Kansas has a Deep Religious History
Tanner, Beccy. "Kansas has a Deep Religious History." Wichita Eagle, 27 January 2007.
Since its beginning, Kansas has
been a stronghold for religious faith.
As the state celebrates its 146th birthday on Monday, the impact of its religious
roots can still be felt throughout the nation.
With U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback's recent announcement that he would
run for president, the nation's eyes may once again focus on Kansas'
faith, says Gary Entz, history professor at McPherson College.
"He is a deeply conservative Christian," Entz said of
Brownback. "Because he is a candidate, it will draw attention
to Kansas and its religious faith."
More so than in many other states, Kansas was and is an area for
religious leaders to practice what they preach. People of faith
could establish religious communities "and isolate themselves
from what they perceived as corruption," Entz said.
There were struggles -- drought, floods, grasshoppers, fires, failed
crops and plunging economies. But great experiments in faith took
place on the state's open prairie.
"Kansas has always been a place where religion has flourished,"
said Robert Linder, history professor at Kansas State University.
"You have to be stoic to live out here on the Great Plains.
The religious flavor helped to create Kansas' populist image, which
The state's religious history is colorful and diverse.
The early years
The first testing of faith came as early as 1541, when Spanish
conquistador Coronado explored the area that is now Kansas. One
of his priests, Juan de Padilla, stayed behind to help spread Christianity,
and became the first Christian martyr in the New World.
Five centuries later, Catholics are the largest denomination in
the state, representing 27 percent of the population, followed by
Methodists (14 percent)and Baptists (12 percent).
As the nation grew, so did religion. The 19th century was a time
of great religious awakening, as evangelicals established themselves
as one of the main expressions of Christianity in America.
Kansas embraced evangelism, promoting a pioneer quality of life
that encouraged thrifty living, no-nonsense values and a deep sense
Rise of Methodism
Nearly 200 years ago, homesteaders came to the Kansas Territory
to put down roots far from the industrialized Eastern states. Among
them were the Methodists.
"Methodists were especially vigorous in providing circuit
riders to accompany white settlers and missions among the Indians,"
Daniel Morgan Boone, son of the Western frontiersman Daniel Boone,
brought the first Methodists to Kansas. In 1825, he was appointed
by the U.S. government to act as an agricultural adviser to the
Indians on the Kansas River in what today is Jefferson County.
Not long after, Shawnee Mission was founded to help the Indians.
The Methodists soon established colleges and hospitals throughout
One of the largest hospitals, Wesley Medical Center in
Wichita, is named for the founder of the Methodists -- John Wesley.
Mennonites and wheat
Kansas is nicknamed "the wheat state," largely because
Mennonite farmers showed how hardy winter wheat could thrive on
More than 15,000 Mennonites came to the United States from Russia
between 1874 and 1884; of those, 5,000 settled in Kansas. They formed
communities at Goessel, Inman, Buhler, Moundridge and elsewhere
in central Kansas.
The Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church near Goessel, built in 1886,
is constructed in the Dutch Mennonite style; the interior is designed
so worshippers surround the leader, reflecting the idea of community.
Particularly during World Wars I and II, most Kansas Mennonites
lived in small German-speaking communities. They were and still
are pacifists. And when the nation has been at war, they have responded
by finding additional ways to show their benevolence -- by giving
to the American Red Cross and their own Mennonite organizations.
The Old Order Amish are a Mennonite sect whose members are best
known by outsiders for driving black horse-drawn buggies. The Amish
are committed to living simple lives without the use of modern conveniences
but with a strict sense of discipline.
They are also known for forming tight-knit communities. For instance,
in March 2004, when Melvin Miller's cabinet shop near Yoder burned
to the ground, neighbors showed up within minutes to help him rebuild.
The abolitionist movement
Much of Kansas' religious history is mired in conflict.
Starting in 1854, Congregationalist, Methodist and Baptist abolitionists
flocked to the Kansas Territory to wrestle the land from pro-slavery
In the midst of that upheaval came Kansas' most iconic figure,
Brown's fiery, passionate will to stamp out slavery was one of
the sparks that helped ignite the Civil War. It was a campaign fueled
by his religious fervor.
In the fall of 1859, Brown led members of his family and followers
from Kansas in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry,
Va. His intent was to incite a national slave rebellion. But his
plan failed, and he was hanged.
Brown would write from jail as he awaited execution:
"You know that Christ once armed Peter. So also in my case,
I think he put a sword into my hand, and there continued it, so
long as he saw best, and then kindly took it from me."
Other communities, other movements
By the 1880s, the faithful were firmly established in communities
dotting the plains.
Jewish farmers built enclaves in a half-dozen settlements near
Dodge City. Exodusters -- former slaves from the South -- flocked
to western Kansas to start farming communities, of which Nicodemus
is the last remaining all-black community to survive.
Volga Germans from Russia built Catholic strongholds near Hays.
Perhaps their most famous landmark is in the town of Victoria: the
St. Fidelis Church, also known as the Cathedral of the Plains. The
Romanesque church is known for its twin towers that soar 140 feet
above the plains and for its elaborate stained-glass windows.
One of the religious movements that sprang up in Kansas was Pentecostalism.
On New Year's Day in 1901 in Topeka, Agnes Ozman asked her minister,
the Rev. Charles Fox Parham, to lay hands on her. He did and she
began speaking in tongues.
As the Pentecostal movement spread, it became one of the fastest-growing
denominations in America.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Women's Christian Temperance
Union was running full-steam when Carry A. Nation began making her
name a household word throughout the nation.
Beginning in Medicine Lodge, then Kiowa and Wichita, Nation would
travel from town to town, wrecking saloons and berating people who
sold liquor. At each stop, her mission and reputation grew.
As Brownback begins his run for president, the state's history
-- from the martyrdom of Juan de Padilla, to the fervor of John
Brown and today's Fred Phelps, to the humility of the Mennonites
-- provides a backdrop for his religious-based campaign.
Reprinted with permission of the Wichita Eagle.