Religious Voluntarism on the Frontier - II - RR144L21
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In frontier religion two groups gained a tremendous position of importance and centrality, and the power of these two groups to this day is a product of the frontier. These two groups were the Methodists and the Baptists. Great rivals for a long time on the frontier, and Baptist jokes about Methodists and Methodist jokes about Baptists were one of the delights of the frontier for generations, and if you still go into Texas country and other areas, one of the favorite jokes there will be about one church or the other. They were great rivals, they were the best suited to the frontier.
The Methodists were ideally suited to the frontier because of the circuit rider system. The Circuit Rider was a man with a vast area of territory to cover which he did on horse back, holding meetings at one station after another until churches could be built, and his various way point on his circuit would ultimately become a series of churches, under regular pastors, and he would move further westward to create even more churches with a new circuit.
On the other hand the Baptists instead of having circuits would have Baptist preachers going out, trying to gather people, hold meetings to establish a church, and then moving on continually, having no centralized church authority, they could come and go and drift with the frontier to establish churches wherever they were needed.
I indicated earlier something of the camp meetings. It is hard for us now to understand how important the camp meeting was in America, to the last century. The camp meeting led later on to the (Chetokwa?) meetings and to a variety of forms, so that getting together to hear something has become a pattern in American life to a degree we do not appreciate. The idea for example in Europe of people turning out to listen to anyone speak, and develop a point either in terms of religion or history now, or politics conservative or radical; this is an American phenomenon, it’s beginning to be exported abroad, but it is part of this voluntaristic principle, and it began out of the camp meeting tradition. [00:03:12]
As I indicated, the camp meetings would be held in...
As I indicated, the camp meetings would be held in the open with vast crowds attending. Sometimes there would be nothing but an open air area with a preacher speaking, but as they developed sometimes there were large tents, or very often there would be a number of preachers in one area or another. And you could go to the preacher that interested you. The noise would be deafening because sometimes there were quite a number of services going on, each with from 500 to a few thousand people, listening. At the same time because here were people come together in vast throngs, 15-20, as many as 30, and some say as many as 35,000. Which meant that they were coming, say, from the whole half of a territory in some cases travelling a long distance from home in wagons, prepared to stay for a few days or a week. But these camp meetings also attracted all kinds of people. People who came for pleasure, they would be like fair grounds, but more so than anything we could imagine. People would come, traders, peddlers, horse traders, to do business, all kinds of rowdy’s and hoodlums because this would be where the action was, something going on, Gamblers to take advantage of the situation occasionally, but one way or another it would be a gathering of such immense size that it would be the high point in the lives of these people for quite a while. For a year or 2 or 3 or 4 years, depending on how often they were held in an area.
A common characteristic of these camp meetings was the intense, emotionalism of the people’s reactions. It was very commonplace for people who were supposedly under the influence of the spirit, to go into jerks, to fall, to bark, to have convulsions, to go into trances and sometimes be unconscious, to in a few cases weeks, many of them for days. Some would get laughing fits. Some running. The reaction would be quite violent and wild. We have in many accounts of how in those days women would where their hair in long braids, in a long braid, and then they would put it up in a circle, in a knot on the top of their head. Incidentally Lorenzo Dow Preached a famous sermon against this as unscriptural. He said: “God had a word for them. The Lord Jesus said to women who had their hairdo like that: “Top Knot come down.”” And women were busy taking the hair pins out and letting that long braid down. But a few bolder women went up to him afterwards and wanted to know where it was in the Bible. And he said: “You’ll find it in Matthew 24:17.” They did, but what it read was: “Let him that is on the housetop not come down.” This kind of wild exegesis was not uncommon with these people. [00:07:26]
Very very common...
Very very common. Another kind of exegesis was popular, for example, to take a word like “Repent”, and to take each letter and to convert it into a word. So that repent, the R might be “Run, run to Jesus. That’s what it means.” And then E would be something else. That was a very popular type of preaching, so that the text that they got their word repent out of would never be mentioned after they read it. It would just be this to be used, to get a message out of it.
Moreover, at these camp meetings, oh I began to tell you about these top knots. When the women, who had the top knot hairdo would get the jerks, they with their whole body would begin jerking, and the hair pins would fly out after a while, and they said that sometimes it was difficult to hear a revivalist shouting because of the cracking like whips, of these long braids as the women would jerk their heads like that, would crack like whips. And this was something that more than one observer commented on. Most of these frontier preachers felt that these various manifestations were manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Now there were some who did not. The one person of consequence who did not was Peter Cartwright. Peter Cartwright was very much opposed to them. Cartwright was a forceful character, he believed in plain speaking, but he did not like that kind of disorder. SO he was quite unusual in this regard.
