Banner image for Chuckwagon Chronicles, the people of the JA Ranch

religion on the old frontier

Spreading the Gospel: The American Bible Society

In his 1965 dissertation, Fundamentalism and the Frontier: Value Clusters in the Texas Panhandle, Benjamin Lee Gorman established five values – fundamentalism, puritanism, spirit of the frontier, entrepreneurship, and toryism – as a collection of beliefs that are defining characteristics of the Panhandle. Although Gorman’s research was conducted 40 years after the period under study, his work rests upon a historical analysis of the forces still in play on the ranch during the 1920’s.1

JA Ranch schoolhouse

Sketchup model of the schoolhouse on the JA Ranch circa 1930. The building was also used for Sunday services. Image created by Kim Nettles, 2016.

Gorman asserts that fundamentalist Christian beliefs were introduced to the area by farmers migrating to the region from the Appalachians, along with puritanism, which is an ascetic set of religious moral codes. These beliefs were the product of the combined effects of emigration origin (from other distinct parts of the US as well as foreign-born) and the ascetic Protestant traditions of those families. The “spirit of the frontier” encapsulates Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis that frontier people value individualism, survival of the fittest, improvisation, equalitarian society, and a deep attachment to nature. Entrepreneurship is a willingness to risk present income in hope of future gain. Toryism, as used by Gorman, refers to a political desire to maintain the status quo. These five characteristics, Gorman argues, are mutually reinforcing and self-perpetuating.2

Gorman’s study was based upon interviews with 224 non-urban residents of four Panhandle counties, including two associated with the JA Ranch. The results of his analysis found that the value set has two clusters: Fundamentalism and puritanism are one; entrepreneurship, toryism, and a frontier spirt are the second . The higher the puritanism of a subject, the less likely he is to be an entrepreneur. By occupation, white collar workers (professional, large business, and managerial) were significantly less likely to be fundamentalist than every other category. Puritanism, while closely associated with fundamentalism, was more widely distributed to include lower-income white-collar workers. Perhaps most notably for the purposes of this study, the so-called “spirit of the frontier” values had the lowest correlation with Rural Armstrong County: the heart of the JA Ranch. Gorman found that the frontier spirit was closely associated with age and education.3 The significance of this in terms of current and former Ranch employees is unclear.

A Methodist Christian Colony settled northeast of the JA Ranch in 1879, composed of twenty-five or thirty families. According to Charles Goodnight, though the settlers were well-educated, they were poorly suited for frontier life and most of them had left the country by 1925.4 This settlement eventually became the town of Clarendon, an important rail shipping point. The “social values” influence of those that remained may be worth some exploration.

For residents of the JA Ranch, the school doubled as a church meeting house when a preacher was available. Otherwise, if they wished to attend formal services, they had to travel to a town at the outskirts of the ranch. Given the distances and logistics challenges this involved, it is possible that they relied on “do it yourself” options (e.g., scripture reading, tracts, or periodicals) to a greater degree than those in more densely populated areas.

An examination of American Bible Society (ABS) distribution figures from 1895-1905 sheds a bit of light on the subject. The American Bible Society is a non-denominational organization founded in 1816 with a mission to translate, publish, and distribute the Bible and related tracts. The Society’s “Bible House” was the largest publishing operation in the United States when it opened in 1853, serving as the central publishing site and using many innovative technologies and management strategies to minimize costs. These volumes were distributed locally by colporteurs (door-to-door peddlers of religious books and tracts).5

ABS annual reports include data on state-by-state distribution of Bible House materials. I have extracted information for the years 1895-1905 for some initial analysis of the extent of their reach in to Texas. Each annual report covers April-Decemeber of the previous year and January-March of the marked year. For the purposes of this analysis, I will refer to year of the annual report. (Although ABS records for county-level dissemination may exist, my work so far is limited to records available online.)6

To begin, I normalized the distribution figures against the US Census state population figures for 1900, which falls in the middle of the date range for this analysis.7 The resulting figure is expressed as the number of books distributed as a percentage of each state’s population. The histogram below shows the frequency of the distribution percentages during this 10-year period.

ABS rarely broke .02 percent of a state’s population over the decade. When it did, the achievment was almost always the same few, geographically clustered states (though one does wonder what happened in North Carolina in 1894-1895):

##    books_per_pop ar_year             location
## 1     0.05890190    1895       North Carolina
## 2     0.04428409    1899              Florida
## 3     0.03469592    1905             New York
## 4     0.03444700    1899 District of Columbia
## 5     0.03199565    1896             New York
## 6     0.03110762    1904             New York
## 7     0.03105493    1903             New York
## 8     0.03050918    1902             New York
## 9     0.02988473    1897        Massachusetts
## 10    0.02924820    1897 District of Columbia
## 11    0.02817719    1895             New York
## 12    0.02775924    1897             New York
## 13    0.02694476    1895         Pennsylvania
## 14    0.02676377    1899             New York
## 15    0.02513045    1896         Pennsylvania
## 16    0.02326850    1904             Maryland
## 17    0.02319541    1901             New York
## 18    0.02318358    1900             New York
## 19    0.02310544    1898             New York
## 20    0.02255552    1895              Vermont
## 21    0.02233631    1904         Pennsylvania
## 22    0.02177015    1905         Pennsylvania
## 23    0.02157022    1903         Pennsylvania
## 24    0.02111736    1902         Pennsylvania
## 25    0.02054725    1904        New Hampshire
## 26    0.02053712    1900             Maryland
## 27    0.02037803    1905             Maryland
## 28    0.02015750    1903             Maryland

In 1890, the frontier had been officially declared closed by the Superintendent of the US Census. How well was ABS doing in its outreach to states in the former frontier?

According to this sample of four states (Colorado, Kansas, Texas, and Utah), distribution percentages declined from 1895-1905. In no case did it ever break .01 percent.

By contrast, high-distribution states typically remained fairly constant:

This is not to suggest that the ABS was not making an effort. A series of choropleth maps for 1895, 1900, and 1905 are suggestive of a relationship between the location of the centralized publishing operation (Bible House)in New York and its relationship to transportation nodes, which would primarily be rail for long-distance. Darker shades represent the higher numbers of volumes distributed. (Blank states have no data recorded by the ABS for that year.)