Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


A rich religious life marks the Great Plains throughout its history. Long before many Native Americans–the Sioux, Blackfoot, Comanches, Apaches, Cheyennes, and Arapahos –moved into the Plains, other Indigenous societies flourished along the rivers and streams of the region. For all of them, religion was not a distinct arena of existence but was interwoven with every other aspect of common life. Identifying particular beliefs and specific activities as religious reflects an understanding of religion more characteristic of the Europeans, whose presence in the Plains began with the Spanish explorers of the early 1500s. In time, efforts first of the Spanish and then in the early 1700s of the French to Christianize tribal peoples planted Roman Catholicism in the Plains. Some of these missions left an influence that endures to the present.

Perhaps the most significant era that shaped the present religious configuration of the Plains was the nineteenth century. By the mid–nineteenth century, thousands of persons of European background began making their way across the Plains. Some remained there while others pushed on to California, Utah, and Oregon. The primary infusion of European Americans came in the latter decades of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century when railroads made access much easier.

The religious styles of these migrants reflected the tremendous diversity that had come to characterize organized religion in Canada and the United States. Most of the Protestant denominations were represented among those settlers who made the Plains their home. But there is an additional ingredient in the story, not only for Protestantism but also for Catholicism: ethnicity. New communities frequently were comprised of persons who shared a common ethnic heritage. To understand the religious life of the Plains, then, we must be sensitive to the particular style, for example, of Norwegian Lutheranism and Czech Catholicism. And we must also be alert to groups such as the Mennonites who fused a shared ethnic identity with a distinctive religious orientation.

In time, other communities, other religious groups, and other social forces were to leave their imprint on Plains religious culture. Japanese immigrants, for example, have made Buddhism a vital part of the religious story of Alberta. Experimental Jewish agricultural communities in the Prairie Provinces and in North Dakota have also given a special dimension to the religious heritage of the Plains. As urbanization came to the Plains, so, too, came a concern for relating religion to public life not only in movements like the Social Gospel but in the establishment of hospitals, educational institutions, and a host of other social service agencies.

Other movements that defy denominational boundaries, such as fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, and revivalism, have likewise left an abiding influence. With the coming of the electronic age, religious broadcasting on radio and television linked the religious life of the Plains to that of the entire North American continent in new ways. But to understand the contours of the religious landscape of the Plains today, we must begin with an appreciation for the religious world of the Native American cultures of the region.

Native American Traditions and Christian Missions

To generalize about the religious dimension of Plains Indigenous cultures is to ignore the distinctive elements of the numerous individual societies that once flourished in the region. Yet there are sufficient common elements to warrant some summary statements. Location was the paramount factor in determining both cultural and religious style. Those who clustered in villages along the Missouri River and its tributaries in the eastern Plains were oriented more toward agriculture, especially cultivation of corn. What later interpreters would identify as religious rites thus tended to focus on fertility, cementing the close relationship between people and the land. Those to the west, approaching the Rocky Mountains, where a semiarid climate precluded agriculture, were more dispersed and migratory, and bison hunting was central to their way of life. Among these peoples, vision quests, which brought individuals into contact with supernatural power, thereby increasing their prowess as hunters while connecting them to powerful mythic figures, were basic to the religious beliefs and practices. Sacred sites, such as Bear Butte in present-day South Dakota were, and are, particularly important for such quests.

The case of the Sioux is instructive, although by no means representative of all the peoples of the Plains. Traditionally from what is today part of Wisconsin and Minnesota, the western Sioux by the mid-seventeenth century were pushed by the Ojibwas and drawn by the bison toward the Great Plains. As the Sioux adapted to Plains life, they moved toward dominance because they quickly incorporated the horse (brought first to the Southern Plains by the Spanish) into their culture, and agricultural pursuits gave way to bison hunting. Adaptation in the religious sphere followed, as the concern for fertility was superseded by concern for success in hunting, and vision quests assumed greater importance. One well-known consequence was the emergence of the Sun Dance, an annual rite symbolically re-creating and renewing the cosmos in order to assure the well-being of the people. The role of shamans, with their ability to call on supernatural power to effect both healing and success in hunting and other tribal endeavors, grew in importance.

