he "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 other than 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 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 triumphant 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. One of those instances occurred on their first Sunday on the trail.
The Corps Goes to Church
fficially, the expedition began when it left its first winter encampment on Wood River, in Illinois, at 4:00 p.m. on Monday, May 14, 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 from St. Louis. Lewis arrived overland at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, the 20th. 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 revised 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. 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 Ghost 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, portions of the proceedings — the announcements and the homily — would have been delivered in French. 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.
Great Revival of the South
arly 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
by Alexander Rider, ca. 1832
Lithograph, 12 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.
he 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 concluding 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, a team of preachers await their turns to lead the non-stop prayer, singing, dancing, and exhortation around the clock. 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 a charismatic preacher. No musical instruments were used. The men carried the melody; the women sang the 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.
The fundamentalism the Awakening drove intellect, art, education, and ritual from their old roles in worship and replaced them with emotional abandon and vigorous activity such as dancing, "jerking," and singing. Most notable of all were the new musical traditions it spawned — spontaneously conceived spiritual messages pasted over the popular tunes, both sacred and secular, that everybody knew. In the white community the outcome was the "shape-note" or "fa-sol-la" tradition eventually represented in its 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 ceremonies separately. 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 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." That was perhaps the most respectful description they could think of.
nother occasion when prayer was appropriate was at the interment of Sergeant Charles Floyd's remains on a bluff near 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 of it are not known, but artist Michael Haynes has projected a likely scenario.
No one knew what caused Floyd's death, although the symptoms indicate now that it probably was acute appendicitis, with peritonitis.8 His buddies knew only that it was one awful bellyache, and on that “butifull evening” after the funeral, one supposes every man wondered whether the faint twinge in his own belly was imaginary, or the harbinger of his own imminent demise, and prayed silently for deliverance.
--Joseph Mussulman, 07/05
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 decreed.
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. 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.