The CMS and Republican Religion
The Congregational missionary movement was not designed to prop up an embattled orthodoxy. As we have seen, orthodox missionary leaders were driven by a desire to keep covenant with New England migrants in "the wilderness," as well as by millennial expectancy. The creation of the CMS constituted a positive, forward-looking response to social change, not primarily a negative reaction against sectarian competition or the threat of disestablishment.
Nonetheless, confrontation with preachers of other denominations was necessarily a major concern of Congregational missionaries in the field. From northern New England to the Ohio country, CMS employees came into constant contact with Methodist circuit riders, regular and freewill Baptist preachers, Universalists, freethinkers, and vocal proponents for a host of other sects. In the absence of any meaningful checks on religious expression, republican Americans were free to reject the authority of traditional creeds and platforms, and to espouse virtually any set of beliefs that conscience and personal taste might dictate. Post- revolutionary Americans experienced, as Robert Wiebe has observed, a dramatic "revolution in choices" that made the early republic a fertile environment for the growth of new religious movements of remarkable diversity. "Whenever someone discovered new nooks and crannies on the spiritual landscape," Martin Marty has written, "they quickly developed new movements or sects. The message of the aggressors to the uncommitted was 'be saved!' and to each other, 'Adapt or die!'"1
Many scholars have concluded that Congregationalism declined after the Revolution because orthodox ministers could not adapt to this fluid new environment. Most assessments of orthodox evangelism share the