Most historians believe that Joseph Badger was the first missionary in the Connecticut Western Reserve. This claim is impossible to verify, but it is clear that Badger was one of the earliest and most prominent religious men in northern Ohio during the early nineteenth century.
Badger was born in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, in 1757. He fought on the side of the patriots during the American Revolution. Upon leaving the Continental Army in 1778, Badger became a weaver. He also pursued schooling and eventually became a teacher from 1780 to 1781. In 1781, Badger determined to study religion and enrolled at Yale University. Paying his tuition to Yale by teaching courses, including singing, at local schools, Badger graduated from the college in 1785. Over the next several years, Badger continued to teach, and he eventually was ordained at a Presbyterian Church in Blandford, Massachusetts.
In November 1800, the Connecticut Missionary Society recruited Badger to travel to the Connecticut Western Reserve in what is now Ohio. This organization sought to send a missionary to the region to provide recent settlers of this wilderness area with access to religious instruction. Badger would spend the bulk of the rest of his life ministering to the settlers of the Connecticut Western Reserve. He arrived at Youngstown in late December 1800. Badger proceeded to travel from community to community, giving sermons as he went. He visited Hopewell, Neshannoc, Vienna, Hartford, Vernon, Warren, Canfield, Deerfield, Boardman, Atwater, Poland, Mesopotamia, Windsor, Mantua, Aurora, Hudson, Ravenna, Newburg, Painesville, Cleveland, Chagrin, Mentor, Euclid, Harpersfield, and Austinburg. Badger also sought to convert Ohio's native people to Christianity, including Shawnee chief Blue Jacket.
In 1802, Badger settled in Austinburg with his family. In the town, he established the first church in the Connecticut Western Reserve. This place of worship was the second Congregational Church formed in what would become Ohio. Over the next several years, Badger continued to travel from community to community, establishing new churches and giving sermons. He also spent several years seeking converts among the Wyandot Indians in the northwestern corner of Ohio. Following a fire at the Badger home, Badger and his family moved to Ashtabula. With the War of 1812's outbreak, Badger became a chaplain for soldiers in Ohio, as well as a postmaster for the men in the army. Over the next several years, Badger lost both his wife and a son to illness, leaving the minister distraught. He found solace in preaching. Badger died in 1847, in Perrysburg, Ohio.
More than one Joseph Badger played an important role in Ohio's early religious history. Another important Joseph Badger was born in New Hampshire on August 16, 1792. He spent much of his early life in Canada. Although he did not attend any church as a child, he converted to Christianity in 1811 and, the following year, began to travel around New England and Canada preaching. At one point, Badger was formally ordained by the Free-will Baptists but chose not to associate himself with any specific denomination. Some of the churches he started joined the Christian Church, also known as Campbellites. In the 1820s, Badger traveled to the Connecticut Western Reserve. He continued to travel and preach until health problems made it impossible to continue in his chosen career. Badger died on May 12, 1852.
The experiences of both of these men in the Western Reserve illustrate much about life in frontier Ohio. Many settlers of the Western Reserve did not attend church on a regular basis, with churches and ministers in short supply in the early years of settlement. Settlers viewed religious leaders as necessary to the establishment of civilization in their new communities, and women especially welcomed missionaries to the region.