'A plea for Missouri' : the American Home Missionary Society and the Civil War-era struggle for Missouri and the West

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Morse, Scott Notley

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Changes in Calvinist theology led its principal American denominations, the Congregationalists and Presbyterians, in the early nineteenth century to create voluntary societies in order to conduct mission work. Founded in 1826, the American Home Missionary Society (AHMS) was America’s principal domestic missionary society. It sought to spread the Gospel on the western frontier, thereby laying the foundation for an expanded, Godly American republic and the millennium foretold in the Book of Revelation. With its central location and abundant natural resources, Missouri was central to this effort. The AHMS sent missionaries to the frontier to convert in-migrants from the eastern and southern states and foreign immigrants. By so doing, the AHMS would prevent Catholicism, rationalism and enthusiastic religion – primarily the Baptists and Methodists – from taking hold. Foreign immigrants would be assimilated. They would embrace American virtues including temperance and Sabbath observance. This would be accomplished through moral suasion or, failing that, by force of law. The AHMS encouraged the in-migration of New Englanders – in its view, the exemplars of the highest possible virtue – in the hope of replicating the New England way of life in Missouri. The AHMS long sought to avoid the issue of slavery for fear of alienating Southerners. While most of its Missouri missionaries were northern, anti-slavery clergymen, they also tended to avoid the issue for fear of offending their congregants. In December 1856, pressure from northern donors forced the AHMS to begin withholding financial support from churches with slaveholding members. This led to a rupture in relations between the AHMS and its Missouri auxiliary and to the AHMS discontinuing mission work there during the late 1850s. When it returned in the early part of the Civil War, the AHMS, and its newly recruited missionaries, were overtly abolitionist. The traditional animosity in Missouri toward Congregationalism as northern and abolitionist caused the AHMS to conduct its pre-war mission work through New School Presbyterian churches. In 1861, the New School Presbyterians withdrew from the AHMS and it became a solely Congregationalist society. As the Civil War ended, the AHMS devoted considerable effort to establishing Congregationalism in Missouri. However, competition from, among others, the Methodists and Baptists, and the unwillingness of foreign immigrants to abandon their Catholicism, largely prevented long-term success.



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