Scots-Irish Project: Religion and the Frontier Experience


Here are some excerpts from The Other Irish: The Scots-Irish Rascals Who Made America which sheds light on how Scots-Irish Presbyterians evolved into Baptists and Methodists in America:

“When they came swarming across the sea, embittered by religious bigotry of the Anglican Church of England and the economic repression imposed by the English government, the Scots-Irish plunged into the great, untamed frontier to settle in isolated backcountry communities where they were alone in an almost supernatural terrain that yielded mysterious phenomena and unknown terrors. They usually built a little church, but frontier populations were so scattered that rarely was a pastor available to preach. They took to making and drinking moonshine, dancing, and singing. One visitor witnessed people traveling for fifty miles or more through hostile terrain to gamble on cock fights and horse races or engage in brutal fights in which “the gouging out of each other’s eyes was considered allowable according to the rules governing such matches.

The further they moved from civilization, the more boisterous, ungovernable, and immoral they became.”

The Scots-Irish moved to the frontier and dispersed into small settlements across Appalachia. There weren’t enough educated Presbyterian ministers in America to tend to all of these isolated backcountry homesteads.

Christianity was weakened by the rural environment of Appalachia. The Scots-Irish became more rowdy, boisterous, individualistic and superstitious. Their new mountain environment lent itself to peculiar style of Christianity:

“I beseech you as a messenger of the great God, that ye awake,” Gilbert Tennent thundered to mesmerized listeners, his face red with intensity, fists shaking in the air. “I beseech you as a messenger of the great God, as on my bended knees, by the groans, tears, and wounds of Christ that ye would Awake. Yea, I charge you all by the curses of the law, and blessings of the gospels, that ye would Awake.”

Awaken they did. Multitudes ran to the altar to fall down begging for baptism by the Holy Spirit, repenting of their wayward ways and begging for salvation

Promote God’s Kingdom he did. Dubbed the “Son of Thunder,” his rousing style of terror and hope spread quickly to other itinerant evangelists. Soon somber presbyteries were criticizing it as highfalutin, incoherent, and hysterical. They were more concerned that ministers should be men of good character and educated who conformed to the decrees of the Church, and less concerned about whether a man had been called by God to preach. They wanted the revivalists to submit to discipline and acknowledge the errors of their ways.

Tennent would not acquiesce. He was committed to reviving the colony’s spiritual life by emphasizing heartfelt conversion and pious action over theology and ecclesiastical politics. Besides, no hardy frontiersman would travel across miles for refrains and restrictions, and Tennent understood this new world.”

In other words, there was a need to “put on a show” to get these dispersed frontiersmen to show up for church in a backcountry environment. It must have been like the modern evangelical megachurches that look and sound more like a rock concert:

“He brought hell to bear on the Presbyterian Church. Their ranks ruptured into pro-revival, emotional type Presbyterians called the “New Side” and the established order known as the “Old Side.” Fiery New-Side evangelists traversed the colonies speaking in simple language that salvation was possible to all who chose to repent and believe in Jesus Christ …

“You may hear screaming, singing, laughing, praying, all at once; and, in other parts, they fall into visions, trances, and convulsions,” reported a Bostonian at a revival. “When they come out of their trances, they commonly tell a senseless story of Heaven and Hell, and what they saw there.”

The supernatural element that had appealed to the Scots-Irish Presbyterians in the remote mountain terrain since Jimmy Morrow’s ancestors arrived was sparked again by an intense fervor that provided an outlet for the pressure of an often terrifying mountain life. With God on their side, they weren’t alone in the wilderness. Tennett’s message put more emphasis on a personal relationship with God than on any intermediary – be it a saint or minister. He stressed that the individual is responsible for his own salvation, that it had not been preordained by an arbitrary God. It was an anti-authoritarian and anti-Calvinistic message.”

Calvinism was degraded by the lessons of the frontier experience:

“For the first settlers, transforming the wilderness was an opportunity to prove they were the chosen people, but as generations passed without any education or theological teachings, the concept of the Elect as a spiritual doctrine was forgotten. As families survived the hostile frontier and prospered, they believed that success and salvation could be achieved through individual effort. It was a fundamental rupture in Protestant thinking and the beginning of a distinct American style of Christianity that was infused with self-reliance, personal responsibility, and “godly hysteria.”

