As successive waves of Europeans arrived in North, Central and South America over five centuries, they brought their Christian faith with them in all its diversity. Life on the frontier was often harsh and brutal, governed by the need to survive, and involving many conflicts. We can mention only a few of Christ’s frontier people. In the 1500s the Dominican monk, Bartolomé de Las Casas, was a vigorous champion for over fifty years of both the human dignity and the rights of the oppressed natives, and took his protest to the king of Spain. In 1646 in Canada several French Jesuit missionaries were killed, caught in a quarrel between Iroquois and Huron. The Jesuit mission to Paraguay in the eighteenth century made strong efforts to establish an indigenous Christian community. The New England settlers of the seventeenth century, though fleeing religious persecution, enforced on all in each colony a particular religious code. The struggle towards toleration was led by Roger Williams in Rhode Island, Catholics in Maryland, and Quakers like William Penn.
From the Great Awakening in eighteenth century New England, “revival” has been a recurring feature of North American religion. Dwight L. Moody in the later 1800s and Billy Graham after the Second World War are among the great revival preachers. The twentieth century Pentecostal movement has spread among the blacks, produced a number of new groups, and significantly affected the mainline churches. The tendency for revival Christianity to focus only on the crisis of conversion and the experiences of personal faith has not gone unchallenged. Horace Bushnell claimed that a child can “grow up a Christian, and never know himself to be otherwise”. Juan Carlos Ortiz, a Buenos Aires pastor, representing the growing Pentecostal churches of South America, has recently challenged revivalism from within. He has shared his vivid and simple message of radical discipleship and his ecumenical vision in many parts of the world.
Naive middle class enthusiasm for all things American was in turn challenged by Walter Rauschenbush, whose costly and prophetic ministry among the poor of New York set the vision of the kingdom alongside harsh reality. So too, Reinhold Niebuhr soberly criticized the pious avoidance of public issues of peace and justice and delusions of national godliness amongst his fellow Americans.
Also on the frontier lived Richard Allen, the freed slave, who in 1816 founded the Black Methodist Church. The cost of the fight for justice is seen in Cesar Chavez, a contemporary of Martin Luther King and leader of the Chicano farm workers of California, who struggled to remain non-violent. In the same tradition stands Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, slain at the altar in 1980 for his support of his priests in their defence of the cause of the poor. Involvement with the poor in South America provided a powerful stimulus to the development of liberation theology in the twentieth century. Two significant missionaries were Wilfred Grenfell, who from 1891 served the fishing people of Labrador, and the evangelical, Jim Elliott, killed in the remote jungle of Ecuador in 1955. Thomas Merton, well known as a silent monk, was the son of a New Zealand father. He is famed as an author and explorer of eastern spirituality. He died in 1968.
Anglicans form a small but significant group, mainly North American, but including Allan Gardiner, the forerunner of the South American Missionary Society, who died among the struggling Patagonians of Tierra del Fuego in 1850. Canadians remember Archibald the Arctic, Bishop Archibald Fleming, who laboured so successfully among the Eskimo in the early 1900s that the majority became Christian. The Episcopal Church of the United States of America looks back to its colonial origins. The consecration of Samuel Seabury by Scottish bishops in 1784 meant that the American Church at last acquired an episcopate, but only after the Declaration of Independence. The Episcopal Church has a strong commitment to social work, and its witness extends to every state of the U.S.A.
In the U.S.A. 8 April is observed as a commemoration of William Augustus Muhlenberg (1796-1877), a priest of the Episcopal Church who exercised an important ministry in New York. He was an innovator in education, liturgy, social service and pastoral care.
For Liturgical Use
As successive waves of Europeans arrived in North, Central and South America over five centuries, they brought their Christian faith with them in all its diversity. Life on the frontier was often harsh and brutal, governed by the need to survive, and involving many conflicts. Christ’s pioneers have also lived on the frontier, extending the rule of God. They have sought justice for the oppressed, cared for the poor, brought healing to the sick, sought to win people to faith and to widen their vision. Beyond the frontiers of conventional piety, they have often faced misunderstanding and hostility. We give thanks for a wide variety of witnesses.
I will say to the north, “Give them up” and to the south, “Do not withhold them; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth.” Isaiah 43:6