Keepers of the Covenant: Frontier Missions and the Decline of Congregationalism, 1774-1818

By James R. Rohrer | Go to book overview

CHAPTER
SIX
The CMS and the Republican Frontier

As CMS missionaries fanned out across the northern frontier in the 1790s and early nineteenth century, they encountered a society that in many respects differed from the world they knew in Connecticut and Massachusetts. From northern New England to the Ohio territory, the American backcountry was populated primarily by marginal farmers who were land-rich but cash-poor. Many of these settlers had purchased their land on credit, and looked with deep suspicion or even open hostility upon the elite creditors who seemed to control their economic destiny.

The egalitarian ideology of the Jeffersonians flourished in such an environment, as did the most stridently anticlerical religious movements in the young republic. Backcountry insurgency, Nathan Hatch reminds us, expressed itself not only in such political upheavals as Shays's Rebellion and the Whiskey Insurrection, but also in a host of anticlerical religious movements that competed for the loyalty of New England migrants. The frontier was filled with popular preachers who simultaneously proclaimed Jeffersonian democracy and evangelical Christianity, as though the two were inseparable elements of the same holy gospel. 1

The Congregational response to the "disorganized" frontier was filled with ambiguity. As we have already seen, orthodox missionaries clung to the communal ideals of the New England past, and most of them found Jeffersonian politics distasteful. Initially, at least, they typically regarded the frontier as an alien and potentially dangerous environment, urgently in need of transformation. At the same time, however, CMS employees remained remarkably open to new ways of and ministering, and quickly learned to compete aggressively the more democra

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