Frontier Mission

Frontier Mission: A History of Religion West of the Southern Appalachians to 1861

Walter Brownlow Posey
Copyright Date: 1966
Pages: 448
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    Frontier Mission
    Book Description:

    Religion is viewed here as the great cultural force which introduced and preserved civilization in the era of westward expansion from 1776 to the eve of the Civil War. In this first major study of religion in the South, Mr. Posey surveys the work of the seven chief denominations -- Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, Cumberland Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Episcopal -- as they developed in the frontier region that now comprises the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri.

    The great challenges faced by the churches, Mr. Posey believes, were, first, the barbarism continually threatening a people isolated in a savage wilderness and, second, the materialism likely to engross minds preoccupied with the hard necessities of frontier survival. Many frontiersmen who had wandered across the mountains to escape the trammels and restrictions of an established society were distrustful of traditional religion, and some forgot their inherited beliefs entirely. To overcome these attitudes demanded new approaches.

    As organizations the churches faced great obstacles in attempting to minister to the folk on the moving frontier. One early answer was the camp meeting, and many of its features -- an emphasis upon fervid emotion and individualism and the active participation and use of untrained people in religious services -- continued as dominant elements in frontier religion. Indeed, those churches flexible enough to make use of these appeals were the most successful in spreading their beliefs. But inherent in the emotion and individualism was the danger of fragmentation, a danger most tragically evident when the slavery controversy split most southern denominations from their northern brethren. In education the churches fared better; even those that were at first skeptical of its benefits were by the time of the Civil War actively engaged in its support. But overall, the southern churches were hampered by too little money for the support of priests and preachers, too little communication between isolated congregations, and too little regard for service to the community.

    At the center of the churches' work -- the care of congregations, the missions to the Indians and the Negroes, and the founding of educational institutions -- were the frontier ministers. Mr. Posey pictures these men -- stern and hard but full of zeal -- as performing a stupendous task in their efforts to build and maintain spiritual life on the southern frontier.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6400-7
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Walter Brownlow Posey
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-ix)
  4. [Map]
    (pp. x-x)
    (pp. 1-21)

    The vast region beyond the Appalachian Mountains served as a beacon to restless folk who saw there the bright new day of economic betterment. Fertile land nestling in river bottoms like those of the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi was abundant and beckoned to the white man. For many thousands this region was to become the home where they would find greater social and financial equality than in the East. Daring and self-reliant, these frontier people hunted, explored, surveyed, cleared land, built cabins, organized communities, and established local and state governments. This territory contributed by 1845 eight states to the Union....

    (pp. 22-40)

    Following the Revolution, most of the new Americans, elated by victory, focused their attention on material affairs.¹ Few had escaped the accompaniments of war—worldliness, immorality, and infidelity. Busy with expansion and insatiable speculation, men had great difficulty in holding to a proper sense of values. Usually leaving such matters as religion and church membership to women, the males devoted themselves to agricultural and commercial pursuits. After he had been in Kentucky for a few weeks and had preached at several places, David Rice made note that he had “found scarcely one man and but few women who supported a...

    (pp. 41-64)

    The Protestant churches in America have been distinguished by the dissensions that sprang up so freely in them. Sectarianism has been regarded as a disease by some students of church history and as healthy mutation by others. No denomination escaped an occasional drift in its orthodoxy. Some churches were able to curb free-thinking members: some tolerated them; but other churches expelled the recalcitrants. The widespread settlements in America so stretched the lines of communication that contacts with centers of authority were difficult to maintain and in some instances impossible to keep. The same scattering of people made for narrow conservatism...

    (pp. 65-95)

    A frontier that had accustomed itself to unlimited freedom had little disposition to accept a “God of inexorable decrees.” A minister could hardly press upon his listeners the doctrine of foreordination and unconditional election and at the same time point out to a sinner his personal accountability for his poor religious state. Soon the revivalist party in the Presbyterian Church realized that adherence to a rigid Calvinistic faith would tend to scatter its forces in all directions, for Presbyterians had definitely displayed their inability to adapt their tradition to the conditions of the frontier. Although a large portion of the...

    (pp. 96-131)

    The usual method of beginning a church at any given place was the same among the several denominations, with the possible exception of the Catholics who often got financial aid from some European source. Most of the early church meetings were conducted by a minister in some log cabin to which the neighbors had come from a radius of several miles. It was in these rude and homely places that sermons first fell upon the frontiersmen’s ears. When the West became more populous and the church groups had increased in number, separate meetinghouses became necessary. Several factors entered into the...

    (pp. 132-156)

    The Roman Catholic Church in America passed from an early state of proscription to one of restricted civil liberty acquired, to a large degree, through the general principles which underlay the American Revolution. At the outbreak of the fighting there may have been as many as twenty-five thousand Catholics within the area east of the Mississippi River. Most of these were living in Maryland where they were planters and in Pennsylvania where they were farmers and also merchants and shopkeepers in towns like Philadelphia. The priests numbered only twenty-four; almost all were former members of the Society of Jesus which...

