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

By James R. Rohrer | Go to book overview

CHAPTER
TWO
The Missionary Impulse

Evangelism did not come naturally to most Congregational ministers during the late eighteenth century. Although R. Pierce Beaver has called New England "the well-spring of American missionary concern and action," 1 orthodox pastors in the colonial era displayed remarkably little interest in evangelism beyond their own parishes. In theory, of course, Puritans possessed a strong motivation for missionary endeavor. According to Calvinist doctrine Christian magistrates were obliged to seek the conversion of heathen subjects, and the royal charters of both Massachusetts and Plymouth imposed this responsibility upon the founders of New England. The "principall Ende" of settlement, the Massachusetts charter asserted, was to "Wynn and incite the Natives . . . [to] the onhe true God and Saviour of Mankinde," an objective underscored by the colony's General Court when it adopted a Great Seal depicting an Indian, bow and arrow in hand, pleading with Englishmen to "come over and help us." But during the next century and a half only a relative handful of Puritan ministers actually undertook missions to New England's native inhabitants, and no effort was made to preach the gospel to unchurched whites in other colonies. In 1797, surveying the history of recent Christian missions, the Connecticut General Association frankly observed that New England's contribution was paltry compared to the efforts made by evangelicals in England and on the Continent. Reflecting upon the "myriads" of Americans languishing "in darkness and the shadow of death," the ministers sadly confessed that "we must see our labors in a very diminutive point of view." 2

Various factors restricted Congregational evangelism during the colonial era. The early settlement of North America took place against the

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