External forces, such as increased migration of non-Native Americans into the Plains, government policies that were frequently inimical to tribal life, and Christian proselytizing, spurred other changes. We should here note three currents that had significant long-term consequences: increased efforts among Christian groups to establish missions among the tribes; the rise to prominence of the Ghost Dance; and the development of peyotism.

Three examples of mission work may be taken as examples. Earliest are the missions among Native Americans started by the Spanish. By the mid-eighteenth century the Spanish had sent around 100 expeditions into what is now Texas; many included the establishment of missions designed both to convert and, ostensibly, to civilize Natives by organizing them into something akin to agricultural colonies. The earliest, founded by Franciscans in 1682, lay just outside the Plains near El Paso. Although these missions often served to protect their Native inhabitants from even worse exploitation by the Spanish conquerors, they still disrupted tribal life and represented the imposition of an alien religious style. These missions demonstrate a characteristic that was to mark similar enterprises throughout the Plains, namely the missionary as both friend, who offered security and protection from outside invaders, and foe, whose very presence undermined traditional tribal ways.

To the north, Belgian priest Pierre-Jean De Smet was one of the most influential of the early Catholic missionaries. De Smet's efforts to raise money and call attention to mission needs, beginning in 1838, took him from the Potawatomis in Iowa to the Columbia and Willamette Valleys of the Pacific Northwest. De Smet stands out as well for his genuine appreciation of Native ways, making him repeatedly a valued mediator between tribal peoples and white settlers who encroached on their lands. Twenty years before De Smet began his labors, Joseph-Norbert Provencher assumed leadership of mission work on the Red River of the North, intent on providing spiritual leadership for the French Canadians already there, as well as establishing agricultural colonies and schools for the Indigenous peoples. By the 1830s numerous mission stations were operating, many later sustained through assistance from the French Order of Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Provencher was instrumental in persuading both the Oblates and the Grey Nuns to undertake mission work in western Canada. Also by the 1830s, the Anglican Church Missionary Society, hoping to minister to British Canadians and Native Americans alike, was extending its work from its base along the Red River Valley of the North. Most of these endeavors share another feature that was to mark much mission work, namely the establishment of schools that would provide Native Americans with something like a western-style education. Even here, however, there was a paternalistic assumption of great import, for many harbored the conviction that education would "civilize" or impress western ways on the Indigenous inhabitants, rendering them easier to control and more amenable to conversion to Christianity.

This conviction comes into sharp relief in the third example, the work of Stephen Return Riggs, an agent of the American Board of Foreign Missions from 1837 until his death in 1883, who translated both the Bible and secular works into the Dakota language of the Santee Sioux. Riggs was convinced that education would bring a "higher" standard of living to the tribes by preparing them for participation in "Christian civilization." His work, how ever, also illustrates another long-term impact of the missionary enterprise. In 1862, when armed conflict erupted between the Sioux and American forces, many of Riggs's converts were loath to participate in the fighting. When they, too, suffered reprisals, many of the Sioux believed that white culture had so destroyed the supernatural powers that once shaped tribal life that conversions to Christianity, the religion of the apparently more powerful white culture, increased.

The Ghost Dance, a fusion of millenarian hopes and rituals uniting the living and the dead, began as a revival of Wodziwob's Round Dance of 1870. A Paiute shaman named Wovoka, who lived on the Walker River Reservation in Nevada, had participated in the 1870 movement and had a vision that gave birth to a new revitalization movement that spread quickly to the Plains tribes during the winter of 1888–89. Wovoka's vision endowed him with a message promising the ultimate restoration of tribal integrity at a time when the cohesion of tribal cultures was increasingly challenged by external forces. Wovoka called for the renewal of traditional tribal mores through the practice of trance dances in which supernatural empowerment would come to the faithful. Short Bull and Kicking Bear, Lakota representatives of the Sioux, visited Wovoka and carried the message back to their people. The Ghost Dance also took firm root among the Canadian Sioux, where the movement was known as New Tidings.

