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The growth of churches on the American frontier

In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French lawyer, traveled the nation in its infancy and described in detail how the nation was prospering. He identified the Christian faith as the source of America’s greatness.

He marveled at the enthusiasm of the American societies “who sent out ministers of the gospel into the half-peopled country of the Western States to found schools and churches there, “lest religion should be suffered to die away in those remote settlements”. He went on to report that “wandering preachers may be met with who hawk about the word of God from place to place. Whole families – old men, women, and children – cross rough passes and untrodden wilds, coming from a great distance, to join a camp- meeting, where they totally forget for several days and nights, in listening to these discourses, the cares of business and even the most urgent wants of the body. Here and there, in the midst of American society, you meet with men, full of a fanatical and almost wild enthusiasm, which hardly exists in Europe. From time to time strange sects arise, which endeavor to strike out extraordinary paths to eternal happiness.”

I admire and appreciate the colorful old western preachers I knew in the first half of the 20th century. Yes, they were loud, dogmatic and at the same time they combined a sense of the eternal with a practical turn of mind. For example, at OBU we occasionally had such a preacher to speak in chapel and the advice they offered was not found in the textbooks or classroom lectures. I recall the counsel of one old timer who put down our inflated sense of responsibility as “preacher boys” in training. Here was what he said, “Now don’t be scared if the church that calls you as pastor is small. If you preach the word and serve them in Christ’s name it will grow beyond your hopes and dreams. On the other hand, if the church that calls you is too big, it will shrink to fit your level of service.”

The first revival meeting I held was in a mission of my Dad’s church in an Indian community. The men folk built a brush arbor and put up plank benches since they had no church building. I generally ate in the home of a white man whose wife was Cherokee— a quiet woman who served her family well. As it turned out she was the instrument in the hands of the Lord to spark a real revival in the community. It came about when the oldest of her young sons came to the front of the congregation and took my hand to signal his acceptance of Jesus as his Lord and Savior. Well, his normally quiet little Mother immediately followed him down the isle with shouts of joy. After the closing prayer the congregation moved down to the front of the arbor- a rich spiritual revival had begun.

De Tocqueville opined that a strong Christian faith was the secret of America’ s immediate success as a nation and marveled at the part played by the America’s preachers. He wrote “In America, the clergy remained politically separated from the government but nevertheless provided a moral stability among the people which permitted the government to prosper. In other words, there was separation of church and state but not separation of state and religion. The Americans combined the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other… 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.”

The Methodist circuit riders traveled horseback through all kinds of weather. They forded swollen streams faced the danger of wild animals and Indian attacks to bring the gospel to the pioneers. During a twenty-five year period from 1771 to 1816, the Methodists grew from only 300 members with four ministers to over 200,000 members with 2,000 ministers.

At the same time the Baptists sent out their farmer-preachers and grew in numbers accordingly. (My great grandfather earned a living farming and traveled by horseback to serve surrounding communities on week ends. My father was a part- time pastor and throughout my own ministry, I taught and ministered at the same time. As a result my vita looks like the records of two individuals .) The Methodists and Baptists both ordained candidates in local churches when they experienced a call to the ministry and were deemed qualified morally, spiritually and doctrinally. Many had little formal education but were generally well versed in the Scriptures and were competent speakers. They preached the forgiveness of sin and the certainty of an eternal relationship with God through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Generally forgotten in the history books was the Sunday school movement in the Frontier life of the nation The American Sunday School Movement set about to “establish a Sunday school in every destitute place.” This organization alone established over 61,000 Sunday schools and enrolled 2,650,000 pupils in fifty years. One missionary, Stuttering Stephen” Paxson, who had a speech impediment, “set up 1,314 Sunday schools with 83,000 students during his twenty years of service with the movement.

Only the Lord knows the moral and spiritual influence the Frontier churches had on life of this nation. I am an optimistic old man who expects to see in my lifetime a revival of the kind of enthusiasm for the Gospel experienced on the Frontier of the nation. It remains the source of America’s greatness.

May God bless America.