Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
March 25, 1971

Frontier Religions - (1)

Colly Caldwell

One of the interesting things about history is that one may often learn about the present and the future by looking at the past. Religious history since the days of the apostles bears out that observation. It is often amazing that Christians should speak of "current issues" as if the questions involved were brand new. In the next few issues of this journal, I would like to acquaint you with the history of a great division which took place among churches of Christ one hundred and twenty years ago. I will, at least for the present, allow you to relate for yourselves that history to the current divisions within the body of Christ. To properly understand that division, one should observe the nature of American religion, especially American frontier religion, in the early 1800's.

Religious Indifference

In the two decades following the Revolution, America retired to a life of spiritual and moral relaxation. Moral degeneracy and religious indifference manifested themselves in many ways. "Intellectual societies" were formed in the East to promote "reason" rather than "mysticism." In the colleges, students boasted of their immoral behavior and atheistic attitudes. Ministers, many in every denomination, left their positions and the number of those entering the work of evangelists dropped to an all-time low.1 In the western frontier states of Tennessee and Kentucky, the vast majority of people were not affiliated with any church. Most were materialistic and generally apathetic concerning religion. Immorality, infidelity, and blasphemy characterized the lives of the irreligious. They drank hard liquor, quarreled, fought, and sometimes killed for no apparent reason. Even among those who professed religion, most were cold and indifferent. Bishop Asbury (Methodist), visiting the West in 1797, was appalled. "When I reflect that not one in a hundred came here to get religion; but rather to get plenty of good land," he wrote, "I think it will be well if some or many do not eventually lose their souls."2 Years later, Barton W. Stone recalled that "Apathy in religious societies appeared everywhere to an alarming degree. Not only the power of religion had disappeared, but also the very form of it was waning fast away, and continued so till the beginning of the present century (the 1800's)"3

Second Great Awakening

The revival from this period of spiritual laxity is often referred to by secular historians as the "Second Great Awakening." The Methodist Church, a relatively new organization which had been virtually non-existent in America before the Revolution, provided an impetus for promoting the awakening through a highly evangelistic spirit. By 1800, the revival had spread to the trans-Allegheny region where its most exciting expressions were witnessed on the Tennessee-Kentucky frontier. Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian congregations had been formed in the "West" by 1800, although the lack of general interest hindered their growth.

The Baptists

A few Baptist ministers crossed the mountains before the French and Indian War and by the time of the Revolution had organized several Baptist congregations.4 The members of these congregations had migrated from the Atlantic seaboard colonies. In keeping with their belief in the autonomy of each local church, they had never been supervised by officials higher than those within their local assemblies. This indicates that when they moved west in search of social and political democracy, they were reaching out for religious independence as well. In Virginia and North Carolina they had been heavily taxed to support the established Church of England. Most Baptists deeply resented this taxation. They considered it to be social and financial oppression, and were happy to have the opportunity to escape to the West. In Tennessee and Kentucky their aggressive ardor, democratic ideals, flexible church structure, and "lay-clergy" made them highly acceptable to the other frontier people. Their numbers grew rapidly.5 The great majority of Baptists were poor and lived on small farms. Only a few had been men of means and most of these had been impoverished by the Revolution. The faith of most Baptists was Calvinistic. All professed to believe in the literal approach to Biblical interpretation. Many were adamant in their belief in immersion as the proper form of baptism. The majority feared centralized government, both civil and ecclesiastical. All accepted readily the services of "untrained" preachers.

While the Baptist churches claimed to hold sacred the principle of congregational autonomy, they did form small associations of congregations to promote their common interests. Association meetings were conducted out-of-doors in the woods and the general public was invited to attend. Sometimes several thousand would be present and usually a number of sermons would be preached. It is interesting to note that, while many Baptists were very much opposed to the camp meetings of the early 1800's (which we will discuss in the next chapter), they apparently were eager to participate in the association meetings. They argued that they were not inconsistent in this action, but in most areas the association meetings and the encampments were identical with the exception that the encampments were interdenominational.

The eastern Tennessee situation presents a preview of some of the problems growing out of these inter-congregational organizations in the next fifty years. The Holston Association, first of the Tennessee associations, was formed in 1786. It consisted of seven churches at the beginning and was organized by the election of a moderator and a clerk. In 1802, many Baptists in the association began to worry about its size and influence. They were not prepared yet to argue that it had no right to exist, but they feared its increasing authority over the congregations. Enough opposition was raised to bring about its division, and about one-half of the congregations pulled out, forming the Tennessee Association in neighboring Knox County.6

Methodists And Presbyterians

The Methodists came into the West a few years after the first Baptists but by 1800 were increasing in membership and influence. They depended upon circuit-riders to evangelize the communities and build up the churches. By 1800, the Methodists had organized congregations throughout Tennessee and Kentucky. They counted a membership of over 1700 in Tennessee alone.

Presbyterian settlers had also formed a number of communities in the West by the close of the Revolution. These villages were located along the banks of the eastern Tennessee and Kentucky streams which flow northward into the Ohio River. Due to the efforts of preachers who came into the area to organize these settlers into congregations, a large number of Presbyterian churches were established on the frontier by the time of the "great Awakening."

There are many reasons why these three denominations dominated the small amount of religious activity on the frontier before 1800. Most of the people who came wanted personal freedom. The religious leaders wanted an atmosphere free from discrimination in which to promote their spiritual convictions. The people readily adapted to these faiths because they were easily understood and because they accepted the supernatural and apocalyptic interpretations of the Bible.7 Footnotes

1. William Warren Sweet, The Story of Religion in America (N.Y.: Harper and Brothers, 1950), 223-24.

2. O. W. Taylor, Early Tennessee Baptists (Nashville: Tennessee Baptist Convention, 1957), 152.

3. B. W. Stone, The Biography of Elder Barton Warren Stone with Additions and Reflections by Elder John Rogers (Cincinnati: J. A. & U. P. James, 1847), 106. (Hereinafter cited as Autobiography)

4. David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination (N. Y.: Lewis Colby, 1848), 214, 719.

5. Walter Brownlow Posey, "Early Baptist Church in the Lower Southwest," Journal of Southern History, X (May, 1944), 161-73.

6 Taylor, Early Tennessee Baptists, 78-80.

7. Wilbur Joseph Cash, The Mind of the South (N.Y.: Alfred A. Knoph, 1941) 132

(Note: A more complete documentation can be supplied if needed for some reason by the reader.)