THE 1908 COUNTRY LIFE COMMISSION ENCOURAGED THE REVITALIZATION OF CHURCHES IN RURAL AMERICA
After the Civil War, the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was a period of unrest in American agriculture. In 1893, historianFredrick Turner proclaimed the end of the American Frontier…as the trend toward urbanization was well underway. Some of the farm population was moving to the cities, farmers were losing some of their political clout, railroads and others were gaining political power, and there were growing risks and uncertainties for agriculture. More people lived in rural communities and on the farm, but this number was decreasing. America was being transformed from a rural agrarian society into an urban industrial one. The Patrons of Husbandry or the Grange, the first national farm organization, was formed during this period due to the grievances that existed at that time within the farm and rural population. The railroad monopoly had established an absolute tyranny over the farmers “unequalled in any monarchy of the Old World.” Even in Vermont there weregreat uncertainties with the loss of hill farms. Coming out of this period, President Teddy Roosevelt in 1908 appointed a Country Life Commission. The Commission had three objectives for the improvement of rural life: a national agricultural extension program, scientific surveys of rural life, and the establishment of a national agency devoted to rural progress. They as well as other progressives believed in the country life movement, that “even rural neighborhoods in the twentieth century had lost the sense of community characteristic of the nineteenth century.” Some believed that it was the decadence of country life that led to the fall of Rome. They saw the decline of the rural population as ultimately affecting the welfare of the nation.
Many in the Country Life Movement had also identified the country church as a key institution in the reform of rural life. The country church had declined and needed to be revitalized. Undertaking studies of how these churches could best be revitalized came through work conducted by Charles Otis Gil, a Yale and Yale Divinity School as well as Union Theological Seminary graduate. His early work in Vermont was as a Congressional minister in Harland, Vermont. Gil, along with Gifford Pinchot, also a Yale graduate, and a member of the Country Life Commission, authored two influential books on the state of rural churches in America with remedies for revitalization. Pinchot had already distinguished himself as a leading conservationist and as the first Chief of the U.S. forest service.
The first book, The Country Church, published in 1913 was done by studying rural churches in two counties; one in Windsor County in Vermont, and the other Tompkins County New York, the home of Cornell University, and the home of Liberty Hyde Bailey of Cornell who had been Chair of the Country Life Commission. It is said that the purpose of these studies and resulting books “was to help in getting the country church back into the position it ought to occupy as a great power working effectively for country life.” Gill and Pinchot, as well as others in the Country Life Movement, had identified the country church as a key institution in the reform of rural life. The Church, they recognized, had declined but needed to be revived or restored to its “old time” vitality by a new program of social service. Thus, the country church was seen as a force for community improvement. Pinchot as a member of the Country Life Commission, believed, along with Gil, that the country church could take a role in making rural life a success by organizing cooperative ventures in crop production, marketing, milling, banking, and purchasing of supplies. The church needed to re-establish itself as a leader in the community and farm life as it had been in the nineteenth century.
In 1913 with his distinct knowledge of country life and rural communities, it was no surprise then that Vermont Governor Fairbanks chose Charles Otis Gil as a delegate to the North American Commission. This Commission, created by President Wilson in 1913, was established to further address rural and farmer concerns raised by the Country Life Commission and others at the time. It consisted of representatives from many of the states plus four Canadian provinces, and was challenged and authorized “to investigate, and study in European Countries cooperatives, land-mortgage banks, cooperative rural credit unions, and similar organizations and institutions devoting their attention to the promotion of agricultural and the betterment of rural conditions( see 63rd Congress, 1st Session, Senate, Document No. 214). They undertook this mission in travels and meetings throughout Europe, Russia and Egypt in a three-month period from April to July 1913(the map of their study route is very interesting)
After his return as a member of the Commission, Gil joined Pinchot to continue their investigation of country churches andas a follow-up to their study of the two counties, one in Vermont and one in New York. The conclusion of this earlier study led to the creation of the Commission on Church and Country Life. It was decided to extend the study to an entire state, and Ohio was chosen. The Study, Six Thousand Country Churches, by Gill and Pinchot, was published in 1919, and was considered one of the most thorough studies of country churches and their role in rural America at that time. In their findings, they state that “unless a larger and stronger social and religious institution is created in the country districts than is now found in the country church, the more vigorous young people will for the most part leave the country….”
Charles Otis Gill, an American Congregationalist clergyman, retired as a farmer to Westford, Vermont in 1929 after spending many years as a minister in several Vermont towns, and after having co-authored two influential books on the state of rural churches in the United States. Clifford Pinchot, the Co-Author of the two books, went on to serve two terms as Governor of Pennsylvania. He was considered a leading conservationist at the time, and It is said that his leadership put conservation of forests high on America’s priority list
This period of unrest in the rural and farm community helped to usher in fundamental and lasting institutional changes in the United States. Congress created the federally authorized Agricultural Extension Service and also established the Federal Farm Credit Land Banks in 1916.
