The tradition of itinerants has its roots in the open-air preaching of the Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century, when Methodists and unlicensed revival preachers traveled on horseback to frontier areas bring religion which everyone knew was the source of morality.
Seems that the Great Christian Nation wasn’t all that Christian because less than twenty percent of the population went to a recognized church at the start of the century, and the percentages dropped to nearly nothing on the frontier. Without the stable influence of parish churches and authoritarian pastors to tell people how to live and act most frontier settlements were thought to be godless, immoral places and local leaders in such places often invited traveling preachers to come into the area so the folks could Get religion while they tried to Get rich.
Some Liberal preachers were sent packing when they failed to preach a revival message of salvation from sin and evil and instead talked about self-esteem and being-all-you-can-be. Jo Daviess had the attraction of successful ore mining and this brought all sorts of unsavory, irreligious folks, and a couple of Baptists as well.
Primitive Baptists were the first of their kind in the area (Presbyterians arrived when people started making money and built red brick houses to live in, but the Episcopalians didn’t show up until a few people got downright rich).
These folks were industrious lay preachers who supported themselves in work like mining in the Great Lead Rush, which made the area a natural attraction and soon five churches were organized. They came here To get the lead out, and ended up settling down at the same time.
They’re called Primitive not because they’re necessarily backwards (which is arguable) but because they think that once upon a time, way back at the beginning (in the Bible’s book of Acts, that is), Christian people got it right and everything else is so much fluff. So, they’re The New Testament Church and wondered why any self-respecting Christian would want to be anything else.
This is also why they believe Christians should believe nothing except what the New Testament expressly says and Jesus himself explicitly commanded and anything not mentioned explicitly is, well, none of their business.
This, of course, is an argument from silence and dubious to anyone who’s taken a logic course, but Primitive Baptists haven’t taken a logic course of course and so they’re quite content with saying that if God wanted us to know and do something he was perfectly able to tell us and since he didn’t there must be a reason. It wasn’t that the Almighty was summarizing for us as if the Bible was a religious Cliff’s Notes. And this means avoiding anything without chapter-and-verse.
For instance, they didn’t build nice churches; instead they had Meeting Houses that didn’t look any different from ordinary houses, without steeples and just a sign in front announcing the time of the Sunday service and maybe a Prayer Meeting, always on Wednesday nights.
Churches in the New Testament didn’t have crosses all over them. They liked to remind all other silly Christians that crosses were the means of Roman capital punishment. It was just silly to think of wearing a hangman’s gallows or a firing squad or an electric chair on a chain around your neck or hanging it all over furniture and buildings.
So, these days, the cross means no church softball teams, no nursery for crying babies, no Sunday school (which was just becoming a new idea in the nineteenth century and gave Primitive Baptists something else to avoid), no youth group with their trips to Six Flags over anywhere, no sewing clubs for the ladies, and no crosses.
They’re Non-instrumental also, which meant no pianos or bells or organs or, these days, drums, electric guitars or even harps and zithers because the Bible says to Sing but never to Play.
So they don’t have Reverend’s, they have Elders like in the New Testament, and they thought priests, especially Catholic ones, were as bad as it could get. And these men don’t go to school to learn from academics but they study their Bibles privately and let the Holy Ghost learn ‘em and wonder why anyone would listen to anyone else besides the One who wrote the Good Book.
They also keep to themselves, except when preaching to sinners so they’ll be converted and become one of themselves; they re-baptize converts from the Denominations who were sprinkled as babies because that doesn’t count; the women wore something to cover their heads when they met just like men took off their hats (but so did every else back then); and they only have males as Elders because that’s all Jesus had as his twelve apostles and Paul named as elders, and if something’s good enough for Jesus and Paul it should be good enough for us.
There’s but one little exception to the absolute primitivism of Primitive Baptists, and it has to do with a nice little bit of divine providence from 1611 called the King James Bible.
You see, the Primitive Baptists became King James Only folks because they believed that the exhaustive and inerrant message of the Good Book written in ancient and hard-for-ordinary-folk-to-understand-languages like Hebrew and Greek should naturally be translated according to God’s plan into English (which is convenient because it was hard work to study ancient Hebrew and Greek for years and years and then explain it all). So, God gave them a perfect translation and King Jimmy was God’s servant and had folks do all the hard work for them so they didn’t needeth to reinventeth the wheeleth and they could just telleth it liketh it is-eth.
Even though they organized in the Northwestern Association back in the 1840’s, they never set down permanent roots; they weren’t supposed to. They were to be like Jesus who stormed into the temple, overturned the tables and cash boxes of the money changers, complained about the corruption of the temple and then just as quickly left.
Five minutes later the extortionists would have been back in business and all Jesus would have had was his scene and his say. So, the Primitive Baptists kept moving-on just a Jesus version of hit-and-run religion.
Like the Primitive Baptist abolitionist Colored Union in Galena that was formed in 1842; after the Emancipation Proclamation their work was done and they were no more. So the Primitive Baptists left town, and someone moved into their church that looked like a normal house on the outside.
Those Primitive Baptists who remained in town were still Baptists but just Baptists.