Frontier Religion

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The frontier of the new nation—extending from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River—was a region of intense religious activity by both Euro-Americans and Native Americans. Among Euro-American settlers of the region, the most important aspect of religious activity was the democratization of religion. Among Native Americans, on the other hand, it was resistance to Christianity and to its associated cultural elements.

The democratization of American religion had begun during the first Great Awakening (c. 1740–1760) and the American Revolution (1775–1783), but it accelerated dramatically during the Second Great Awakening (c. 1790–1830). The process was marked by the absence of established churches, an emphasis on the vernacular in the forms and language of worship, and a refusal to see clergy as a divinely ordained class apart from the laity.

The first Great Awakening had seen established churches from New England to the Carolinas lose much of their authority. Congregational and Anglican churches were divested of much of their power to coerce attendance or financial support, and many dissenting Protestants gained at least de facto toleration. The Revolution continued this trend, especially in Anglican colonies, where the Church of England was associated with discredited royal officials and where independence brought rising demands for its disestablishment. After the Revolution, the Northwest Ordinance (or Land Ordinance of 1787) set the tone for frontier religion. First among the "unalterable" characteristics that it mandated for the region was that no peaceable person ever be molested on account of religion, and none of the new territories and states that emerged west of the original thirteen ever had established faiths.

Frontier religion also perpetuated the first Great Awakening's emphasis on "heart" religion. The Awakened had to feel God in their hearts, and the characteristic form of worship on the early national frontier was the revival, or camp meeting. The meeting held at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801 was the most celebrated example of this phenomenon. Thousands of men, women, and children spent a week at Cane Ridge, and during that time many demonstrated profound physical manifestations of their religious enthusiasm, such as jerking, dancing, barking, and falling down. Cane Ridge was unusual only in its size, though. Throughout the early national period, the two largest denominations on the trans-Appalachian frontier—Baptists and Methodists—held thousands of smaller such events. Baptist services, which had long been known for their enthusiasm, tended to be in established churches; Methodists, on the other hand, employed a cadre of itinerant ministers—circuit riders—to spread the word to any who would hear it.

Finally, frontier religion shattered the notion of the clergy as a separate, elite class. Baptists had always opposed any sort of church hierarchy, and their ministers were known more for the enthusiasm of their preaching than for their education or their ability to split theological hairs. Methodists of the era were somewhat less democratic in that they had a church hierarchy, symbolized on the frontier by Bishop Francis Asbury (1745–1816), although they also relied on a host of lay preachers to serve the faithful. The most democratic of all may have been the Disciples of Christ, or the Christians. The Christian movement emerged in the late eighteenth century, when adherents of several faiths began to emphasize the ability of every man or woman to effect his or her own salvation through reading the New Testament. On the frontier, the most prominent leaders of the movement were Barton Stone (1772–1844) and Alexander Campbell (1788–1866), but neither claimed any special religious status. To the followers of Stone and Campbell, anyone who read the Bible had an equal claim to understanding the will of God.

While Euro-Americans on the frontier developed a more democratic version of Christianity in the region, Native Americans often resisted Christianity with increasing determination. Even those tribes that began to adopt the agricultural capitalism of white Americans often declined to adopt their religion. The Cherokee, for example, were perfectly willing to permit Moravian missionaries to establish schools and provide practical training but showed little interest in their faith. Indeed, by 1830 fewer than 10 percent of the Cherokee people had converted to Christianity, despite years of activity among them by Moravians, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists. In other tribes, most notably the Shawnee and Muskogee (Creek), resistance to Christianity was even stronger. The cultural and demographic devastation that followed European expansion led Tenskwatawa (1775–1836), a Shawnee, to advocate a return to traditional ways in order to appease the Great Spirit and bring an end to white incursions. His message not only contributed to Tecumseh's war against the United States (1811–1813), but also inspired traditionalists among the Muskogees, known as the Red Sticks, to attack as well (1813–1814). Both wars ended in defeat, but Native Americans continued their effort to preserve traditional beliefs in the face of Christianity.

See alsoAmerican Indians: American Indian Religions; Baptists; Methodists; Revivals and Revivalism .


Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

LeBeau, Bryan F. Religion in America to 1865. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Wigger, John H. Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Daniel Thorp