The Camp meetings as I indicated were, vast congregations of people coming together for fun as well as for religion. One of the unhappy by-products of the Camp meetings was what was once commonly known as “Camp Meeting babies”. There would be so many illegitimate children born. Now these were not necessarily of those who were converts, but because there was so great a gathering and every type of person coming, every kind of thing was commonplace at these camp meetings. However, very definitely one of the by-products was that all of this extreme emotionalism did lead to a certain moral instability. [00:10:43]
Moreover, on the frontier their tended to be a Manichaean...
Moreover, on the frontier their tended to be a Manichaean view of the body; the body as somehow evil. And so it is that there was a tendency to some very unhappy consequences.
Now one of the real problems of this kind of religion, turning to Phares once more, was the practical antinomianism. Quoting Phares: “Many people who came into the fold under the shouting hell fire preaching of the camp meeting evangelists found themselves more confused than consoled or informed. Once they left the thundering fright of the revival, the evangelical strategy designed to literally scare the devil out of the sinner, and with theology and doctrine neglected to a minimum, many converts were unsure just what the will of God was, as applied to their daily living. They found that they could not day by day live up to the high emotional pitch which had originally led them down the aisle to the alter. They had stood up for Jesus while the shouting and singing rang loudly, and hell seemed close enough to scorch their eyebrows, but once back to the hum-drum exasperating tasks of their cabins and fields, they often found themselves on wobbly spiritual feet.”
This was the problem. It was emotionalism; it was a kind of democratic religion that had come to a dead level intellectually and spiritually, and as a result despite its earnestness and its intensity, it often left the people with very little. And the knowledge of scripture among many of them was not great. One of the effects it had for example upon the Baptist churches was that prior to this time, the Baptist Church was for an era, the most Calvinistic of the churches in this country, it was the most consistently faithful to Calvinism during an era when congregational churches were drifting, and Presbyterian churches had problems with rationalism in their ranks. The Baptists were without exception Calvinistic. This kind of frontier emphasis on democracy was hostile to the sovereignty of God and predestination. And so there came to be a very steady change in the nature of the Baptist churches. There were groups that resisted this, and you still have survivals of them in this part of the country where the frontier effect was not as great. You had some groups, although they too have gone downhill and developed quirks in their doctrine, you have the Primitive Baptists, and you have the Predestinarian Batptists, I forget the name of their, what is it, two seeds in a pod Baptists. And others of whom there are still survivals. [00:14:41]
Another thing that frontier religion did was that it...
Another thing that frontier religion did was that it influenced City religion. The frontier type revival spread not only across the frontier, but back eastward into the big cities. And it established a new pattern of religion in America, with an emphasis on emotionalism and revivalism, rather than on education. It was this emphasis that undercut Christian schools, and statist education was able to take over. Thus, although the movement to establish state control of education was engineered by Unitarians in New England, it was revivalism as such that made it possible for them to succeed. Many of the revivalists felt that any kind of Christian education was bad, they preferred the child to grow up without knowing scripture until they could get to them with a revival, and it would be a pure, Holy Ghost conversion, rather than a lot of book larnin’. This kind of emphasis did a great deal of damage.
Frontier religion moreover, because it was coming out of a highly emotionally charged environment, often led to extremism. To explain, the frontier was not an easy place to live. If you were a man who had moved out into the frontier, you were very much alone. You had a cabin out in the woods with you family, your nearest neighbor might be half a mile or a mile away. At any time some white man or an Indian, an outlaw of one sort or another could come there and wipe you and your family out. You had to at all times act like a man who was too tough to tangle with.
One traveler into the frontier area, I believe Kentucky or Tennessee, in the very earliest days of settlement there, reported hearing some of the most fearful profanity, a man shouting about how; “Nobody could cross him, and he’d cut the innards out of anyone who contradicted him.” And going on and on, and he thought: “I’d better hurry, somebody is going to be killed. Some hoodlum is about to murder a poor character.” He walked into a clearing, and there was a man shouting, all by himself. And the man, when he asked him what was going on, sheepishly confessed he was practicing up his bragging, so that when he tangled with anybody he could scare them before they scared him.
