Frederick Jackson Turner, Frontier, and Protestantism

In a 1993 symposium on Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, historian John Boles rightly noted that Turner “had little to say about religion, on the frontier or elsewhere.” Boles observed that Turner was not religious and had no interest in theology. The relatively sparse treatment of religion in Turner’s opus, The Frontier in American History, was hardly surprising to Turner’s contemporaries or subsequent generations who studied his work. [1]

Turner’s essential claim regarding religion and the frontier was that whatever affect organized religion had on the frontier, that affect was dwarfed by the affect of democracy. “Democracy became almost the religion of the pioneer. He held with passionate devotion the idea that he was building under freedom a new society, based on self government, and for the welfare of the average man.” Democracy, according to Turner, formed the basis for frontier civilization. The idealized American pioneer, even as they preached “the gospel of democracy,” nonetheless feared that institutions that abrogated the individual spirit that actuated frontier democracy would destroy the civilization of America. In Turner’s rendering, American civilization was the frontier, and whatever religion that hewed most closely to frontier ideology was most representatively American.[2]

Historians since the 1920s have offered varying interpretations of frontier religion. Peter G. Mode’s The Frontier in Spirit in American Christianity proposed that Christianity in the United States was highly fluid precisely because it was so wedded to the social changes of the American frontier. “The spirit of the frontier,” Mode argued, “was to imprint itself upon the type of religious life imported into its borders by the herculean missionary effort of the East. True to its developmental genius, the Christianity of the frontier” gradually took on “the characteristics of its new environment.” As the frontier stage of American civilization passed, American Christianity found itself “vastly changed from what it was before our fathers began to move toward the West. And the changes effected in it during the period are what today give distinguishing characteristics to American religious life.”[3]

If Mode saw the frontier change religion, William Warren Sweet argued that religion changed in order to influence certain locales. Churches, Sweet noted, became islands of community in regions where basic civilizational hallmarks were still few and far between. According to Boles, Sweet “emphasized how religion adapted to the frontier situation, producing a peculiar form of Christianity; unlike Mode, however, Sweet went on to suggest how religion in turn influenced the frontier.” [4]

Evangelical historians have often played on the fluid non-institutional nature of so-called American Evangelicalism. Mark Noll proposed that “evolution of the new nation’s political thought almost necessarily entailed a corresponding evolution on the theological reasoning with which that thought had become so closely entwined.” Directions “in which political conceptions moved defined also the direction of theological change.” During the Early National Era, “that evolution was away from a republicanism largely defined by civic humanism, with ideals of disinterested public virtue and freedom defined as liberation from tyranny.” Noll posited that the movement in political thought was “towards republicanism aligned with liberalism, with ideals of individualized private virtue and freedom defined as self-determination.” The republican liberalism combined with other intellectual resources allowed Protestant evangelicals to “spread the gospel, stabilize the nation, and subdue the frontier.”[5]

Noll’s proposition identified important aspects of the relationship between the frontier and religion. Unlike Turner, Mode, or Sweet, Noll rightly observed that Evangelicals did subdue the frontier. There seems to be evidence, however, that the Evangelical Christianity that subdued the frontier by Evangelicals was neither as liberal, nor as individualistic, as Noll and other historians have traditionally assumed. Robert Elder’s The Sacred Mirror helpfully argues that southern Evangelicals in the Early Republic were not meaningfully individualistic or divorced from older types of communitarian social boundaries and penalties. More importantly, if the definition of Evangelical is broadened to include Episcopalians and openly anti-revivalist Presbyterians, the subjugation of the frontier seems to have been done through institutions that were at best ambivalent about democracy, liberalism, and individualism.

[1] John B. Boles, “Turner, the Frontier, and the Study of Religion in America,” Journal of the Early Republic 13, no. 2 (1993): 205–16.

[2] Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1921), 275.

[3] Peter G. Mode, The Frontier Spirit in American Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1924), 14.

[4] Boles, “Turner, the Frontier, and the Study of Religion in America,” 207.

[5] Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 225.

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