Contested Boundaries: Itinerancy and the Reshaping of the Colonial American Religious World

Contested Boundaries: Itinerancy and the Reshaping of the Colonial American Religious World

by Timothy D. Hall

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The First Great Awakening in eighteenth-century America challenged the institutional structures and raised the consciousness of colonial Americans. These revivals gave rise to the practice of itinerancy in which ministers and laypeople left their own communities to preach across the countryside. In Contested Boundaries, Timothy D. Hall argues that the Awakening was largely defined by the ensuing debate over itinerancy. Drawing on recent scholarship in cultural and social anthropology, cultural studies, and eighteenth-century religion, he reveals at the center of this debate the itinerant preacher as a catalyst for dramatic change in the religious practice and social order of the New World.
This book expands our understanding of evangelical itinerancy in the 1740s by viewing it within the context of Britain’s expanding commercial empire. As pro- and anti-revivalists tried to shape a burgeoning transatlantic consumer society, the itinerancy of the Great Awakening appears here as a forceful challenge to contemporary assumptions about the place of individuals within their social world and the role of educated leaders as regulators of communication, order, and change. The most celebrated of these itinerants was George Whitefield, an English minister who made unprecedented tours through the colonies. According to Hall, the activities of the itinerants, including Whitefield, encouraged in the colonists an openness beyond local boundaries to an expanding array of choices for belief and behavior in an increasingly mobile and pluralistic society. In the process, it forged a new model of the church and its social world.
As a response to and a source of dynamic social change, itinerancy in Hall’s powerful account provides a prism for viewing anew the worldly and otherworldly transformations of colonial society. Contested Boundaries will be of interest to students and scholars of colonial American history, religious studies, and cultural and social anthropology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822399643
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 12/20/1994
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
Lexile: 1870L (what's this?)
File size: 501 KB

About the Author

Timothy D. Hall is Assistant Professor of Early American History at Central Michigan University.

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Contested Boundaries

Itinerancy and the Reshaping of the Colonial American Religious World

By Timothy D. Hall

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9964-3


Itinerancy in Historical Perspective


On October 30, 1739, George Whitefield disembarked at Lewes, Delaware to commence an itinerant ministry that altered the face of Christianity in the English-speaking world. His itinerancy across the parishes and counties of England and Wales had already "employ'd the Thoughts, Pens and Tongues" of Georgian Englishmen who heard him. The youthful Anglican minister and his entourage ensured that this fame would precede him to America by sending to colonial newspapers third-person accounts describing the tens of thousands who thronged to hear him preach in London. These accounts began appearing in the Pennsylvania Gazette early in 1738 and continued until he set foot in America. Within days of his arrival, his preaching was already drawing crowds estimated at six thousand to the Philadelphia courthouse steps.

Within days of his arrival, Whitefield also made the audacious proposal to "preach the Gospel in every province in America," an effort which no regularly ordained minister had yet undertaken. By the end of 1740 he had made good his promise with tours more extensive and personal contacts more numerous than anyone before him. Newspapers reported crowds of thousands "melted by the power of the Word" in nearly every place he preached, and Whitefield and his allies supplemented those reports with a steady stream of pamphlets and correspondence. The Grand Itinerant had successfully introduced a new category of ministry—itinerancy—into the dynamics of Anglo-American religious life.

Whitefield returned to England in January of 1741, leaving behind a contest over itinerancy which reached far beyond doctrinal disputes to include alternativeconceptions of religion's role in the maintenance of the social order. In its transgression of local boundaries throughout the colonies, Whitefield's itinerancy challenged a historically sanctioned symbolic system—a deeply rooted conceptual model of Anglo-American society. Colonial Anglican and dissenting elites alike tended to think of this model in terms of the English parochial system, which they had succeeded in replicating throughout much of New England and Virginia. Elsewhere social and religious conditions often rendered a pariochial system difficult if not impossible, yet elites persisted in employing the parish as an important social fiction. In breaching the parish line, Whitefield had assaulted a comprehensive network of mental as well as geographical boundaries—a complex set of assumptions concerning the nature of community and its constituent members, the relationship between community and church, the place of the minister in community life, and the place of the parish and community in the surrounding world.