Now this kind of thing you see, was natural on the frontier to a very great extent, and to an extent you can sympathize with it because these people faced tremendous problems. It took putting up a bluff, trying to hide their fears, to do this sort of thing. And as a result, it produced in them a tendency towards emotional instability, because they were living so often beyond their emotional means. And just as when you live beyond your financial means you face bankruptcy, so if you live beyond your emotional means you face certain consequences.
As a result, something began to develop on the frontier that was characteristic of it for a long time. And that was because people were living beyond their emotional means, living in a situation of tension, alcoholism became a problem. A very real problem in the frontier culture. And so it was in the frontier you had an extremism, instead of temperance in anything it was extremism, it was either prohibitionism, or alcoholism. And the result was of course any number of temperance movements, because people were so intensely concerned with the problem of drunkenness, with the extremism that it created. [00:20:09]
One of the early adherents to the temperance movement...
One of the early adherents to the temperance movement on the frontier was a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, and this was quite natural in their day. The only solutions they tended to see were extreme solutions, extreme answers, because they faced a climate of danger, of extreme possibilities of life and death.
This however produced with it a tendency which has marked American religion still to a considerable extent. An Emphasis on negativism. “Don’t do this, play safe, you can’t afford to tangle with that, you’ll go overboard on it.” Prohibition. A feeling that, essentially virtue is negativism. And then with it because of the emotionalism on the frontier, an emphasis on the Spirit, and the Holy Spirit thought of in terms of various Charismatic manifestations, as the answer to all problems. We have this emphasis with us to this day, and periodically it has revived. It is the Charismatic movement, it is the feeling that the answer to all things is in a series of thou shalt not’s, and in a frantic quest for emotional experiences in terms of the Charismatic experience.
However this is not the only factor. These frontier revivals and all, did speak the language of the frontiersman. So when we have said all these things about frontier religion, we still must say that however fragmentary, however warped, however limited and ignorant, still the gospel that there is a savior was brought to the western man. It was brought to the vast throngs that out-raced civilization and pushed into the west, and would not have understood anything else. And so why the frontier religion is very, very easy to criticize, it is also necessary to recognize that it did accomplish a great deal. It helped civilize the territories, it helped convert countless peoples. The results thus were on the whole good. [00:23:29]
And even though it is easy to laugh at them, and I...
And even though it is easy to laugh at them, and I do enjoy books about the frontier religion, sometimes some of the episodes are really horrifying, I didn’t try to shock you with some of the very wild activities of some of the clergy at times, the fact remains that it also had its beauty. And this is why I enjoy books about these old frontier preachers.
So many of them pushed out sacrificially. The pay they had was next to nothing. The help they had was next to nothing unless somebody, an off again on again preacher like Clay Allison would pull out his six shooters and say he was putting up a hundred dollars, and did anybody else have anything to give for building a church? When that sort of thing happened (do it?) but so often, the attitude was like that of one man who traveled a long distance to preach to a group of people, and didn’t get anything. And when he commented about it the man said: “Well I traveled just as far as you did, and I didn’t get anything.” It was that spirit of democracy which made them treat the clergy with disrespect. Some of the circuit riders and early Baptist preachers were sent with a promise to pay, and that’s what they saw of their payment, a promise. And to go out into an area with a wife and family, and no money and little likelihood of getting it from these people who didn’t have much to begin with. It took a great deal of faith, and certainly those frontier preachers had it.
They worked hard, they slept by the roadside, they risked death at the hands of Indians and of outlaws, but they were determined to bring the gospel to the people of the west.
Then there was another side of voluntarism, I have been dealing with the circuit riders and the Baptist preachers, the camp meetings, the uneducated men with no church affiliation, who simply felt a call. This does not mean however that the other churches did not do anything about it. The Congregational and Presbyterian Churches in particular, both Calvinistic at that time, found as I indicated, the frontier hostel to an educated ministry, and to the intellectual study of doctrine, the intelligent analysis of the words of scripture. Their answer was of course to establish all the same mission churches, trusting there would be some who would want to hear the word of God carefully, faithfully expounded by trained men.
