The "corps of volunteers for North Western Discovery"1 was charged with scientific and commercial objectives in behalf of Congress and the people of the United States. Although it was a military unit in every respect, it had no military objectives beyond self-defense. At that time there was no thought whatsoever on anyone's part of proselytizing, much less subjugating, any Indian nations in the name of any church or religious creed. Furthermore, although in 1775 the Continental Congress had directed that every regiment in the U.S. Army was entitled to one fulltime chaplain, no thought was given to having one along, even for the enlisted men's own benefit.
The Corps spent a total of 125 Sundays together, but never took one off just because it was the Sabbath. The only holidays they observed were Christmas, New Year's Day, and the Fourth of July; and all three were celebrated according to secular traditions. Even their triumphal return to civilization after two years, four months, and ten days of "North Western Discovery" was hailed only with celebratory volleys of gunfire, rousing cheers, and hearty welcomes from those who had hoped and feared for the Corps' safety.
The Corps never held a worship service of its own, Christian prayer was never mentioned in the journals, and there were only a relatively few isolated instances when anything that might be interpreted as religious reverence was either expressed or implied. As he and his three-man advance detail approached the "gap" we know as Lemhi Pass on 12 August 1805, Captain Lewis recorded the fact that Private McNeal "had exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri." Toussaint Charbonneau, on 14 May 1805, caused the white pirogue to swamp, and reacted by dropping the tiller and folding his hands, cast his eyes toward heaven and, according to Lewis, cried to God for mercy. And on 12 May 1806, after being separated for 40 days and broken into five separate, virtually indefensible units, the Corps of Discovery was, "(thanks to God)" prayed Patrick Gass, "all together again in good health." But the first and largest of those few instances occurred their first Sunday on the trail.
The Corps Goes to Church
Officially, the expedition began when it left its first winter encampment on Wood River, in "the Illinois," at 4:00 p.m. on Monday, 14 May 1804 "in the presence of many of the Neighbouring inhabitants."2 Whatever may have been in the hearts and minds of the men individually, there is no record that any formalities, either civil or religious, were observed. At noon on the 16th they hove to at the village of St. Charles, 21 miles up the Missouri River. There they redistributed the lading in the boats toward the bows, so they wouldn't ride up on drifting logs; hired a few new hands; and waited for Captain Lewis to join them overland from St. Louis. Earlier that day, Captain Clark permitted 20 men to go to church, but closed his journal for the day with "the most of the party go to the Church." Private Joe Whitehouse confirmed that some of the party "went to church, which the french call Mass, and Saw their way of performing &c." He may have discussed the incident with his editor or scribe, for the edited version of his journal entry for that date adds the information that the "performance" was "a novelty to them."3
Evidently they went to church simply because they felt the need; neither of their officers ordered them to. They all knew they had embarked on a potentially dangerous mission from which they might not return, and they needed all the help they could get. It was Sunday, and this was their last chance. But why did the worship service strike them as "a novelty"?
To begin with, the parish of St. Charles Borromeo was Roman Catholic, and Mass on that day would have been especially festive. It was the feast of the Pentecost, commemorating the fiftieth day after Easter, when the Holy Spirit appeared to the Apostles. The priest was Father Charles Leander Lusson, a Frenchman who had been sent to St. Charles by the Diocese of Havana, Cuba. Attired in a black cassock ("He wore a dress, mind you!") and a white chasuble, with a stole around his neck, he would have sung the Mass in Latin, and at appropriate points the congregation would have uttered brief responses in Latin. ("They even sang songs in Latin!").4 Since the congregation consisted mainly of French Canadian voyageurs or their families, and engagés or roustabouts such as Lewis and Clark hired there, portions of the proceedings—the announcements and the homily—would have been delivered either in French or Spanish. Obviously, few if any of the young soldiers would have understood a single word they heard. The only way they could recognize a prayer was by the supplicants' folded hands. All they could do was watch the "performance."
But there was also another force that may have impelled the men toward church that day.
Lithograph by Alexander Rider, ca. 1829
Courtesy Library of Congress, Print & Photographs Online Catalog. LC-DIG-ds-030915
The first great wave of evangelistic fervor crested on August 6, 1801, when 20,000 souls pitched their tents among the trees on Cane Ridge in rural Bourbon County, Kentucky, a hundred miles east of Louisville. For seven straight days, one witness recalled, "the noise was like the roar of Niagara." Within a few years, somewhat smaller assemblages typically lasted for four days—from Friday afternoon until midday on Monday. Each day began before dawn with family prayers in each tent, followed by public devotions at sunrise, midmorning, mid-afternoon, and concluded with an evening service.7 Every camp meeting inspired its then mostly rural participants with a sense of community and, incidentally, of potential political power.
