The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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The old Northwest - Religion

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NO CHAPTER in the history of religion in our country offers more complexities or more interest than that which deals with the Middle West in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Westerner was ready to carry his Protestantism through to its logical end, hence the West was the fertile propagating bed for new divisions and sects. Separatists and Puritans had come to the New World where they upheld the standards of Congregationalism; as time passed, Congregationalists formed into orthodox and liberal, Old Calvinist, and New Divinity parties. Other Puritans, Presbyterians, already divided, further split into "Old Side" and "New Side," and, in the West, suffered both the Cumberland Schism and the "New Light" or "Christian" defection. Later they divided into Old School and New School blocs. There were also Associate, Associate Reformed, Reformed, and Welsh Calvinists. Many of the Congregationalists became presbyterianized, while others became either Baptists or Unitarians. Baptists split into Separates and Regulars, rejoined and became United, but still there were General (Regular), Particular (Separate), Primitive (Hard-shell or "Whiskey"), and Free Will groups of Baptists. Tens of thousands of Baptists became Disciples, Disciples became Christians, Christians became Disciples. Besides there were Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, Friends (who also split), Methodists, Reformed (Dutch, Swiss-French, German, for example), Shakers, Brethren, "Millerites," Jews, Mormons, Universalists, various types of Pietists, and many other religious groups.

Although revivalism and the question of freedom of the will precipitated sectarian difference, there were really dozens of matters of dogma and church organization and government which caused fission. Denominations split along one line on one issue, along another line on another. So numerous and complex were the schisms and crossings over and so illogical were many of them, that groups and sects not infrequently found themselves back in the fold whence they had started. So confusing did the history of the Protestant sects become that no historian, church or lay, has been able to make a clear and organized presentation of its course.

Religion is largely an abstract, a subjective thing. It is not capable of measurement as is railroad mileage, agricultural production, or the incidence of taxes ; it is not, in the popular mind, so easily subjected to analysis as is a political platform, or to the empiric tests of a doctor's prescription. It is possible to chronicle the organizing of churches, list creeds, describe revivals, outline government and organization, portray individual churchmen, and estimate the relative numerical strength of denominations; but only in exceptional cases is it possible even approximately to calculate the relative importance of religion as a cultural force or to determine the exact part it has played in the lives and thoughts of the people.

To take the churchman's word on the relative importance of religion at face value might lead as wide of the mark as to accept his estimate of the morality of the pioneer, whom he often criticized as an ignorant, anti-Christian, Sabbath-violating, whiskey-drinking, depraved, gambling set of heathen hell bent on greased wheels, and destined to burn in the next world while making the most of the present. Or, to believe that pioneer society agreed when a churchman said that wine-, beer-, and cider-drinking persons were its deadliest foes, and that the sin most to be feared-was that of wealth and luxury l might be as erroneous as to accept a rationalist's evaluation of some of the strange goings on at a revival.

On the one hand, the historian might assume that religion was the most important social and cultural force in pioneer life; on the other, he might reason that the men of religious calling, like the abolitionists, troubled the world all out of proportion to their real importance, and dismiss them with a nod. Between these extremes there is no specific point of certain validity. To many people religious conviction was the most powerful force in life and it ruled their lives; to others it was acknowledged as a vital thing theoretically, but was not permitted seriously to interfere with other aspects of life. To many others it was of no direct concern whatever. It is futile to try to estimate the relative number of sincere believers in the pioneer period as compared with our times; it is impossible to prove or to disprove that it differed materially. Nor is it possible statistically to separate, in either period, those primarily interested in salvation by a certain formula from those interested in religion as a moral force, in church as a means of social control.

The story of religion in the Old Northwest is at times a story of high purpose, wisdom, heroic personalities, sacrifice, and service; it is also the story of ignorance, selfishness, bigotry, sectarian ambition, vested interests, conflicting personalities, and mean and petty politics. In other words, religion, despite its lofty aims and purposes, presented the same features as did the politics, business, and other human activities of the time.2

Interest in religion, which climbed to a high pitch in the American colonies at the time of the Great Awakening after 1734, had declined by the time of the War for Independence. The war, politics, the establishing of the nation all served to distract interest from religion; further, the rationalistic philosophy of eighteenth-century Europe was taking firm root in the American mind. Many people became indifferent to religion or scoffed at it; fewer outstanding men, in comparison to the earlier period, were attracted to the ministry. Historians of religion described the succeeding period as "a very wintry season" or as one characterized by suspended animation in religious affairs. Conditions in the East were reported as bad;3 in the West they were said to be even worse. Whole communities were characterized by early ministers as assemblages of rogues, robbers, counterfeiters, ganging outlaws, and intemperate reprobates. SOURCE: The Old Northwest, Pioneer Period, 1815-1840 By R. Carlye Buley, Vol 2, Indiana University Press , Indiana Historical Society (1950) pp. 417-420

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