The Church on the Frontier: American Church History 1

The Church on the Frontier

  1. The Challenge to the Churches. There were three phases of the 2nd Great Awakening. The First was an eastern phase. As best we can date the beginning of the 2nd Awakening would be in and around 1787. he first phase ended some time during the Revolutionary war. It is not clear where the first ends and the second begins. The phases that characterize this revival can be traced more geographically. 1st Phase: Atlantic Seaboard 1780, 1790, 1800-1810. The 2nd Phase (A Western Phase) is mostly in Kentucky. The 3rd Phase is Charles G. Finney. Beginning in 1824 in upstate New York. And the date of the revivals ending is not clear either, perhaps when Finney goes to Overland College in 1835.

A. First Eastern Phase. (Its 1787 in Virginia in Hampden-Sidney College.) This revival is characterized as peaceful, rational and sedate within the renewal of the colleges of Virginia. Eventually it spreads to Washington-Lee College. Then it goes into the Methodist churches and here there are about 4000-5000 converts in churches and colleges. In particular Yale College is renewed. In NE, there was a move toward Unitarianism. There is also the assumed connection with feared deism and political corruption and radicalism. Thus there is a movement toward being against deism and Unitarianism.


Timothy Dwight was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards and he became the pastor and president of Yale College. He worried about the results of deism and Unitarianism and began to preach to the student body which moved many of the students to a new birth. Now this is not the modern Yale with 20,000 students. There are hundreds. Two of Dwights followers are Lyman Beecher and Nathaniel Taylor who will we see further results of the revival which was birth in them. From 1823, the report of the American Education Commission actually had a convert reprint including Dartmouth, Williams, and Amherst College.


It is certainly clear that the 2nd Great Awakening started in the colleges. But remember there are no secular universities yet, that does not happen until 1860-1870’s. All professors are clergy. Even at the liberal Harvard there are Christian ministers. Our modern idea of secular campus does not happen until after WWII.


At Lee College there are a number of converts. It is characteristic of these revivals that they were clear, rational and pungent (heady). Hopkins writes and says that there is a revival in a 100’s of towns. It is a revival that is strong, steady with little enthusiasm very rational – under the influence of Edwards principles. It is a revival of the conservative. This is simply a time of NE refreshing. In 1801, the Plan of Union is established among several denominations, but especially among Congregationalists and Presbyterians who are working together to plant churches. This is an example of revival bringing denominations together. It will not last unfortunately, but it is a great cause of the push of missionary work. The revival produces unity of denominations, missionary work. Moreover, it also produces many voluntary societies. (American Education Society), American Bible Society, and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.) If this revival in NE is characterized as being methodic and steady then, then God was rough and wild in the West as we will see. In the west you are going to get Pres-gational churches.

B. The Geographical Setting of the Western Phase. Land was always big business. The British drew a line on the Appalachian Mountains in 1863, telling the Americans to stop at this point. What is after this is considered the Frontier. The Mountains are a good physical barrier. Then in 1774, the British passed the Quebec Act and gave the land to the Catholic French. This really ticked off the Colonialists. The battle with the British can be in part account on this act. Then in 1783, the American Revolution is over so the Americans simply take the land all the way up to the Mississippi River. So what do you do with the tract of land.


The North-West Ordinance order that 5000 white men are able to settle and vote, as well as send a non-voting representative to the National Congress. When a group reaches 60,000 it becomes a state. Slavery was abolished in the 36 parallel, except Missouri until 1820 with the Missouri Compromise.

C. The Significance of the Frontier in America and the American Church.

Fredrick Jackson Turner. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” -1893 He is a Victorian Historian. He argues that major cause of the difference between American and Europeans is due in the large settlement westward. The existence of free land and continuous recess means less control. Thus the social culture was different than the Europeans. This also means that one needs to have independence and confidence to venture out. The West strips off the old culture and allows a new culture to form. And since this influenced the people it influenced the church. Turner actually cites Beecher who said that the destiny of the church will lay in the West. “A Nation is being born in a day.” The (nation) must not be permitted to have churches just in the East.” So the churches are needed. The Baptists and Methodists are at work in 1843. Then they are divided in these churches on the issue of slavery.


Other sociological issues: Sidney Mead (1957) discusses why Americans seem to always be in a hurry. This may be due to the fact that we have had so much space to settle. This has played a huge role in the way that the church relates to its purpose. In other words space has age us rather than time which was true of the Europeans. Americans are impatient with time, Mead argues that this is related to space

II. Nature and the Impact of the Western Revival.

A. The adaptability of the Methodists and Baptists. The Baptist polity was the most decentralized. Then a Pastor did not need an education nor were they paid very often. He often made his living in some way as the rest of the Congregation. (He would become a tanner, or a cobbler). The ethos of this frontier world is proud of not having an education. Even still the Methodists growth exceeded the Baptist growth. You have a bishop over pastors in the Methodist Church. But, it is adapted to the west. Here they draw on the tradition of Wesley. They become circuit riders. The average age of death for a circuit rider was 28 yrs due to the rigorous exposure to the elements-rain, snow, etc. Both denominations adapted to the frontier. In retrospect there really is no one key to account for their (Methodists and Baptists)   growth except adaptability and zeal.

 B. The Camp Meetings. The Western Phase was typically in 1796. One example of the tent meetings is the story of James McGrady who was a Presbyterian. He was fitted, thick, as course man and very ugly. Thus he fit the perfect profile for being a backcountry preacher. In Western Kentucky, he preached a revivalistic message on God’s covenant love in these churches. Thus this begins the Western Portion of the 2nd By the summer of 1800, people began to spend 8-10 days around a tent. Many preachers would aid in this practice. In Cane ridge Barton Stone, who heard James McGrady begant to have a huge revival with probably 10,000 people. Notice the very careful preparation. They want to make sure that the meeting was on a night with a full moon.

 C. The Effect. Check out the numbers that go along with the lecture.

As soon as the settlement comes in the denominations, especially Methodists would come into this anti-education. (Barton Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell- The Disciples of Christ in 1832) All this is an attempt to restore (restorationist movement) a New Testament practice with strong social reform and education. The truth is that the revivals were not the cause for splits they were rather the occasion of the split. Above all, the churches were stressing dynamic conversion – were those which grew. It really did amount to the refreshing of the Lord. It is true that the revivals bring great social reform. Commitments to the “book concern” were also part and parcel to the education commitment.