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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 still lingers."

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 of community.

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," said Linder.

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 the state.

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 the prairie.

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 supporters.

In the midst of that upheaval came Kansas' most iconic figure, John Brown.

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.

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