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

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

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

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

Synopsis

The first book-length treatment of its topic, this study is aimed at abolishing the old cliche that Congregationalism failed to adapt to the democratizing culture of the westward migration. Drawing on hundreds of previously unused letters, journals, and sermons, the author argues that Congregational missionaries were aggressive evangelists who successfully adjusted to the egalitarian demands of the early republican frontier. Keepers of the Covenant critically examines the various explanations for the decline of Congregationalism after the American Revolution, and in the process, overturns generalizations that have prevailed for years. The conclusion offers a reinterpretation of Congregationalist decline that challenges much conventional wisdom about church growth. It will interest not only church historians and students of early republican America, but also sociologists and all those concerned with the decline of the Protestant "mainline" today.

Excerpt

This book began ten years ago while I was writing a master's thesis on revivalism and temperance in nineteenth century America. One day my adviser, Merton Dillon, suggested that there might be information about temperance activity in the microfilm missionary records which the university library had recently acquired. I spent the rest of the day straining my eyes, intently examining seemingly endless journals and letters penned by Congregationalist missionaries in the early republic. I found disappointingly little about temperance, but discovered a cornucopia of information about revivals, evangelism, and religious competition in the northern frontier. From that day I was "hooked" by the Connecticut Missionary Society (CMS).

I soon realized that the evangelists laboring in the new settlements under CMS commissions did not fit the image of the New England clergy which I had formed from reading secondary literature on American religion. It was also apparent that the standard portrait of post- revolutionary Congregationalism was based primarily upon a relatively small number of pastor/theologians in Massachusetts and Connecticut, men like Timothy Dwight, Jedediah Morse, and Lyman Beecher. The hundreds of Congregational ministers who joined the New England exodus to the frontier, the individuals most responsible for the fate of New England orthodoxy, had been all but forgotten by history.

I have written this book in an effort to fill this large hole in our historical consciousness. It is the first published monograph devoted exclusively to the home missionary efforts of the post-revolutionary Congregational clergy. During the past decade I have read all of the early publications of the CMS, as well as the thousands of letters and journals . . .

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