In this depiction, four men seated behind the preacher in action—one of whom appears to be criticizing his theology—await their turns to lead the 'round-the-clock prayer, singing, dancing, and exhortation. One woman, overcome with ecstasy, is helped to a place on the sinners' bench at the foot of the altar, while others spin, shuffle and stomp in fervid dance. Nearly every mouth is wide open in lusty, full-throated song, urged on by the charismatic preacher. No musical instruments are used. The men carry the melody; the women sing harmony an octave higher. Of the singing, one onlooker recalled that "at a hundred yards it was beautiful; at a distance of half a mile it was magnificent." At extreme left a stream of newcomers responds to the sound of a signalling horn.. Well-dressed ladies and gentlemen from a nearby town gawk from the foreground shadows.
Great Revival of the South
Early in the summer of 1800 the religious movement that came to be called the Great Revival of the South, or the Second Great Awakening5 caught fire in Logan County in southwestern Kentucky at a place infamously known as "Rogue's Harbor," or "Satan's Stronghold." Fueled by the passionate generalship of a charismatic evangelist named James McGready, and fanned by the energies of three Protestant denominations, the spiritual conflagration burned like a refiner's fire for the next five years. It united Baptists and Methodists with McGready's Presbyterian adherents in glorious outdoor gatherings of rural settlers thirsty for fellowship and spiritual renewal. It quickly swept all the way to the eastern seaboard and deep into the South. Golden-voiced McGready had added the words revival and camp meeting to the American lexicon of religion, words that evoked the noisy excitement and hypnotic emotionalism that appealed to "simple frontiersmen who wanted their whiskey straight and their religion red-hot."6
The fundamentalism of the new Awakening drove intellect, art, education, and ritual from their old roles in worship and replaced them with emotional abandon and vigorous activity—dancing, "jerking," and singing. Bright, loud, muscular, strident singing, called forth by the sound-suppressing forest that sheltered their open-squared assemblies. But hush! Just listen to those voices! They weren't trained beside a piano in a pretty parlor, nor even in the comfortable man-to-man, drunk or sober fellowship of a tavern. They were developed by callin' hawgs, cussin' the mules, yellin fir ma t' come help pull a calf, screamin' tuh paw and the boys acres away that dinner's ready, er supper's gittin' cold, by scoldin' the dawgs, by shoutin' at the ol' man tuh put down that confounded jug er I'll. . . . No please or thank you. Just pleas. Demands. Commands. Made to bust through the trees, an' across the crick. Voices with lots of "bang" to 'em.
Now, all of a sudden, in the same spirit, the same tone of voice, with the same urgency, the new summons is to Great Gawd Almighty, to Jesus Our Savior. And the upshot is the new musical vernacular that frontier life and frontier fear and faith spawned—spontaneous, on-the-spot spiritual reveries pasted over old tunes that everybody knew. In the white community the new music was the "shape-note" or "fa-sol-la" tradition,8 which eventually was embodied in its first and most famous hymnal, The Sacred Harp, published in 1844. If any whites had brought their slaves with them, the blacks were excluded from participation with their masters, but were allowed to carry on their own versions of their masters' worship separately, out of earshot. The outcome was the type of song that came to be known as the Negro spiritual, a mixture of white revival hymnody and animated African singing.
Scarcely anyone, especially on what was then the western frontier where most of the military outposts were situated, could have been untouched by the Great Revival of the South. More than likely, the spirits of at least some, if not all, of the men in the Corps of Discovery had been singed by it—excluding the French Canadians in the outfit, who would have been Catholics, at least nominally.
The Great Revival of the South was the common man's alternative to the thoughtful Deism of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. In contrast with both, the Roman Catholic liturgy, which the men from the Corps witnessed that Sunday at St. Charles, Missouri, must have seemed unbelievably solemn, cold, even pompous. Its formal, age-old rites that guided congregational participation and maintained a divine distance between God and His children did not burn with the flaming zeal they were accustomed to. No wonder those twenty young American soldiers regarded the Mass as a "novelty"—perhaps the most respectful description they could think of.
