On the Discovering Lewis & Clark site, I recently came across Joe Mussulman’s fascinating article about the religious aspects of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. On the surface, religion didn’t seem to be very important to the Corps of Discovery. No chaplain was part of the Corps, and the discoverers never make mention of the Sabbath. The only religious holiday ever mentioned in the journals is Christmas, and it seems to have been celebrated entirely with secular traditions such as feasting (with what food was available), dancing, and shooting off guns. There is no instance in which Lewis or Clark records that the men stood together in prayer or asked for the help of God or Jesus in their journey. The journals do record that a sermon was preached, probably by Meriwether Lewis, over the body of Charles Floyd, the young sergeant who died of a burst appendix early in the journey.
But this in no way implies that the men of the expedition were “Godless.” Mussulman goes beyond the journals to discuss what would have been the major spiritual influences on the men of the Corps. First was the Great Revival, also known as the Second Great Awakening, an evangelical movement that swept the South a few years prior to the Expedition. Undoubtedly, some or all of the men would have been touched by the huge camp meetings that spread the gospel with fervent emotion and audience participation. At least one man, Alexander Willard, was known by his fellows to be deeply religious. The other young men were probably thunderstruck when they learned that Willard had vowed to remain chaste outside of marriage. True to his word, he did not join in with the other men in sexual escapades with the Indians.
As for the captains themselves, they were Deists. Deism was the primary religion of the Founding Fathers. It is a religious tradition that emerged in light of the scientific advances of the 18th century, and combines belief in a Supreme Being (usually referred to as “providence” rather than “God”) with belief in reason and the power of the rational mind. Nature, rather than the scriptures, is the primary source of inspiration for a Deist.
Lewis and Clark both were Masons. While not a religion, freemasonry does promote a non-denominational belief in a Supreme Being. According to John J. Robinson, author of A Pilgrim’s Path, “Masonry leaves it up to the individual Mason to choose his pathway to God, and that policy naturally includes no rules, advice, or admonitions as to the means of salvation. The Mason is expected, quite properly, to get that spiritual guidance from his own denomination, which he is encouraged to support with both his energy and his personal finances.” Lewis, as the grand master and founder of the first Masonic lodge in St. Louis, no doubt took this responsibility seriously.
The spirituality of Clark’s slave, York, is an intriguing question. According to Ira Berlin’s book Many Thousands Gone, at the turn of the 18th/19th century, only about ten percent of slaves had become Christians. This would skyrocket during the Second Great Awakening. Even so, it’s likely that York probably wasn’t any more devout than William Clark. If religion was important to him at all, he probably combined fading remnants of African belief with some tenets of Christianity.