Christianity on the Early American Frontier: From the Editor — Religion Untamed

LIKE A WILD FRONTIER camp meeting, this issue was not easily tamed. Formally, it’s about camp meetings and circuit riders, which means it’s mostly about Methodism, which means it’s mostly about frontier Christianity from 1800 to 1840. Mostly.

Though camp meetings flourished as a Methodist institution, they captured America’s imagination first after the Kentucky revivals of 1800–1801—primarily Presbyterian—sponsored affairs.

Though the Methodists exploded in numbers during this era, so did the Baptists and Disciples of Christ.

Though orthodox Christianity flourished, so did Mormonism, spiritualism, and Transcendentalism, among other religious experiments.

Though camp meetings were frontier institutions, they also made their way to the populated East.

In short, it’s hard to capture the spiritual ferment that shook early America.

Such a phenomenon, of course, was not without its detractors. Speaking of camp meetings, historian Philip Schaff wrote in 1849, “There is a stamping and bouncing, jumping and falling, crying and howling, groaning and sighing, all praying in confusion, a rude singing of the most vulgar street songs, so that it must be loathing to an educated man, and fill the serious Christian with painful emotions.”

On the other hand, with the benefit of 150 years of hindsight, Notre Dame historian Nathan Hatch can claim that early Methodism was “the most powerful religious movement in American history, its growth a central feature in the emergence of the United States as a republic.”

We’ve included descriptions of wild excess and stories of lives transformed for Christ, because in early America, Christianity was both extraordinarily affective and effective. It was a time when religion roamed the American wilderness untamed.

By Mark Galli

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #45 in 1995]

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