Moral Geography: Maps, Missionaries, and the American Frontier

Moral Geography: Maps, Missionaries, and the American Frontier

Moral Geography: Maps, Missionaries, and the American Frontier

Moral Geography: Maps, Missionaries, and the American Frontier

Synopsis

Moral Geography traces the development of a moral basis for American expansionism, as Protestant missionaries, using biblical language and metaphors, imaginatively conjoined the cultivation of souls with the cultivation of land and made space sacred. While the political implications of the mapping of American expansion have been much studied, this is the first major study of the close and complex relationship between mapping and missionizing on the American frontier. Moral Geography provides a fresh approach to understanding nineteenth-century Protestant home missions in Ohio's Western Reserve. Through the use of maps, letters, religious tracts, travel narratives, and geographical texts, Amy DeRogatis recovers the struggles of settlers, land surveyors, missionaries, and geographers as they sought to reconcile their hopes and expectations for a Promised Land with the realities of life on the early American frontier.

Excerpt

In 1817 the Connecticut Missionary Society realized that the moment had arrived to caution the public about the “moral dangers” of the American frontier. in a nineteen-page pamphlet signed by its chairman, Yale president Timothy Dwight, the home missionary society oudined the perils for settlers “planted down in the wilderness” without the proper social and moral restraints. Writing to Connecticut’s sons and daughters now living in frontier settlements where missionaries had labored for nearly fifteen years, Dwight urged settlers to “guard with peculiar vigilance” and “restrain sinful inclinations.” He reminded them that “moral habits,” above all else, combat “moral dangers.” Comparing the frontier inhabitants’ wilderness plight to those of the Israelites and the Pilgrims, Dwight outlined the steps to the Creadon of a moral society. This was neither the first time that American Protestants would conflate the physical and the moral landscapes, nor would it be the last. But for Dwight the moment was extraordinary because the frontier settlers were, in his words, “peculiarly acting for posterity.” Their smallest decisions regarding the material and spiritual contours of the landscape would affect future generations. the symbolic and literal meanings of physical space combined fluidly in his urgent plea that . . .

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