Fellowship in a “Church Relation”: Building Faith Communities in the American Middle West, 1800–40

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:50 AM
Colorado Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
John A. Ayabe, Simpson University
The opening decades of the nineteenth century were a particularly vibrant time for religion in America. Historians attribute the remarkable growth of American Protestantism to the flurry of evangelistic activity by itinerant preachers, home missionaries, and religious publishing societies. Nowhere was this effort directed more intensely than in the region known then as the “far” west – that stretch of land called the Northwest Territory.  Yet even before the arrival of missionaries to the region, men and women were gathering with other like-minded evangelicals living along the central Mississippi Valley.  In fact, by the 1820s Baptists had established several congregations in the region without the aid of missions societies back east.  While these congregations helped regulate the lives of those who settled in the backcountry, they also forged channels of correspondence, assistance, and most importantly, fellowship with neighboring churches through formal associations.

This paper will examine these early faith communities, the activities that engaged the membership, how associations were established between congregations, what went on in these associations, and why they became so important to the thousands of settlers moving into what would become America’s heartland.  The practice of “fellowship” – a term found frequently in the church documents – would become a key function of these congregations in order to maintain the bonds that formed a cohesive, religious identity in these dispersed rural communities. Indeed, congregations frequently defined themselves by participating in or withdrawing from the network of church associations that weaved a distinctive pattern across this western frontier.  By drawing upon church record books, annual meeting minutes, religious newspapers, and circular letters of Baptist associations, this study offers a window into the religious world of these men and women and their communities of faith.