Colonial revivalists exacerbated this conflict by welcoming Whitefield's itinerancy as God's unexpected means of snatching colonists from the brink of damnation. Where "Irreligion had been rushing in like a flood," observed Reverend Josiah Smith of Charleston, God had sent this thundering Anglican to "discharge the artillery ofHeaven upon us" through a preaching style Smith imagined similar to that of the Apostle Paul. A New England observer wrote that "Ministers, Rulers and People" welcomed Whitefield "as an Angel of God, or Elias, or John the Baptist risen from the Dead." Colonial poets lauded the "crying Voice," sent "to bid the World repent," and assured Whitefield that at the final resurrection heaven would rejoice "with Millions thou hast saved." A year after Whitefield's departure Thomas Prince of Boston exulted that Christ's "riding forth in Magnificence and Glory thro' divers Parts of our land," which began during the itinerant's visit, continued in a manner "never seen or heard among us ... since the Apostles' Days."

The revivalists' hyperbole galled local ministers, who felt beleaguered by itinerancy and who saw in Whitefield's ability to "sway and keep the Affections of the Multitude" an unprecedented threat to "Gospel order." Opponents throughout the colonies defended their ecclesiastical bounds against this man whose "travelling preachments" fomented disorder and error among the "Mob," presaging disaster for colonial society. Itinerancy appeared in antirevival rhetoric under metaphors of Subversion, Flux, disorder, and cataclysm such as Comet, "will-with-wisp," "wandring Spirit," and "Popish Emissary." Its practitioners disrupted the peace by provoking "Enthusiastick" outcries, fits, and ecstacies among their audiences. The "Mobs and Disorders" attending itinerancy betrayed not the spirit of the apostles but the presence of "Belial, taking a Tour in Disguise."

This contest between itinerancy's apostolic power and the local ministry's "gospel order" expressed underlying tensions over sweeping changes taking place in the eighteenth-century social world. The parish had constituted a fundamental unit of European social life for a thousand years but was becoming an increasingly inadequate means of comprehending and ordering new social realities. The parochial model had arisen gradually during the Christianization of Europe as church leaders, government officials, and local communities struggled to impose order on the social and political landscape in the wake of the Roman Empire's collapse. The pattern had become so ingrained that many settlers, churchmen, and magistrates viewed the imposition of parish boundaries on the colonial landscape as an essential part of their effort to recreate a stable European civilization in the New World. Yet the effort to do so was becoming increasingly problematic under the pressure of ongoing Migration, expanding Commerce, and improving Communication. A more mobile, fluid society was emerging to challenge the stable world of the parish—a society for which no clear model yet existed. The itinerancy of Whitefield and his imitators soon came to function as such a model: one that held millennial promise for defenders while threatening anarchy, flux, and Chaos for opponents.


The eighteenth-century contest over itinerancy tapped an ancient set of tensions between a global apostolic vision and a stable gospel order. These tensions were present in the New Testament itself, whose language and narratives helped structure eighteenth-century perceptions of the social world. The evolution of the Parochial System had provided ecclesiastical and civil leaders a particular means of resolving these tensions by balancing a mediated, hierarchical unity within the parishes of Christendom against missionary activity in the "Heathen regions beyond." This way of dividing and ordering the social world came to dominate European categories of thought until well into the seventeenth century. The enduring strength of this localistic worldview precluded fundamental renegotiation of the balance between settled and mobile ministry until Whitefield's itinerancy upset it in the late 1730s.

