Organized religion on western frontier towns was virtually non-existent, often to the chagrin of the town’s newspaper editors. As editors were often a community’s biggest booster, and as a church-going populace was supposedly a sure sign of a town’s staying power and noble consistency, the frontier editor frequently encouraged the development of more godly manners.
Although various tracts exhorting religion had been circulating for centuries, the evolution of a more productive printing press in the 19th century made the clergyman’s dream of widespread salvation a tangible possibility. Indeed, many men of religious conviction were quick to found frontier newspapers under the assumption of spreading the word of God to people who, for the most part, were leading a fairly secular existence. The preacher-editors attempted this by producing newspapers that were equal parts sermon and news, and knowing the frontiersman’s thirst for the written word, preacher’s had little trouble finding an audience receptive to their urgings.(Norton, 16)
While the appetite for all newspapers, even those laced with piety, was strong, the preacher-editor was frequently beset by the same problems that plagued his secular peers. Indeed, as if turning a profit printing papers on the frontier was not difficult enough, preachers frequently sought to expand their publication’s reach by keeping prices as low as possible. Further, these western editors had to deal with “all the problems of any man doing business in an environment of unreliable currency, periodic panics, and poor communications.” (Norton, 17). Yet given the strange and harsh conditions of the frontier, coupled with the relative inexperience of most preacher/editors, overtly religious papers were remarkably widespread and often long-lived. By 1850, more than 180 papers “representing thirty different groups” had appeared on the western frontier.
Not all who urged religious observance were preachers, however, and many editors who fretted about their community’s outward appearance admonished their townsfolk to keep the rowdy godlessness to a minimum. Realizing the difficulty of turning large packs of young men into observant Christians through stern chidings, the editors often settled for smaller goals—keeping the Sunday free of work and sin, for instance. Even this proved difficult, as Sunday was often the only day of leisure in what had been a week of intense labor, particularly in mining towns. One Idaho paper realistically noted that, “It is all well enough for a few of the more idle and easy-going to talk about absorbing a few hours of sermon on a Sunday, but the honest minor can’t be made to see it…It is about all he can do to live in this world, without having to lay in a supply of religious grub for the next.”(Dary, 190).
This site created and maintained by David A Hendrick.