Thursday, February 09, 2012

Christianity and the Pioneer Mindset

“…the Methodists,” Horace Bushnell noted in 1847, “have a ministry admirably adapted, as regards their mode of action, to the new West”. 
The American Methodist movement, which later became paradigmatic of the entire revivalist project, was successful precisely because it was able to capitalize on a certain temperament indigenous to the frontier of the American West.

When the New World had begun being colonized, it took a certain type of person to leave the established institutions and comforts of Europe to face the uncertainties and challenges waiting ahead. If you were not cut from the rugged, pioneer cloth, the new continent wouldn’t just be unappealing, it would break you. It is not hard to see how the spirit of the self-made pioneer gave momentum to Westward expansion or how it contributed to the atmosphere of entrepreneurship, independent thinking and rugged individualism that helped to make America so successful.

What has been given less attention is how these values increasingly became hallmarks of the American religious experience, which moulded itself around the strong individualism,  anti-institutionalism and entrepreneur spirit of the pioneers. The idea of the self-made pioneer, when unconsciously imported into one’s religious orientation, could only prime Americans for the semi-Pelagianism of Finney or that co-deification of Joseph Smith or the un-churchly flavour left in the wake of the revival articulated so profoundly by John Nevin in his interaction with Charles Hodge.

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