America's Frontier Missionaries

Two studies explore the challenges of men and women who brought the Bible to the West

UNDER GOD'S SPELL: FRONTIER EVANGELISTS 1772-1915 by Cathy Luchetti, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989, 272 pp., index, bibliography, illustrations, $27.95


by Ferenc Morton Szasz, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988,

288 pp., index, bibliography, illustrations, $27.50

THE history of expansion and settlement in the United States is replete with resource exploitation, land swindles, broken Indian treaties, greed, and speculation. But American expansion across the continent is also the history of devout men and women who devoted their lives to a single-minded religious cause and who made innumerable sacrifices for the creation of churches, schools, hospitals, colleges, and universities in the name of Christianity and Christian principles of tolerance, sharing, and compassion.

Two new books explore this religious impulse and describe in detail the difficulties faced by both Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries as they sought to transplant church mores and institutions from Europe and New England to the American hinterland.

Under God's Spell: Frontier Evangelists 1772-1915, by Cathy Luchetti, features 120 historical photographs of religion on the frontier. The visual images supplement diary and journal excerpts from 12 frontier missionaries who were Catholic and Protestant, black and white, male and female.

Luchetti's excellent introduction pulls the book together with succinct references and descriptions of circuit-riding preachers, ministers, missionaries, and women evangelists. The journal entries describe the hardships of proselytizing on the frontier. These narratives are sometimes lengthy and tedious to read, couched as they are in 19th-century phrases and cultural misunderstandings, particularly of American Indians, but the quotations allow the reader to become immersed in the personal doubts and denominational conflicts that plagued both missionaries and missions.

But in a book that covers 1772-1915, the author does not adequately explain the crucial religious movements or ``awakenings'' of the late 18th and mid-19th centuries, which propelled so many denominations to establish rural missions far from cities or small towns. Despite omissions of background necessary to understanding the impetus and theoretical stance of the missionary movement, ``Under God's Spell'' is a fine overview of frontier evangelism, with a large and poignant compendium of religious photographs. Yet the book is like a patchwork quilt compared to the more tightly woven text of The Protestant Clergy in the Great Plains and Mountain West, 1865-1915, by Ferenc Morton Szasz.

Szasz limits both his time frame and his geographical range to produce an authoritative work that offers tightly edited quotes from pioneer Protestants. The book explains in detail the significance of ministers on the frontier as ``the foremost representatives of `culture' in the New West.''

Through exhaustive notes and statistics, Szasz also proves that ``in the field of education, the clergy became paramount. Here their influence was unquestioned.'' He describes the evolution of churches from nondenominational Sunday Schools to pivotal institutions, which brought education, decorum, refinement, and social life to embryonic communities. In the raucous mining camps and boomtowns of the West, preachers held fast to moral values and relentlessly campaigned against liquor, gambling, and prostitution.

Both books do more than revere church building in a raw and barren land. They offer insight into the perspectives and motivations of men and women who made great personal sacrifices to give up their Eastern comforts and move to Deer Lodge Valley, Mont.; Whatcom County, Wash.; the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico; or Dakota Territory to minister to impoverished Yankee settlers, Hispanic farmers, and native Americans wrestling with assimilation.

Missionaries spent years learning Indian dialects, collecting artifacts, and trying to understand native cultures. In so doing, they made significant contributions to history and anthropology. Mary Collins lived in a tiny hut on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and mastered the Dakota language; later she became a spokesperson for Indian rights. Franciscan Father Berard Haile did seminal linguistic studies among the Navajos, and Elkanah Walker, who ministered to the Spokane Indians, learned their language well enough to write and publish Biblical phrases in the local dialect.

Bringing religion to the American frontier was an expensive process, for which mainline Protestant churches paid dearly both in cash donations and in goods shipped West in ``minister's barrels.'' Yet because of small stipends, preachers could barely feed and clothe their own families. Many preachers went months without pay.

Organized congregations did not yet exist and circuit-riding preachers who traveled from settlement to settlement depended upon local hospitality. For both preachers and settlers, Luchetti explains, ``poverty bound them together.'' Life on the frontier meant ``dependence and vulnerability, conditions in which the spirit of God could freely flow.''

Hundreds of churches and schools were started only to fail as the population of the West expanded and contracted with national recessions and devastating droughts. Evangelists counted success by the number of converts, but often years of labor brought minimal results.

At the Presbyterian Choctaw outpost in Mississippi, 12 years of work by 81 men and women and an expense of $140,000 produced only 360 church members. Protestant missionaries met with little success among what they termed the ``exceptional populations'' of native Americans, Hispanics, and Mormons - members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But regular church services, camp meetings, ministerial visits, songfests, and church sociables bound Anglo and immigrant communities together.

For white settlers, ministers with their compassionate sermons and acts of spiritual and personal guidance helped ease the loneliness and isolation of pioneering in a new land. By offering traditional sacraments for baptism, marriage, and death, and by teaching in log-cabin schools, men and women of the cloth played vital roles in the precarious lives of American pioneers.

``Under God's Spell'' and ``The Protestant Clergy in the Great Plains and Mountain West'' testify to the dedicated pastors and preachers who gave up worldly comforts to provide settlers with the solace of a deep and abiding faith. Both books are essential to understanding not only the vitality of American religion today, but also the process of creating Christian hegemony in the United States.

Because of selfless American missionaries, Theodore Roosevelt said, ``deep beneath and through the national character there runs the power of firm adherence to a lofty ideal.''

Thanks to these objective and well-written books, the spirit and determination of thousands of unsung missionary men and women will not be forgotten. Much is owed to those saddlebag itinerants who brought the Bible to the backwoods.

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