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

By James R. Rohrer | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER EIGHT Congregational Declension Reconsidered

Explanations for Congregational declension after the American Revolution generally focus either upon the inability of orthodox missionaries to adjust to republican culture, or upon the culture's rejection of orthodoxy. Both approaches to the problem are flawed. This study suggests that Congregational leaders adjusted to the democratization of American society in various ways, and embraced innovative means to evangelize their fellow citizens. Moreover, this study indicates that there was an openness to the message which Congregational evangelists proclaimed; when offered a choice between orthodoxy and populist insurgency, many frontier Americans found orthodoxy the more attractive alternative.

It is impossible to sustain the argument, advanced by William Warren Sweet and many others, that Congregational leaders were "more or less indifferent" to expansion into the frontier. Fueled by fervent millennial hopes, a profound sense of their covenant obligations, and a strong commitment to evangelism, post-revolutionary New Light Congregationalists broke with generations of orthodox tradition by creating dozens of missionary agencies. As we have seen, the Connecticut Missionary Society alone sent 148 evangelists into the new settlements during the first two decades of its existence. Many more were employed by smaller Congregational organizations such as the Berkshire Missionary Society, the Hampshire Missionary Society, the Massachusetts Missionary Society, the Vermont Missionary Society, and a host of other state and local agencies. Many of these missionaries regarded the "evangelical office" as a special calling, distinct from the traditional Congregational pastorate.

It is also impossible to sustain the argument that Congregational evan

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