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Christianity And The American Frontier

Between 1776 in 1850, the American frontier opened up. Colonists first expanded out as far as Appalachia and then pushed the frontier to the Mississippi River. In 1850, American pioneers pushed the edge of settlement to Texas, the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest. With each expansion, they saw cheap land and were inspired by the belief that they had a manifest destiny to stretch across the continent.

In 1885, Alexis de Tocqueville traveled America as it was coming into its own as a nation. The Frenchman wrote his observations in Democracy in America. This classic provides unique insights into what made America such a rapid success, which he clearly believed to be Christianity. One of his observations describes what he saw happen as the American settlers spread across the continent:

I have known of societies formed by Americans to send out ministers of the Gospel into the new Western states, to found schools and churches there, lest religion should be allowed to die away in those remote settlements, and the rising states be less fitted to enjoy free institutions than the people from whom they came. I met with wealthy New Englanders who abandoned the country in which they were born in order to lay the foundations of Christianity and of freedom on the banks of the Missouri or in the prairies of Illinois.

Following immigration west from the Appalachian cabins to settlements along the Oregon Trail, the American Sunday School Union undertook a great campaign to establish a Sunday school and every new community on the Western frontier. Thousands of churches eventually sprang up from these Sunday schools.

One example of the influence the Sunday school movement had in America frontier life was the Mississippi Valley enterprise. This was a missionary enterprise of the ASSU to “within two years, establish a Sunday school in every destitute place where it is practicable, throughout the Valley of the Mississippi.” The MDE established over 61,000 Sunday schools and enrolled 2,650,000 pupils in fifty years. One missionary, Stephen Paxman, was born with a speech impediment and thus given the nickname “Stuttering Stephen.” Remarkably, he started 1,314 Sunday schools with 83,000 students during his twenty years of service.

Following the westward expansion were the Methodist circuit riders—preachers on horseback who braved the cold weather, lack of roads, and danger of any attacks to bring the gospel to the pioneers. Led by the monumental efforts of Francis Asbury, they travelled almost 300,000 miles on horseback and preached more than 16,000 sermons from 1771 to 1816. It was an army of circuit riders who were inspired to go where the pioneers went. During that time, the Methodists grew in number from only 300 members with four ministers to 200,000 members with 2,000 ministers. The Methodists also gave unprecedented freedom to women, a stepping stone to women’s suffrage a hundred years later.

At the same time, the Baptists sent out their “farmer-preachers.” The Baptists developed systems that made it easy for committed laypeople to enter the ministry and to be deployed quickly where the greatest opportunities were. Most of their preachers had little education and were poorly paid, but they were very in touch with the pioneers’ lives. With an emphasis on the need for personal conversion and salvation from sin through faith in Jesus Christ, these ministers spread the gospel far and wide.

As in the founding of the American colonies, Christians planted many of America’s colleges as a nation moved west. Most notable were Northwestern University in Chicago, found about the Methodist, and the University of California Berkeley, founded by the Presbyterians.

The America we know today would not be nearly as great– not its size, morality, or education– if it were not for the bravery and dedication of pioneer Christian ministers.

©2012 Off the Grid News

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