This worked to the advantage of the Baptists and Methodists at the expense of the Anglicans and Presbyterians:

“As the Presbyterian-led revivals swept through the South, a pair of uneducated Baptist farmer preachers left New England for the Virginia-North Carolina border. They began to “raise up” other farmer-preachers and evangelize throughout the region. Any Baptist who was moved by the spirit could just start preaching to a group of like-minded Christians. Many preachers were illiterate but could recite the Bible and speak about important subjects such as life and death or heaven and hell like unhindered zealots …

In the early 1700s in England, a small band of ministers tried to reform the Anglican Church by advocating a return to the gospel, stressing that salvation rests on willful repentance, not on God’s arbitrary election. They became known as Methodists, and they proselytized with sermons delivered by dynamic circuit riders who galloped abroad to minister to the poor, riding thousands of miles each year to save souls.

Even the New-Side Presbyterians couldn’t compete with the Methodist and Baptist ministers all over the South. Twenty years before his death, Tennent took charge of the Second Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. From there he watched his converts – in the absence of enough Presbyterian ministers – fall into the ranks of the Baptist and Methodist zealots that drenched the South.”

The Great Awakening set the stage for the American Revolution:

“Tennent didn’t live to see the full effect of the Great Awakening he sparked, which taught that all men are equal in the eyes of the Lord. The Presbyterians unleashed a religious revival that seeped into the souls of men and forged a political and revolutionary spirit – if they were responsible for their own salvation, then why not their own government?

“The Revolution was effected before the War commenced,” said President John Adams later. “The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”

We laugh at the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal” in our own times. Jefferson didn’t have the negro in mind though when he made that famous statement. He was rallying the Scots-Irish in the backcountry where the frontier experience and the type of theology it encouraged had leveled social classes.

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  1. You might find of interest Grady McWhiney and Forrest MacDonald’s article on Celtic influence on the South in The American Historical Review, Vol. 85, No. 5 (Dec., 1980), pp. 1095-1118. Also, McWhiney’s book Cracker Culture is a book that should help with the subject of the Scots-Irish in the South.

  2. I’m going to read The Other Irish in full, but this, and most books (just like all books about the American South) are written by foreigners, studied by foreigners in “American” schools and often expose they have absolutely no love for the people. The foreign narrator @ .48 in the vid is typical.

    Some of the “Other Irish” writing, though, is clearer on the “mysticism” of the frontier, the constant terror and strange phenomenon.

    Most city people have never even experienced anything vaguely resembling real night-time, or even real darkness. In night, without electricity, (or towns with it, reflecting in the sky)— you cannot see your hand in front of your face.

    The woods had not been ‘deforested.’ It was a very different world, and they have often gotten nothing but grief from the later immigrants, for all their troubles, and nothing to show for any of it.

    I’m hoping the book talks more about that aspect— the more realistic sense of the frontier.

  3. A question or two, did these pastors preach the Word or bend it; did losing the idea of Elect profit or harm America in the end? What ended this fervor?

  4. “We laugh at the ‘self-evident truth’ that ‘all men are created equal’ in our own times. Jefferson didn’t have the negro in mind though when he made that famous statement. He was rallying the Scots-Irish in the backcountry….”

    Or simply expressing the spirit of his own, Welsh heritage?

  5. “A question or two, did these pastors preach the Word or bend it; did losing the idea of Elect profit or harm America in the end? What ended this fervor?”

    There was always, and there still is, a minority strain of Christianity that did not accept predestination, on scriptural basis, and yet lived the life.

    The “sexual revolution” and other moral decay in formerly conservative church settings erased all the signs of election, and began the era of “easy believism” among so-called Calvinists.

  6. “This idiocy led to Christian Zionism.”

    The same “easy believist” idiocy that led to those who “do such things” being called saved. From there it is easy to accept the nonsense that enemies of Christianity are allies.

    Giving in to temptation is easy. Christian nobility and self-mastery involve will and wisdom.

  7. Dixiegirl, the best book on the Scotch-Irish is James Leyburn’s magisterial work, “The Scotch-Irish: A Social History.” If you haven’t read it, you are really missing out on the definitive history of the “real Americans.”

    They were never as tight about religion as the Puritans who sent them to the Ulster Plantations to “genocide” the Irish via immigration. Sounds like a familiar technique, now doesn’t it?

    Deo Vindice

  8. all to often those endless revisionism become sales gimmicks to cash in on a “niggerball” home run….
    much as the old swindlers would do by slipping predated names into the lines of royalty .. some hundreds of years before that name actually originated….
    stick to the original 1790 census.!

  9. just to prove the point: sleazy rosa parks WAS given a scots irish genealogy …..among many, many others……It’s surprising that Gandhi’s law degree wasn’t HARVARD or GEORGETOWN….

  10. The reason Southern protestants are so insanely pro Israel is not so much because the bible tells them so but because the Israeli government pays the preachers to preach zionism. If the Palestinians ever got smart and bribed the southern protestant preachers those preachers would preach that Palestine is not Israel and belongs to the descendants of ancient Jews who never left and not 1880 to 1950 russian communist jews.

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