Another occasion when prayer was appropriate was at the interment of Sergeant Charles Floyd's remains on a bluff near today's Sioux City, Iowa. Twenty-two-year-old Floyd, a "man of much merit," as Lewis remembered him, had been seriously ill for several days, and none of the medicines the captains tried were of any help. At midday on Monday, August 20, 1804, after the flotilla put in to shore for dinner, he murmured to Clark, "I am going away. I want you to write me a letter," and died within moments. His companions buried him atop a nearby bluff with "the Honors of War" and, Private Whitehouse recounted, "had a funeral Sermon preach'd over him." Sergeant Ordway observed that "the usal Serrymony . . . as customary in a Settlement" was performed by Captain Lewis. The details are not known, but artist Michael Haynes has projected a likely scenario.
It may well be that in the silent moment which followed its conclusion, the muted, calming voice of one of the men began a familiar hymn, more than a hundred years old, which began "My life's a shade; my days/Apace to death decline;/My Lord is life, he'll raise/My dust again, e'en mine." One by one the rest added their own hearts, bent their bodies to the tune, yielded their spirits to the words, surrendered their griefs and fears to the sheer joy of singing, their bright, virile voices soaring from the treeless crest of that burial bluff, down to the great river, and aloft to the broad heaven above.9
No one knew what caused Floyd's death, although the symptoms indicate now that it probably was acute appendicitis, with peritonitis.10 His buddies knew only that it was one awful bellyache, and on that "butifull evening" after they gently laid his bones to rest, one supposes every man wondered whether the faint twinges in his own belly were imaginary, or the harbingers of his own imminent demise, and prayed silently for deliverance.
1. Clark used this title for the first time on August 26, 1804. It has long since become the most common cognomen for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
2. Private Joseph Whitehouse was more specific; those well-wishers were from nearby Goshen Settlement. In the 1790s a Baptist minister from Virginia had moved to the American Bottoms on the east side of the Mississippi River to serve the young American citizens in two new communities. In 1799 he traveled through valley and the bluffs that edged it on the east, directly opposite the mouth of the Missouri River. It was a land of such richness and beauty that it compared in his mind with the Land of Goshen, the garden spot opposite the Nile River delta in Egypt, where Jacob and the Israelites endured captivity under Pharoah. In 1801 a Revolutionary War veteran arrived in American Bottoms to claim the 100 acres of land the government had awarded him in that vicinity. His property soon became the center of an area informally known as the Goshen Settlement.
3. Whitehouse apparently was a Catholic when he died, around 1860, but whether he grew up in the Church or was a convert is unknown. Moulton, Journals, 11:xvi.
4. The Roman Catholic Mass was celebrated in Latin throughout the world until 1963, when Pope Paul VI promulgated the Constitution on the Liturgy, in which the policy of conducting services in each congregation's native tongue was propounded.
5. The "First Great Awakening" in America began in the middle colonies in the late 1740s and spread through New England during the next three decades. Its principal leaders were Gilbert Tennet, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield. One of the principal results was the founding of the Methodist Church.
6. John B. Boles, The Great Revival, 1787-1805 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1972), 47-52, 70.
7. Charles A. Johnson, "The Frontier Camp Meeting: Contemporary and Historical Appraisals, 1805-1840," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 37:1 (June 1950), 101.
8. Those cryptic syllables, "fa-sol-la," represented a sight-reading technique based on English antecedents, that was introduced into a few American "singing schools" in 1801, which aimed to enable Protestant churchgoers to learn new hymns quickly. They stand for the first three notes of the major scale that are now spelled "do-re-mi," and continue with "fa-sol-la," with "ti" added for the seventh degree, followed by the repetition of "do" for the eight-note, or "octave" scale. Prior to the end of the 18th century, the pitches of the major scale were sung to the syllables beginning "fa-sol-la," followed by a repetition of the same pattern starting a half-step higher, and concluding with "mi" for the seventh degree, and a repetition of "fa" for the eighth. Thus the scale in the major mode would be sung "fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa."
The term "shape note" identifies the printed notational convention that employed a unique note-head shape to correspond with each of the five syllables: a triangular head for "fa," a round head for "sol," a square head for "la," and a diamond head for "mi."
9. "My life's a shade"—the words by Samuel Crossman (1623-1683), the tune by William Knapp (1698-1768), both Englishmen—was a relic of the First Great Awakening which was to reappear in 1844 in the great shape-note reliquary of the Second, The Sacred Harp and similar mid-19th-century publications.
10. The correct diagnosis of appendicitis, and the appropriate surgical response, were not established until 1886.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program