The New Testament language and narratives were eminently susceptible to the constructions which eighteenth-century revivalists placed upon them in defense of itinerancy. The gospel narratives confirmed Thomas Prince, Sr.'s contention that "Our Blessed Saviour was an itinerant Preacher ... he preached in no other way." The book of Acts chronicled the itinerant labors of the Apostle Paul in the first-century Roman world. It described Paul's ability to capitalize on the cultural Pluralism of the empire by becoming "all things to all men." Paul's epistles offered glimpses of a social vision in which boundaries of place, race, and ethnicity dissolved as faith in Jesus Christ removed the Individual from his or her historical community into a transcendent community of believers. These ancient texts revealed a world where links of communication, travel, and mutual support cemented a sense of Kinship among those embracing "all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Yet the Old Lights could counter any inclination to take this expansive vision to extremes by appealing to apostolic resolves against "boasting in another man's Line," a fortuitous phrase of scripture which they applied directly to the defense of the parish boundary. Opposers could also point to apostolic injunctions to defend congregations against itinerant false teachers by "setting in order what remains and ordaining elders in every city." Such texts could be construed to suggest that the apostles maintained a careful distinction between the work of resident ministers of established Christian congregations and the labors of itinerant missionaries among the "ungospelized." This construction also enjoyed the support of tradition which since ancient times had structured first the Church and then the entire European social world according to this very distinction.

Defenders of European parochialism traced the origins of the parish to this apostolic method of appointing local teachers to preserve the order and purity of the churches. Very early on, the Church's transcendent unity came to be mediated by a class of literate local bishops who maintained contact with their counterparts in other cities of the empire while devoting themselves to pastoral duties that would later devolve to parish priests. Itinerancy came under strict regulation, falling eventually to a disciplined body of missionary monks and hermits who carried the Gospel to the Roman countryside and barbarian lands from Britain to India.

During the medieval period, bishops and kings cooperated to build a parochial system that would maintain this balance between the ordered, mediated unity among local congregations and missionary travel to the heathen world beyond. In eighth-century Gaul, the Merovingian kings imposed order on their realm by mandating a parochial system as the basic unit of government as well as ecclesiastical life. Merovingian bishops cooperated by restricting roving priests to a single parish. At the same time in Anglo-Saxon England, a parish system emerged through the work of minster churches strategically located in governmental centers. Missionaries used the minster as a base of operations for forays into the surrounding villages, where they conducted services and labored for converts. "Daughter churches," which emerged in these villages and on neighboring estates, would eventually gain a resident priest as the missionary moved on to other areas. By the twelfth century such practices enabled Pope Innocent III to regularize the parish system throughout Christendom.

As the parish system came to organize more and more of the European geographical and social landscape, the day-to-day experience of most Christians could no longer support the apostolic consciousness of the self as direct participant in a spiritual community unbounded by ethnicity or locale. Instead, parish life fostered a sense of self bound within a specific local network of relationships by ties of Kinship and obligation. Church gatherings provided spiritual nurture and cultivated a core set of values that parishioners were expected to share. They also constituted important dramaturgical settings in which peasants, artisans, laborers, local gentry, and noble families rehearsed well-defined roles within the local order. The individual now participated in the larger world of kingdom and Christendom only vaguely, through the hierarchical mediation of priest and noble. The cycle of festivals which celebrated that wider unity took on distinctive local character. Festivals and other church-sponsored events, such as fund-raising ales, expressed communal piety and values and further reinforced the local social order. The parish church afforded the prime vehicle for exhibiting local prosperity. The annual rogationtide processions around the parish bounds reminded inhabitants that their identity was inextricably bound up within the community marked by the church building.

This parish-centered localism continued to circumscribe the world of most Europeans well into the seventeenth century while enabling ecclesiastical leaders to maintain the distinction between parish priest and traveling missionary. itinerant preaching among settled parishes was frowned upon by ecclesiastical authorities and regarded with suspicion by local magistrates and villagers. Itinerants such as the Waldensians in Italy and, later, the Lollards in England were suppressed as heretics. Even the Franciscans and Dominicans, whose poverty and peripatetic style of ministry enjoyed papal sanction, encountered localistic barriers of suspicion and resentment. The strength of medieval hierarchy on the one hand and localism on the other demanded that friars advance carefully, seeking the assistance of powerful patrons and styling their ministry as complementary to the work of bishops and parish clergy. The mendicants' influence came to center on new urban areas where they could reach the greatest numbers, organize new parishes among recent urban migrants, and find resources sufficient for their support. Mendicacy retained a vital role in Church life, yet parochialism remained the hallmark of European society until well after the Reformation.