Thus there were Congregational churches and Presbyterian churches established by very wonderful men. Sheldon Jackson of the Presbyterians working jointly under the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists, because they had a plan of union for missions in the west, is a remarkable example of this. It was my privilege to know one of the last of these old frontier preachers who had worked up in Alaska, and then in Nevada in the days when it was nothing but a number of mining camps. He was responsible for sending one of the great Old Testament scholars to West Minster Seminary, Edward Joseph Gammon. His name was Adam Shriver. And Adam Shriver’s spent many a night in a dead roll by the side of the road. He helped Church services in mining camps when the only possible room was in a house of prostitution. His widow wrote a little book of him and has a picture which she included in it which I had seen previously, it’s a little gem. In one mining camp at the beginning of this century, in a desert area of southern Nevada, where gold was abundant and silver, but water was very scarce. One resourceful man went up into the mountains in the spring and hauled down water and made money providing a shower for the miners. And this picture shows what looks like an old fashioned out house, with a tub on top with poles, and a tub at the bottom for the water to come into, and the sign on the outside: “First shower $20 dollars, second shower $19.50, and so on.” with the water being reused 40 times before the last person got a shower for 50 cents. [00:29:13]
Adam Shriver in his old age became a member of the...
Adam Shriver in his old age became a member of the OPC, and when he died Doctor Young wrote a long, very grateful article to that old man. They were a remarkable breed, Adam Shriver was one of the Presbyterian frontier missionaries. But an even more important work that the Congregationalists and Presbyterians did together, to 1900 most of the colleges and Universities in this country were established by Congregationalists and Presbyterians, by Calvinists.
Now this is something we do not realize, the percentage was very high, at least 75%. Many of these have since become state institutions. The University of California at Berkley for example was originally a Congregation College. It’s a far cry from the very devout institution it was created to be, as is Harvard, which was established for the training of ministers. But all across country as you go through the west those institutions which are now great state universities, and the colleges as well were established by Presbyterian and Congregational missionaries. And Interesting aspect of it is how many of those who took a lead in them in the establishment of these colleges, were scotch men. To them, education was so essentially a part of the Christian faith. And as a result with them emphasis on education was very very strong. Then again, this principle of voluntarism had a powerful role on the frontier, in the conversion of immigrant groups. I referred a few nights ago to the fact that the Swedish immigrants became such strong Christians in this country. In Sweden the ration of church membership was almost astronomically small. The church there to this day is a state church, and there are many churches where the pastor and his family are the only ones in church from one end of the year to the other.
I was told once of one Swedish pastor who had served in his church for over ten years, and his family were the only ones who attended at any time on any Sunday. Of course the church there is extremely modernistic. But in this country the Swedish immigrants became among the strictest of church goers. Because of the missionary work and the principle of modernism among them, a very strong movement was developed. Again the Dutch immigrants, In the Netherlands the churches had become very formal and stagnant, and dead. Riddled by rationalism, not revived until much later, by Kuyper. But long before Kuyper’s day, in this country the Dutch churches had become the bulwark of Orthodoxy, again because of the principle of voluntarism as against the state church idea, had become by a work among the individuals stressing the faith of the individual and establishing a powerful movement in this country, that has had a very important part in our history.
You could go on and call attention to the same fact among the German migrants. In one group after another, so that many European groups that settled in this country and had very little faith in the old country, or a purely nominal one, became very zealous Christians in this country. I mentioned the fact which has been brought out by a Catholic Priest who was a sociologist, that the majority of Irishmen in this country are Presbyterians. A product of these missionary works, the voluntaristic organizations.
We spent a considerable part of an evening dealing with tithe agencies, voluntary tithe associations, where tithe agencies ministered with every need whether it was Christian education, teaching the foreign children English or their parents English, or homemaking or job training, whatever you can think of. Various tithe agencies were ministering to one problem or another. [00:34:43]
Another aspect of Voluntarism in American history that...
Another aspect of Voluntarism in American history that developed in the last century was the social gospel, which developed a little after our period in the post-civil war era. However much we disagree with the social Gospel we must recognize that it is a peculiarly American thing in its vitality, and that here again It represents the American principle in operation, voluntarism. A movement gaining its force out of the faith of the people. The social gospel arose because of the vacuum that had been created and the inability of the churches as the Evangelistic movement gave the churches everywhere the frontier mentality, their inability to deal with urban culture and its problems. The social gospel movement was an attempt to deal with the problems created by the growth of urban culture. It was not the proper answer, but at least it was again an evidence of the principal of voluntarism coping with problems as they arise. The abolitionist movement, the various anti slavery movements, again whether we agree with them or not, represent this principle of voluntarism at work.
