Religion and America's Heartland from Guest Contributor Barton Price

Little did Paul Harvey know when he signed up one contributor (or editor) from Florida State University, that a deluge would follow! Today, our guest contributor is Barton Price, a PhD candidate in American religious history from my alma mater (I feel like I have said this already this week). His post describes his wrangling with Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis and the politics of defining the American "heartland" geographically as well as ideologically. Please welcome Barton and discuss this thoughtful post.

Religion and America’s “Heartland”: An Invitation for Discussion

By Barton Price

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, gave an address to the American Historical Association during the Columbian Exposition. Turner’s essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” set the tone for how historians of America would interpret the nation’s past. The frontier thesis established a new set of concepts and hermeneutics about America’s past with which historians would have to contend.

For Turner, as with other historians called Turnerians, the frontier was both a space and a process. It was the space at which the progress of Euro-American civilization met the “savagery” of the North American interior. In the course of that progress, there was also the process of cultivating the wilderness into landscapes usable to the Euro-Americans who encroached on those lands. It was also a process in which Euro-American settlers sloughed off the accoutrements of their European-ness and became Americans. That process included the advance of democracy. The frontier, Turner stated, had fostered individualism, a fundamental element to Turner’s definition of democracy. Free land gave pioneers an appreciation for private property, which led to a greater sense of self. Individuality, therefore, made an American who he or she was and gave that person a voice in the democratic process.

Turner and the Turnerians have not been without their opponents. Some object to the Progressivist tone in this frontier thesis. Others object to the idea that the frontier was a space of rugged individualism.

In the study of religion in America, the frontier thesis has had its own set of applications and challenges. Historians of American religion in the early twentieth century, such as Peter Mode or the indomitable William Warren Sweet addressed the western progress of Protestant Christianity into the American frontier. Of course, there have also been those who have challenged the frontier thesis. T. Scott Miyakawa’sProtestants and Pioneers (1964) and Dickson Bruce’s And They All Sang Hallelujah (1974) focused on frontier religious communities as collective groups who relied on each other more than on individuality. Yet the frontier motif persists. Some, following in the wake of post-colonial historiography and theory and in the “contact points” image presented by Andrew R. L. Cayton, view the frontier as the space between two cultures. Looking at missionary activities, these historians attempt to uncover the ways Euro-Americans and Native Americans accommodated to the contact between one another. Consider, for example, the popularity of Rachel Wheeler’s new book, To Live Upon Hope (2008), which explores missionary contact with Native Americans in frontier Massachusetts and New York. The frontier motif is also persistent in how it orients historians to understand the conditions to which missionaries had to adapt. John Dichtl’s Frontiers of Faith (2008) and Mike Pasquier’s Fathers on the Frontier (2010) take up this theme as they look at Catholic priests on the frontier. While many no longer agree with Turner’s frontier thesis, the motif is far from dead.

But what intrigues me about Turner’s “Significance of the Frontier in American History,” is not so much its thesis as it is the essay’s impetus. The opening line of Turner’s address points to a historic moment in American society: the U.S. Census Bureau declared that the frontier was closed. It was this momentous proclamation that prompted Turner to understand the age in which he lived, an age in which the frontier no longer existed. Grappling to understand the roots of his present situation and searching for a way to come to terms with the nation’s future, Turner did what any historian would do. He looked to the past and interpreted it. Thus, Turner simultaneously stood in the three phases of time—past, present, and future—to lift up the frontier as the penultimate symbol of America’s democratic identity.

We are in a similarly important moment in American history when data from the U.S. Census Bureau have caused some to consider a great change in American society is happening. The findings of the 2010 Census show that the Mean Population Center of the United States is shifting westward. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, The Mean Population Center is “the point at which an imaginary, flat, weightless, and rigid map of the United States would balance if weights of identical value were placed on it so that each weight represented the location of one person.” With the exception of the 1880 Census—when the Population Center was in Boone County, Kentucky—the Population Center has remained in a Midwestern state since 1860. For a list of Population Centers to 1990, click here. While the Population Center remains in Missouri—a state largely assumed to belong to the Midwest—the shift is most pronounced because it has relocated southwestwardly from Phelps County, Missouri, to Texas County, Missouri. The cause of this move is that the population of Southwest is growing due to the continued emigration to the Sun Belt and the immigration of Latinos into the region. For articles on this data, go to Fox News and to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Let us consider for a moment three dramatically different people in American religious history who represent how the American Midwest came to represent the national heartland. The first two people were sons of New England, but they both conceived of the Midwest as the future center of an American empire. And they imbued that capital with religious qualities. First, Lyman Beecher was a proponent of depicting the Mississippi Valley as the future heartland. In his Plea for the West, he stated, "It is equally plain that the religious and political destiny of our nation is to be decided in the West." Concerned that the nation’s future held in the balance, he advocated missionaries and teachers flooding into the valley to provide the religious and moral instruction necessary to preserve the moral fiber of the nation. At the same time that Beecher was conceiving of the West as the center of America’s Protestant Empire, founder of the Latter-Day Saints Joseph Smith wrote his revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants that the new Jerusalem would be in Independence, Missouri. Finally, there is Billy Sunday, a native of Iowa who became a national symbol of conservative evangelicalism. Yet he also came to symbolize the simplicity of the Midwest while he also championed his causes. Mixing old time religion with down home values, Sunday evinced that the Midwest was where both remained in harmony. Such a composite has garnered him the title by one biographer “Hero of the Heartland.”

Whereas Beecher and Smith pointed to the Midwest as America’s future heartland, Sunday represents the point at which the region has assumed that role.

In conclusion, we must wrestle with this image of the American heartland and its location in the Midwest or elsewhere. We must also ask ourselves how this depiction has a religious quality to it and how the conflation of religion and heartland are part of an enterprise of laying claim to what America really is. The authors in the Midwest volume of the Religion and Public Life in Americaseries threw up their hands when it came to nailing down the Midwest’s regional distinction in part because the region dodges distinction in favor of being universally and quintessentially American. Yet the region’s religious quality is just as much a definition of outsiders as it is insiders. (Note that increase of the southwestern population has ethnic and religious connotations). The Midwest is a place of great religious diversity, and yet its image as heartland implies evangelical Protestantism, particularly of the Anglo-Saxon stripe.

For nearly five years, I have wrestled with these questions. As I near the completion of my dissertation on this topic, I am looking forward to engaging in this discussion more with colleagues.


Paul Harvey said…
Apres Kelly, le deluge! Welcome, Barton.
Christopher said…
The Newberry Library's "Frontier to Heartland" exhibition on the American Midwest covers some of these issues, as well as other social, economic, and political ones. The online exhibition is here: