily critiqued and does not provide a complete explanation for all that happened in later American history, the frontier did provide a different ethos from that of the eastern seaboard. [Ray Allen Billington, The Genesis of the Frontier Thesis, (San Marino: Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, 1971), 3.]

Frontier religion could be both individualistic and collectivist. The vastness of the frontier provided room for all kinds of religious options to develop. As revival fires ignited and cooled and ignited again, numerous religious groups vied for the loyalty of the frontier settlers. The most successful groups, including the Methodists, Baptists, Disciples, and Mormons, were the ones that could best adapt best to the ever-changing circumstances of frontier life. Nathan Hatch described this process as the "democratization of American Christianity," while Rodney Stark and Roger Finke refer to the "rise of a free market religious economy." [Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991). Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, The Church of America, Rev. Ed., (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005).]

In the half century following the Revolution popular religion came to dominate and Christianize the American people. In 1776 55% of all Christians were either Congregationalists, Episcopalians, or Presbyterians, and did not appear that they were about to lose their hegemony over American religious life. In fact, in 1761 Ezra Stiles estimated that by 1860 there would be seven million Congregationalists and only 400, 000 Baptists. Yet by 1850, Congregationalists would fall from a 20% share in 1776 to a 4% share. Episcopalians dropped from a 15.7 share to 3.5, and Presbyterians from 19.0 to 11.6. At the same time Baptists would climb from a 16.9% share to a 20.5 share, and more spectacularly, Methodists rose from 2.5% of the population to 34.2%. Whereas around eighteen hundred clergy were ministering to the American people in 1775, by 1845 there were almost 40,000. In 1775 the Congregationalists had twice the number of ministers as any other denomination, but by 1845 they could not even approach one-tenth the number of Methodist ministers. The Disciples with 4,000 ministers equaled the number of Presbyterian pastors. [T. Scott Miyakawa, Protestants and Pioneers: Individualism and Conformity on the American Frontier, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 7-9. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, 4-6. Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, The Churching of America, (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992). 54-56, 59.]

One correlative aspect of the western movement was that the denominations that emphasized education and order had the least success on the frontier, although the Presbyterians did better than the Episcopalians and Congregationalists, but even they could not compete and most of their churches were very small. For the most part, Presbyterian ministers on the frontier went looking for transplanted Presbyterians. At the same time their concern for orthodoxy and technical theologies did not appeal to most frontier residents who preferred the simplicity of the Baptist, Methodist, and Disciple preachers. As you consider the Presbyterian situation, remember that the founders of the Stone Campbell Movement were all former Presbyterians. When their Presbyterian structures closed down avenues of growth and development, they left.

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