Southern History Series: Religion and the Scots-Irish Frontier Experience

Editor’s Note: English Anglicans also embraced the new evangelical Christianity. Greater Appalachia was settled by roughly equal parts Germans, English from the lowlands and Scots-Irish.

Here are some excerpts from Karen F. McCarthy’s book 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 in the context of extreme rural isolation:

“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 Greater Appalachia. There weren’t enough educated Presbyterian ministers in America to tend to all of these isolated backcountry homesteads and maintain their customary moral discipline.

Christianity was weakened by the intense rural environment of colonial Appalachia. The Scots-Irish in America became more rowdy, boisterous, individualistic and superstitious. Their new mountain environment in the New World 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 for ministers to put on a show to get these dispersed frontiersmen to show up for church in the 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 weakened by the New World frontier experience and was supplanted by 18th and 19th century evangelicalism which was intensely emotional, individualistic, theatrical and anti-intellectual. The driving force behind it was the vast geography of the South.

It was in many ways the polar opposite of European Calvinism. John Calvin was a clear-eyed writer and rationalist theologian. Calvinism was communal and deeply intellectual. The Calvinists despised all the pomp of ritual, ceremony and church tradition as aesthetic distractions from the Word of God. This was a major point of difference with Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans. Martin Luther was a musician and Lutheranism in Northern Europe had become institutionalized as a state religion.

“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 on the frontier 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.”

Thomas Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration of Independence about the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal” which is presented as the very core of American identity has been misconstrued for generations as an endorsement of the theory of racial equality.

Obviously, Jefferson didn’t have blacks in mind though when he made that famous statement. He had written about them in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Instead, he was rallying the Scots-Irish farmers in the Virginia and Pennsylvania backcountry to the republican cause where the frontier experience and the type of theology it encouraged had leveled social classes. Geopolitically, he was also aligning the cause of American independence with the fashionable French philosophy of his day.

About Hunter Wallace 12366 Articles
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  1. There were itinerant preachers roaming the wilderness of upstate New York in the early 19th century as well, HW. And some of them doubtless influenced a young scoundrel named Joseph Smith.

  2. Spawn- Jos. Smith noted that the ‘burned-over’ district (which included his area) had had a number of “Methodists” preach to them. Smith’s elevation to ‘prophet’ was directly related to the fallacy that any bumptious idiot could (and did) become a ‘preacher.’ Jos. Smith (as Fawn Brodie and many others have chronicled) was a ne’er-do-well, a wastrel, who just ‘happened’ to find ‘religion,’ when an [sic] ‘angel’ told him about ‘them golden plates’ and the ‘gospel of Macaroni.’ As it were.

  3. Interesting article on why the USA has so many Protestant denominations. In Texas I mostly have met fundamentalists like Baptists. I have been wondering what makes them tick.Until Texas I used to think that all Protestants were the same.

    So now I know.

  4. and just who the F* are you Fr. John+ … I didn’t hear the creator of the universe give you authority over me!!

      • Apologies accepted, but the several “magisterium’s” claims of “divine sovereignty” over any being is an abject falsehood and is a dangerous promulgation … see 2 Cor 3:17 with John 4:24 and also 1 Samuel 8:7

  5. “Thomas Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration of Independence about the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal” which is presented as the very core of American identity has been misconstrued for generations as an endorsement of the theory of racial equality.” EXACTLY. the term ‘Men’ had quite a different meaning, then. Freeborn, White/Euro descent, either of prot/xtian or deist mindset, and usually a landowner.

    However, not all of us prots fed up w/Anglican Cathol Lite dogma, became snake shaking, speakin’ in tongues’, writhing on the floor, holy roller ‘evangelicals’. ;D

    • He should have worded that much differently. “All men are created equal” is one of the most untrue statements ever put to paper.

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