ONE Historians and Congregational Evangelism
The American Revolution initiated a fundamental reorientation of Christianity in the United States. The egalitarian ideals of the revolutionary movement promoted dissatisfaction with traditional clerical authority and prompted Americans to seek greater freedom within their churches. "Let us be republicans indeed," evangelist Elias Smith proclaimed to his followers in the early nineteenth century. "Venture to be as independent in things of religion," Smith urged, "as those which respect the government in which you live." 1 The separation of church and state and the triumph of religious voluntarism was perhaps the clearest manifestation of this independent spirit. Republican citizens bristled at coercion of any kind--spiritual as well as political--and were quick to assert their "rights of conscience" against anyone who would restrict them. In such an environment heterodox beliefs and movements flourished, new sects enjoyed the freedom to proselytize and expand, and long-dominant communions struggled to retain the loyalty of their increasingly independent flocks. In Robert Wiebe's words, the young republic experienced a "revolution in choices" in the religious as well as the secular realm, presenting clergymen of the established colonial churches with an unpleasant alternative: compete for popular favor or perish. 2
In the antiauthoritarian climate of post-revolutionary America, "sectarian innovators" appeared to be more effective evangelists than ministers of the old religious establishments. Preachers of every denomination, Martin Marty has written, engaged in "a Soul Rush that soon outpaced the Gold Rush." The race to harvest souls, Marty observes, was "a textbook example of free enterprise in the marketplace of religion, a competition in which the fittest survived." If we measure success solely in
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Publication information: Book title: Keepers of the Covenant:Frontier Missions and the Decline of Congregationalism, 1774-1818. Contributors: James R. Rohrer - Author. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1995. Page number: 3.
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