Philander Chase’s “Plea for the West”: Episcopalians and the Early Republic Frontier

In 1835 Lyman Beecher wrote his Plea for the West, urging Protestants to settle and proselytize the American West lest Roman Catholics convert the whole region. Eight years earlier, Philander Chase, first Episcopal bishop of Ohio, published a pamphlet of the same name. Chase’s A Plea for the West not only antedated Beecher’s, but its message was far more comprehensive than the narrow anti-Catholicism of Beecher. Chase saw the American frontier as a region in danger of not only becoming less Protestant, but of becoming uncivilized even as Americans settled the frontier regions of Ohio and the new states being carved out of the Northwest Territory. Chase founded Kenyon College in 1824. His pamphlet is an essential text for how Early Republic Episcopalians understood their role in the civilizational project underway in what became the modern Midwest.

Chase departed from the telos of this when he proposed that frontier settlement, far from being an en masse civilizing force, risked creating a society that exceeded its parent society’s institutional means of civil, cultural, and civil catechesis. “It is well known,” warned Chase, “that the progress of settlement at the west has hitherto far outstripped the means of religion and learning.” He observed that a “few years ago Ohio was a wilderness; no trace of civilized man was seen in all her extended forests. That state is now inhabited by a million of immortal souls.” Settlement had not brought order in the abstract; it brought an uncontrollable demographic force that overwhelmed not only the pristine western forests but that also overwhelmed previous generations of settlers. “As with a mighty stream, collecting itself from all quarters of the world, the western country has been overspread ere those who were left behind were aware that the settlement had commenced.”

Ohio and the states of the Northwest Territory made “this sudden transition from an old to a new world; a transition which for its extent and celerity is unexampled in the history of man.” While some attempts at schooling and churching were attempted in the initial waves of settlement, “impossibilities could not be effected.” Chase lamented that “the means of perpetuating the science and piety of his forefathers could not be obtained, nor continued, while every man had, not only to pay into the treasury of the United States, frequently his last dollar for the soil under his feet,” and subsequently “to contend with the manifold difficulties of subduing the forest; difficulties which undermine and destroy the natural constitution of more than one generation before they are entirely overcome.” It was, said the bishop, “literally impossible” to “institute schools, build colleges and churches, and maintain ministers of the gospel, in any degree adequate to the great necessity,” during the intitial period of settlement. Lack of education and religion was not a benign accident. The still relatively short experience of the American republic’s frontier, he worried, had “witnessed the sad consequences. The son, save in very few instances, knows not, nor, unless something more is speedily done, is he ever like to know what his father knew. A deterioration both in knowledge and religion takes place, too painful to describe.”

The citizenry of the American republic–and the sovereign republican union they formed–were not to be a moral or religious bystanders regarding the Christianization of the frontier. “Placed by the providence of God over a portion of the Christian community in Ohio, and feeling for their welfare,” the bishop “deemed himself in duty bound to do something in his humble sphere for the common good, in trying to remedy and prevent these dreadful evils, ignorance and irreligion.” [1]

[1] Philander Chase, A Plea for the West (Boston: Samuel Parker, 1827), 3.


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