Blogger’s Reflections: Fredrick Turner, a leading historian at the time indicated that the American Fortier had ended. The information at the time contributed to that finding. Beginning in the early 1800’s, the Erie Canal had contributed to the opening of the West (see blog posting: The Erie and Champlain Canal, Two Hundred Years of History and How It Transformed the Flow of Commerce by Opening the West). During the 1800’s vast tracks of Western land were provided, forcing the native Americans onto reservations. For Example, from 1850 to 1871, the railroads received more than 175 million acres, more than 1/10 of the whole U.S. In addition, western homesteaders (Homestead Act of 1862) received more than 80 million acres of public land. The Land Grant Act of 1862 provided 17.4 millionacres of public land for the creation of Land Grant Colleges (based upon 30,000 per the number of members of Congress from each state). Vermont received scripts for the sale of 90,000 acres, valued at the time at about 90 cents per acre. These programs opened up the West for settlement and contributed to the findings by Turner that the frontier had ended.
The mid to late 1800’s was also a time of increased national attention to education. The Land Grant Act was the firstnational attention to higher education for the masses. (see blog posts: The Life and Times of U.S. Senator Justin Morrill, and also The Historical Importance of Agricultural Education). The formation of the Land Grant in Vermont was not without controversy. In the beginning it was proposed for example, that UVM, Middlebury, and Norwich be formed into one Land Grant institution. Even the state legislature passed a law to allow that to happen. It did not and UVM became the Land Grant, but not without further controversy when the Grange and others at the time in 1890 proposed that its status be taken away due to its lack of attention to agriculture within the state (see Vermont History, the Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society, April 1958). Other Land Grants with public funds created at the time in the East consisted of Dartmouth (ended with formation of UNH), Yale and Brown Universities. (these ended with UCONN, and URI being established as Land Grant Institutions in each state), and M.I.T. which received 1/3 of the public funds available to the State of Massachusetts under the Land Grant Act, with UMASS also a Land Grant in the State.
In 1887, The Federal Hatch Act authorized the creation of agricultural experiment stations. The Vermont General Assembly authorized one and it was established at the University of Vermont as a partnership between the state, USDA, and the Land Grant College for the purpose of “conducting research in field of agriculture with special reference to conditions in the State of Vermont.” (see blog posting: Brief History of Agriculture, The Environment, and Land Use in Vermont).
The 1900’s it can be argued was the beginning of a more activist or interventional period in American agriculture. The creation of the Federal funded Agricultural Extension Service, and the beginning of the Federal Farm Credit Land Banks started this more direct service period to farmers and rural citizens in the United States in 1916. A more activist period came after the Depression that resulted in the New Deal Programs of the 1930’s.
REFERENCES FOR THIS BLOG:
• Country Life Movement, Wikipedia
• Report of the Country Life Commission, 60th Congress, 2ndSession, Senate, Document No. 705
• Dairy Yonder, keep it Rural, Country Life Movement-Miles to Go, by Timothy Collins, June 24, 2009
• Agricultural History, Vol. 34, No 4, 1960, pp 155-172, Clayton S. Ellsworth, Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission, Agricultural History Society
• Conceiving the Future: Pronatalism, Reproduction, and the Family in the United States, 1890-1938, Laura L. Lovett, University of North Carolina Press, Nov 30, 2009
• Comps Notes: Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, posted by Jessica M. DEWITT on April 3, 2018
• The Country Church: The Decline of its Influence and the Reality, by Charles Otis Gill, Gifford Pinchot
• Six Thousand Country Churches, by Charles Otis Gill and Gifford Pinchot, The MACMILLAN COMPANY, NY, 1920
• The Church and the Rural Community, by Warren H. Wilson, American Journal of Sociology, Vol 16, No. 5(Mar. 1911), pp. 668-702, University of Chicago Press
• Charles Otis Gill, WIKIPEDIA
• Gifford Pinchot, WIKIPEDIA
• Rise of Industrial America, 1876-1900, Railroads in the Late 19th Century, Railroad Land Grants, Library of Congress
• Educator Resources, The Homestead Act of 1862
• Library of Congress, Immigration, Removing Native Americans from the Land, https://www.loc.gov
• See Vermont History, The Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society, April 1958, that has chapter on the challenge by the Grange in 1890 to take the Land Grant status away from UVM.
• DocsTeach, from the National Archives: The Settlement of the American West
• The Chronicle of Higher Education, Commentary, Why theMorrill Land Grant Colleges Act Still Matters, by Christopher P. Loss, July 16, 2012
• Agricultural Experiment Station Act of 1887, WIKIPEDIA
• The National Academies Press, Collages of Agriculture at the Land Grant Universities: A Profile, History and Overview of the Land Grant College System
• Agricultural Cooperation and Rural Credit in Europe, American and United States Commissions, 1913, Senate Document No. 214, Parts I.II, III, 63rd Congress
• The Library of Congress, Web Guides, Primary Documents in American History, Morrill Act