In the sixteenth century the need for Reformers to cultivate the favor of national and local political leaders, coupled with an anxiety to dissociate themselves from the excesses of radical sects, ensured that the contest between Catholics and Protestants would be one of control over existing parishes rather than battles over the propriety of parish bounds. To be sure, the territorial model of church membership came under attack from radical groups such as Anabaptists, who wished to purify the church by restricting membership to rebaptized adult converts. Yet such views entailed a repudiation of the link between church and community that few were prepared to accept and earned Anabaptists harsh persecution by local officials throughout much of Europe. Protestant leaders allied themselves with sympathetic local and territorial magistrates to carry the Reformation forward, making every effort to preserve and strengthen the parish system in the process. John Calvin refused to recognize anyone as a minister who was not attached to a specific local parish. Protestant missionaries sent out from Geneva labored to establish local ministries as quickly as possible.

English reformers joined Continental brethren in a litany of complaints concerning the quality of the parish clergy yet labored to maintain and strengthen the parochial system. While some followed the earlier Lollard practice of itinerant preaching to spread the new ideas, they viewed it as a temporary expedient that should cease as soon as each parish was supplied a reformed minister. The Henrican Injunctions of 1538 requiring the maintenance of parish registers strengthened the parochial system further by investing the minister with new secular duties that made the parish an instrument of local government. The installation of resident, educated, godly clergymen in every English parish remained a constant Puritan ideal during the years of Elizabeth I. English Reformers regarded the parish as a prize for capture rather than an idol for destruction.

On the eve of English colonization, the parish line still demarcated the conceptual horizons of most Englishmen. Though some local boundaries were beginning to erode, most persons continued to occupy very well-defined stations within local, deferential networks of face-to-face communal relations. The annual perambulation, the one church procession to survive the Reformation, continued to dramatize the limits of local communities by retracing parish boundaries. Older members of the community continued to employ a variety of devices to etch the parish bounds into the minds of their children. The simple concerns of day-to-day life dominated their consciousness. Specific local vocabularies colored their speech. Peculiar festivals and rituals served to forge and reinforce the bonds of Kinship and obligation which situated each person firmly within the local social order. Even the larger world was a regional one represented by county communities and regional fairs. The world beyond that was only rarely encountered in the passage of travelers such as friars, peddlers, or migrant laborers. Wider unities ideally remained the province of gentry, noble, and clerical elites.


The pattern of English settlement in the New World reveals the enduring power of parochialism both as a system of ecclesiastical organization and as a means of ordering the social world. Settlers, churchmen, and politicians viewed the imposition of local boundaries on the colonial landscape as an essential part of their effort to re-create a stable European civilization in the New World. Yet only in New England and Tidewater Virginia did colonists successfully reproduce the parish-centered localism of European society. In other areas where authorities attempted to establish parishes, the boundaries encompassed a confusing mixture of competing sects and ethnic groups, or stretched across hopelessly vast stretches of territory to draw in the dispersed population. Yet ministers and magistrates continued to cling to the parochial model despite its growing inadequacy for ordering the expanding, mobile, increasingly diverse population of British America.


Excerpted from Contested Boundaries by Timothy D. Hall. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. Itinerancy in Historical Perspective 17

2. The Menace of Itinerancy 41

3. Itinerancy and the Evangelical Imagination 71

4. The Proliferation of Itinerancy 101

Conclusion: Itinerancy and the Transformation of the Early American Religious World 129

Notes 141

Index 177

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