- Rally the Scattered Believers: Northern New England’s Religious Geography by Shelby M. Balik
Religion, Religious history, New England, Congregationalism, Disestablishment, Itinerant clergy
God, it seems, had to fight an uphill battle in northern New England in the early republic. The rugged, mountainous topography of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine isolated settlers from one another and from the religious communities that nurtured their spiritual needs. The region’s religious culture, as Shelby Balik explains in her compelling book, was bound to the experience of physical and spiritual space. Significantly, space is not fixed in Balik’s ‘‘religious geography.’’ Motion across space is equally important, for northern New England was a region of ‘‘restless mobility,’’ which its religious culture self-consciously accommodated (1). Using church and town records, the personal writings and correspondence of laity and clergy, books, pamphlets, and religious periodicals, Balik has written an engaging, ground-level religious history with larger implications.
Northern New England’s religious geography followed two competing spatial models. One was the town church of the region’s dominant Congregationalism. Inherited from the colonial Puritan mission, town churches were tied to territorial parishes with fixed geographic boundaries. Enjoying the privileges of legal incorporation and compulsory tax support, the Congregationalist parishes understood themselves to speak for all residents within their boundaries, whatever their religious preferences. Permanent meetinghouses symbolized idealized unity, and when members moved, town churches extended their spiritual space like a ‘‘canopy of protection’’ through letters of dismission and recommendation that migrants carried with them to new places of residence (30). This town-church model flourished in southern New England but was a tough sell to the north. New settlements lacked the funds and the sense of personal interconnectedness upon which permanent ingathering depended. Upstart churches—especially regular and Freewill Baptists, Methodists, and Universalists—turned instead to itinerancy. Here Balik [End Page 494] puts a persuasive twist on a seemingly familiar story: Itinerancy was not merely a stopgap measure conceived by wandering ministers operating independently, she insists, but ‘‘an intentional strategy’’ centrally managed and monitored by missionary societies, regional conferences, and ecclesiastical hierarchies (45). Though bearing an ideology of unbounded religious freedom, itinerants were extending order through unmapped religious spaces.
Nonetheless, the spatial order projected by town churches and itinerants differed. The former sought stability in fixed spaces with local roots; the latter understood religious space in terms of movement and fluidity. Scattered believers met in fields, barns, or schoolhouses; revivals and conferences served as temporary ‘‘gathering points for far-flung believers’’ (171). These spatial differences had doctrinal import. Rooted Congregationalist town churches often emphasized geographic unity over doctrinal orthodoxy and were sometimes reluctant to dismiss members over doctrinal differences. But dispersed itinerant churches could not rely on geographic proximity to forge unity, and identified with one another through distinctive doctrines and practices. The paradoxical upshot, as Balik puts it, was ‘‘geographic fluidity’’ married to ‘‘doctrinal rigidity’’ (73). Upstart religions were frequently more concerned with orthodoxy and less democratic than their Congregationalist rivals. In short, popularity was not populism, in contrast to Nathan Hatch’s classic view of religious democratization in the early republic. Lay religious choices did not imply a rejection of clergy or hierarchy. Instead, clergy and laity were part of ‘‘a complex conversation about the nature of religiosity,’’ in which ‘‘concentric circles’’ of faith extended outward from individuals to larger communities, making room for churches and minister-directed rituals like communion and baptism alongside prayer meetings, family worship, and private acts of faith (111). Print culture further linked distant correspondents who shared a minister’s published sermons, or tracts and periodicals from itinerants, encouraging believers to identify with one another through shared faith even across geographic distance.
In most tales, itinerancy fills the vacuum left by disestablishment, but Balik makes clear that the situation was more complicated in northern New England. Since the region’s establishment laws ‘‘defined churches by the ground they occupied,’’ disestablishment was necessarily a spatial problem (98). Town churches had legal advantages, but far-flung religious networks...