Christian Fellowship and the Perils of Building Faith Communities: Evangelical Frontiers, Religious Print Culture, and Political Conflict in the Early Republic, 1800–60

AHA Session 156
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Colorado Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Mark A. Noll, University of Notre Dame
Mark A. Noll, University of Notre Dame

Session Abstract

This panel features papers exploring the struggle of religious communities to establish themselves in the unsettled West, a heated contest between Unitarians and Universalists in Massachusetts over the question of disestablishment, and the conflict between pro- and anti-slavery evangelical newspapers in the tumultuous frontier Border State of Missouri. As such, it explores the ways in which devout Protestants in the United States sought to organize themselves nationally and locally as religious communities, the challenges that these not-always-harmonious efforts entailed, and the problems they produced.

Nathan Rives examines the controversy between Unitarians and Universalists in Massachusetts in the 1810s and 1820s over the determination of the latter and more orthodox evangelicals to disestablish the Standing Order. His paper shows how Unitarians favoured a well-funded state-supported ministry as a bulwark against evangelical “enthusiasm,” while Universalists embraced the evangelical insistence on individual religious experience and took the view that their theology of universal salvation would naturally shape a more enlightened and reasonable social order.  While revealing the relationship of expanding print culture to the imbroglio, Rives demonstrates how competing understandings of “right religion” and liberal visions of religious community shaped the controversy. John Ayabe looks at the role that Christian fellowship played in the efforts of Baptist congregations to organize in the sparsely-settled central Mississippi Valley in the period 1800-1840. His paper reveals how local churches established thriving religious communities and cultivated networks of the faithful apart from and sometimes in opposition to the missionary efforts of northeastern benevolent associations and religious publishing societies. In particular, he investigates the practice of “fellowship” and how it cemented the bonds that formed cohesive religious identities in rural communities, identities that often turned on the determination of congregations to withdraw from larger church associations. Finally, Lucas Volkman examines the role of evangelical print culture in the development of religious communities in the state of Missouri from about 1835 through 1860, which featured a slave-holding Trans-Mississippi frontier and, with the City of St. Louis, a distinctive urban frontier. In doing so, his paper explores the war of words waged between pro-slavery and anti-slavery minister-newspaper editors and the relationship of this conflict to the organization of national evangelical bodies, denominational and congregational schisms, and the political disintegration of the state attendant on the secession movement.

Based upon our study of religious community formation in both the urban East and frontier West we seek to show how a comparative approach to the expansion of religious communities during the Second Great Awakening allows for an extended engagement with a number of issues traditionally treated as discreet developments. These include the contentious crafting of church-state relations in the early American republic, the evolution of frontier societies as other than mere peripheral receivers of eastern metropolitan culture, and the relationship of evangelical benevolence and a religious print culture to radical social reform. As a whole, the panel demonstrates how all of these developments both reflected and influenced the most contentious political controversies of the early national and antebellum periods.  

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