Between 1783 and 1865, settlers poured across the Appalachian Mountains and soon the Mississippi River to populate the American West. Historians have offered various economic and sociological explanations, particularly "land hunger," for the unprecedented speed and scale of this migration. Many have also argued that the relentless quest for land scattered Americans thinly across the countryside, dissolving community life in a new wave of individualism. American religious historians have often lamented that the dynamics of migration undermined the allegiance of the pioneers to the Protestant faith of their forebears.
In Wandering Souls, S. Scott Rohrer counters that "migration and Protestantism shared a symbiotic relationship" that actually strengthened American religion (p. 5). Rohrer asserts that for many migrants one variety of Protestant fervor or another formed an inseparable element of their core motivation both for moving and for building new homes and communities in the West.
Rohrer organizes his three-part book around an analysis of eight different case studies of Protestant migration from one region of the early America to another, seeking to distinguish between two basic types. In the first, an individual or group of pilgrims "migrated on their own initiative for complex, interlocking reasons" which included "a desire to find some kind of religious happiness." The first five chapters are organized around examples of this first type of migration through narrative analyses of the move of Thomas Hooker's congregation from Newton, Massachusetts, to Hartford, [End Page 209] Connecticut; Devereux Jarratt's Anglican itinerancy through Revolutionary Virginia; the Scots-Irish migration through the American Backcountry; the early Moravian move from Pennsylvania to Wachovia, North Carolina;, and the early Methodist movement into the nineteenth-century Ohio country. Rohrer draws upon a wealth of correspondence, personal diaries and memoirs, and surviving church records to probe the religious motives of the migrants. In each case, he argues, a religious quest for personal, familial, and communal reform shaped the character of the migration and helped to produce tightly knit communities.
Three other case studies illustrate a second type of migration driven by a quest for communal religious purity—even a utopia. Rohrer devotes the third part of his book to these studies, the first of which compares a seventeenth-century Puritan migration on the Connecticut/Massachusetts frontier to an eighteenth-century migration of Seventh-Day Baptists. This comparison, he argues, shows how migration mitigates some community conflicts by permitting committed dissenters to form purer communities elsewhere. The movement of German Inspirationists from their initial location in western New York to their final home in the Amana Colonies of eastern Iowa provides an example of a group moving to establish and preserve its utopian community. A concluding narration of the Mormon Trek illustrates the largest example in American history of a mass migration conducted in response to religious persecution. Rohrer's study is well organized and well informed by current scholarship. He supports his analysis of religious migrations with extensive research in the sermons, diaries, and correspondence of figures such as Thomas Hooker and Brigham Young. He also analyzes how their followers embody the religious ideals of their leaders in the communities they built on the frontier. Rohrer's model of religious migration is decidedly less successful. The complex interplay of religious impulses for personal and communal purity makes it difficult for him to sustain his proposed distinctions among various types of Protestant migration, as even his own afterword shows.
Even so, Wandering Souls offers a helpful corrective to the dominant [End Page 210] portrayal of westward migration as harmful to religious cohesion on the early American frontier. Rohrer clearly demonstrates that, for many migrants, religion remained a central reason for moving, and a vital force for preserving community in their new homes in the West.
Timothy D. Hall teaches history at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. He is author most recently of Anne Hutchinson: Puritan Prophet (2010) and is currently researching the interplay of religion, the market, and print in eighteenth-century America.