methodists and the isolation of the frontier -- 2/09/15

Today's selection -- from What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe. By 1850, the Methodist church had grown from obscurity to become the largest denomination in America and one of the largest institutions of any kind in its day -- largely because it systematically reached out to isolated settlers in America's backcountry. But it was not just the Methodist church that was growing -- there was a profusion of new, fast-growing denominations. This was an era that followed the Second Great Awakening, a movement that put religious practice on an upward trajectory at a time when religious faith in Europe was declining:

"The revivalism of the early Methodists ... focused on building a particular denomination. In fulfilling their mission, the Methodist circuit riders achieved unparalleled collective success. These men, generally artisans, shopkeepers, or small farmers by background, volunteered to ride through the remote backcountry, bringing the message of the gospel to otherwise isolated settlers. Although practically none of them possessed formal theological training, they would preach sermons and offer pastoral counseling, refute freethinkers and heretics in debate, and convert sinners and Indians. Lacking much benefit of education themselves, they nevertheless encouraged literacy and schooling for others and would give away Bibles and sell other uplifting books for the profit of their movement. In the early days they usually observed celibacy, for the Methodist leadership believed single men more suited to the endless travel and hardship of life on the circuit. (The circuit riders sometimes resembled Catholic priests in other ways too, addressed as 'Father' and clothed in black.)

"Peter Cartwright, one of the most renowned of the Methodist itinerants in Tennessee and Illinois, described their life in his Autobiography:

A Methodist preacher in those days, when he felt that God had called him to preach, instead of hunting up a college or Biblical institute, hunted up a hard pony of a horse, and some traveling apparatus, and with his library always at hand, namely, Bible, Hymn Book, and [Methodist] Discipline, he started, and with a text that never wore out nor grew stale, he cried, 'Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.' In this way he went through storms of wind, hail, snow, and rain; climbed hills and mountains, traversed valleys, plunged through swamps, swam swollen streams, layout all night, wet, weary, and hungry, held his horse by the bridle all night, or tied him to a limb, slept with his saddle blanket for a bed, his saddle or saddle-bags for his pillow, and his old big coat or blanket, if he had any, for a covering .... Under such circumstances, who among us would now say, 'Here am I, Lord, send me?'

"The circuit rider -- in effect a Christian Lone Ranger -- stands among America's most heroic western frontiersmen. He received a miserable stipend and often had difficulty collecting even that. The Discipline that Cartwright notes he carried and taught represented a code of behavior that reinforced family and community values in a violent society. The Discipline laid down rules against swearing, drunkenness, sexual license, and ostentatious dress and enforced John Wesley's maxim, 'Cleanliness is next to godliness.' It provided a way for ordinary people to reorder their lives, even when living in hardship conditions. A man of the people, the circuit-rider brought moral order and civilization to the people.' ...

"Soon after the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Methodists began to make use of 'camp meetings.' These gatherings would last for several days, to make it worthwhile for rural families to spend a day or more traveling to attend. Obviously such events required extensive planning, organization, and publicity. Camp meetings took place not only on the western frontier but in rural areas throughout the United States. American Methodists held three to four hundred of them annually, drawing an attendance reliably estimated at about a million people a year. They provided welcome opportunities for socializing and the exchange of news to people leading lives of isolation. They also proved extraordinarily successful in winning converts to Methodism and were widely imitated by others. ...

"The Methodist system of organization demonstrated impressive effectiveness; no other association of any kind in the United States grew so dramatically and over so large an area in so short a time as Methodism. Membership of Methodist classes soared from 175,000 in 1810 to 1,247,000 by 1850, increasing by 168 percent between 1810 and 1820, and by 86.5 percent in the decade of the 1830s. Becoming a Methodist class leader could be an invaluable leadership experience for a person of humble origin. ...

"While the number of religious options multiplied, so did the number of congregations and individual believers. The physical landscape reflected the formation of new congregations: Americans were erecting church buildings at the rate of a thousand a year. While the U.S. population increased from 7.2 million in 1810 to 23.2 million in 1850, the number of church members increased even faster -- although since the census did not enumerate people by religious groups, their numbers have to be extrapolated from other data. By the middle of the nineteenth century, an estimated one-third of the population affiliated with organized religion, twice the percentage of 1776, even though church membership was often deliberately demanding and difficult to achieve.To be sure, this still represented a minority, and the evangelical movement would always be resisted in many quarters. But the Second Great Awakening put religious practice in the United States on an upward trajectory that would continue through the twentieth century. The contrast with Europe, where religious faith declined in the same era, is striking."


Daniel Walker Howe


What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States)


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2007 by Oxford University Press


176-178, 186
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