    (pp. 157-190)

    The Introduction of Christianity to the American Indian had been among the chief duties assigned to the Dominican missionaries in the ill-fated De Soto expedition. They found that the field was vast and workers were too few to touch many of the scattered Indian villages. Even when a priest chose to leave the expedition in order to tarry longer among particular tribes, he was rarely aware of any impact which his religious life made. With reason he could expect little, but with emotion he always hoped for more than he achieved. Persistence has long been a characteristic of the Catholic...

    (pp. 191-219)

    Slavery had been adopted as a labor system in the New World early in the sixteenth century, but no general concern for the religious life of the Negroes was evident for at least two centuries. In 1724 Governor Bienville of Louisiana instituted the Black Code for the purpose of regulating and protecting the rapidly increasing slave population. Although the code imposed strict rules on the slaves, it also protected them from undue oppression from their masters, who were required to make it possible for them to enjoy the church privileges of baptism, marriage, and burial. Many of the slaveholders were...

    (pp. 220-256)

    The princely Don Andreas Almonaster y Roxas, according to contemporary reports, spent the equivalent of four million dollars embellishing New Orleans, the city of his adoption. Chief among his munificent gifts was the stately parish church which became St. Louis Cathedral. Construction of the building began in 1789 and, despite many obstacles and interruptions, was finally completed in December 1794. Some seven months later Bishop Luis Peñalver y Cardenas, a native of Havana, arrived to take charge of the recently organized Diocese of Louisiana, the second diocese to be established by the Roman Catholic Church in the present United States....

    (pp. 257-302)

    The Congregational Union of England and Wales in 1835 sent two ministers on a fraternal visit to the Presbyterian and Congregational bodies in the United States. Their narrative report is here mentioned because it so well illustrates the errors in quick, surface observations. Finding education in many places dominated by the Catholics, the visitors interpreted the situation as a monopoly planned by the Pope. In the report they said: “Every thing is done to captivate, and to liberalize, in appearance, a system essentially despotic. The sagacity of the effort is discovered, in avoiding to attack and shock the prejudices of...

    (pp. 303-326)

    The early settler in the West and the South looked at the vast area before him and felt a sense of new independence and unaccustomed freedom from distant institutional and family restrictions. This situation challenged the churches to re-establish discipline as a barrier against the grave threats to a decent and respectable social order.

    The one great evil that probably exceeded all others in the West was alcoholic intemperance. The drinking of large quantities of distilled liquors had become acceptable to all classes of society, and no small draught slaked a frontiersman’s thirst. “Westward the Star of Empire takes its...

    (pp. 327-351)

    Before the eighteenth century had closed, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches were expressing by various ways their concern with or opposition to the holding, buying, and selling of Negro slaves. After the passage of some forty or fifty years the slavery system had become such a vital factor in the South’s industrial, social, political, and even religious life that toward it these same churches became less aggressive and more indulgent. Along with the conviction in the South that slavery was a necessary and permanent institution, there arose in the North the demand for its complete destruction. This chapter attempts to...

    (pp. 352-386)

    For forty years after its organization in America, the Methodist Episcopal Church by means of various rules and regulations sought to rid itself of the moral responsibility for slavery. But from 1824 until the division of the church in 1844 the generous rules on slaveholding remained unaltered. The Southern clergy ceased its denunciations of slavery and became slaveholding itself, basing its position on the idea that a successful program in the church depended on a common understanding and mutual interest between preacher and congregation. The slavery interest had gained strength by supporting legislative acts, which were aided and abetted by...

    (pp. 387-406)

    Any dreams that ecclesiastical leaders may have had of an ideal religious community in the great area beyond the Appalachians had vanished by the 1840s, for the shadow of slavery lay on many parts of the country. As early as 1843 it had been estimated that in the Methodist Church two hundred traveling ministers and one thousand local preachers held nearly twelve thousand slaves. The small farmer, landless newcomer, and preacher who had once opposed slavery changed their views, as they eventually shared in the profits from tobacco and cotton. Clergymen, both Protestant and Catholic, generally became apologists for slavery...

    (pp. 407-416)

    When priests landed with the De Soto expedition in Florida in 1539, Catholicism entered the South. More than a half-century later Protestantism made its entry with the arrival of an Anglican minister at Jamestown. In the long stretch of time from these two important events to the opening of the Civil War, seven denominations dominated the religious life in the expanse of land from the Appalachian Mountains to Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas and from the Ohio River to the Gulf of Mexico.

    Most of the migrants who came from Europe to the Atlantic coastal colonies and from there to the...

    (pp. 417-422)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 423-436)