Again, characteristically American, unlike anything foreign, the tremendous foreign missions movement of the last century, which continued until World War 2. Again a product of voluntarism, coming out of the faith of the people, their voluntary giving so that American missionaries were covering the earth, reaching into the far corners with the gospel, and all of this done because the people wanted to do it, and did it out of faith. Moreover, the principle of voluntarism led to a free-market idea as applied to churches. The state church principle would say: “We have one church here in this community, that’s all we need. We don’t need more.” But under the principle of voluntarism there is as there were a free market for religion. So that you don’t say: “Well, there’s a Presbyterian church over here, why should a Baptist church be allowed to build two blocks away, or across the street? We can’t permit it.” No, if the people want a Baptist church, or a Methodist church, or a Pentecostal church in terms of the principle of voluntarism, they should have it. Now you see as along as the principle of voluntarism prevailed, you also not only have a free market mood in the area of religion, but in the economy. But as the principle of voluntarism began to give way under the ecumenical movement, to the idea that: “We don’t need all these churches, let’s bring them together.” Or as in Canada where in one small town where there were three churches, under the ecumenical movement as they united, they closed two down and they had one church. But to their surprise, the one church instead of having six hundred members, which was the aggregate membership of the three, wound up with something like two hundred. And then it began to decline further, and the man who reported this because he came from that community said: “When one of the churches that refused to go into the United Church of Canada moved in and bought one of the old properties and started another church, that church began to fill up and the first, the United Church began to pick up as it had to get on its toes to deal with the competition.” But the ecumenical movement you see, not only wants just one church in a community like that, and will deal with the city in many areas that: “When you have this new subdivision, make room for one protestant church, a Catholic church, a synagogue and no more.” [00:39:46]
And other churches are frozen out...
And other churches are frozen out. At the same time it’s for freeze out in other areas as well. No free market, in economics or in religion or in education. But the principle of voluntarism you see is basic to the American way of life. Since 1740 the Great Awakening, Tamper with the principle of voluntarism, destroy it, and you destroy what this country has been for over 2 centuries. We have voluntarism with us today, to conclude out study of this very important principle which began out of the Great Awakening.
For example, we have many non-political education groups, conservative and radical groups which are entirely based on voluntarism. People believe in something enough, they come together and they form the league of women voters, or the John Birch society. Or they form a new leftist communes, or a commune farm, or they form a free university as they have in some cities, next to a major university a group of radicals will form a free university movement. And so on and on, you can cite all kinds of such groups. They don’t realize how deeply they are indebted to the American Christian tradition, for this principle of beginning out of the faith, a belief in the convictions of the individual.
Again the Christian School Movement is a tremendous evidence of what the principle of voluntarism can do. There are no Christian Schools as we know them in most of the countries of Europe. I believe on Christian School has finally been established in England, I don’t know that for sure, it’s been reported to me. But it is a very different kind of thing for them because they are so used to something being created from above. The state church or the state school doing it, with state funds. With having state sponsored bible instruction in their schools, which are supported again by the state. So that it is with difficulty that they can begin this type of thing, wherever you find it, it is a product of the American influence. [00:42:45]
This is why too when American corporations moved into...
This is why too when American corporations moved into Europe, Europeans so resent them, they cannot compete with them. Why? Because there is a different kind of principle in operation. Again you have the voluntaristic principle in so many other areas in American life, all a product of this Christian movement. For us, our operas and our civic symphony orchestras and the like are provided for by sponsors, who dig into their pockets and want to provide, such a facility. And yet in Europe concert, the symphony orchestras and operas are state financed. This is the way it is done. Moreover even the publication of books in some countries is state financed, including Christian books. You apply to the state for a subsidy as a scholar, as a professor at this or that university, and you get a subsidy for the publication of your books whether there is a market for it or not.
Now this means many important books are published, many of the professors for example at the Free Amsterdam, and the Free University of Amsterdam have had their books published in this way. In this country the books of Christian scholars are only published as there is an audience of people who are willing to buy the books or subsidize the publication so it can be given out. There’s a world of difference between them. [00:44:52]
Thus with the Great Awakening in ...
Thus with the Great Awakening in 1740, a totally new outlook on society was born. The end result is not yet, we have not yet fully developed the implications of the principles of voluntarism. And it is a battleground today between those who do favor the state subsidized forms as against the voluntaristic, and there are dangers in both.
But very clearly the emphasis on the faith of the individual and the voluntaristic form has not only created a different way of life, but one that has a remarkable power, in regenerating men, creating institutions and transforming society. As a result, when we look at the period of history we are covering in our lectures we must say that perhaps the greatest single thing that occurred in that period was not the War of Independence, it was a product of the spirit of voluntarism. Nor the Constitution, which was again a product of this. Nor any of the other things that characterized that area; the greatest single factor that has re-shaped this country has been the Spirit of Voluntarism.
It is important for us therefore to recognize our roots. The roots of Voluntarism. [Tape Ends] [00:46:47]