In an effort to exert control over the Plains peoples, the American government had banned ritual enactment of the Sun Dance in 1883. The Ghost Dance appeared to be even more of a threat, as it brought renewed solidarity and hope to the tribal cultures. It also increased militant resistance to further external domination, especially among the Sioux who believed that their "ghost shirts" were bulletproof. The massacre at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890 brought these millennial expectations and the hope for revitalized tribal life to a sudden halt for many Sioux, but Wovoka's religion persisted among the Oklahoma tribes, Canadian Native peoples, and the Great Basin peoples well into the twentieth century.

Among the Canadian Crees, the Ghost Dance had a rather different character, reflecting perhaps the generally less violent nature of tribal relations with the Canadian government. In this context, the Ghost Dance served more as a means for the Prairie tribes to form a united front in their dealings with the government. However, the Riel Rebellion of 1885, which was spurred primarily by the Metis but also counted several Cree bands among its participants, essentially thwarted efforts to maintain this united front.

By the dawn of the twentieth century the disintegration of traditional ways among the Plains tribes was evident. Confined to reservations and increasingly dependent on government annuity payments and assistance from Christian missionaries, who rarely appreciated the richness of Native American religiosity, the tribal peoples of the Plains faced what seemed a bleak future. Some sought to return to traditional practices such as the Sun Dance. Others moved toward assimilation into white culture, manifested in part through the adoption or adaptation of practices associated with Christianity. Yet others hoped to revitalize Native American life through promoting a shared "Indian" consciousness. Peyotism, regarded by many as the most important twentiethcentury religious development among Native American peoples, fused aspects of all three adjustments.

Long part of tribal religiosity in Mexico where the peyote cactus grows, peyote rites became part of Kiowa and Comanche life around 1870. Peyotism spread rather slowly, usually making its way into tribal life when its advocates, such as Quanah Parker, traveled from tribe to tribe promoting it. Administered under strict ceremonial guidelines, peyote generates visions that often combine Christian symbols with traditional ones, for example, by linking Christ with the Great Spirit. Peyotism also encouraged a return to traditional ethics that would simultaneously renew tribal integrity and allow more peaceful accommodation with white society.

In the United States, the Native American Church, in which peyote rituals are central, was first legally chartered in Oklahoma in 1918. However, as the larger culture developed increasing concern about use of controlled hallucinogenic substances, sporadic efforts were made to quash the practice, culminating first in a U.S. Supreme Court case in 1990 that upheld the right of states to prohibit the practice, and then in federal legislation enacted in the wake of that court decision that protected the practice. Despite the apprehension of the larger culture, peyotism remains one of the most vital means for sustaining a Native American cultural and religious identity. It is estimated that the Native American Church has 200,000 members.

Christianity in the Plains

For the most part, the planting of Christianity in the Great Plains mirrors patterns of migration of persons of European stock into the region. Today, most of the old-line Protestant groups have pockets of strength in the Plains, as do Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox. This great religious diversity prevents generalization except at the broadest scale. The United Church of Canada is the dominant religion in many parts of the Prairie Provinces, a Lutheran belt (the product of Scandinavian immigration) stretches across much of North and South Dakota, Methodism is the leading religion in much of the Central Great Plains, although this is also the area with the greatest religious diversity in the region, and the Southern Plains, particularly in Texas, is dominated by the Southern Baptist religion. The highest percentage of church membership in the region is in the Lutheran and Southern Baptist belts.

But the story is not simply one of transplanting religious institutions from Europe or the eastern United States and eastern Canada. In many cases there is a vital ethnic component that has given religious communities a distinctive flavor, for in some situations immigrants moved to the Plains as entire communities, where a particular religious style, a cultural tradition, and an ethnic heritage were inextricably intertwined.

Roman Catholic Christianity in the Southern Plains has its roots in Spanish exploration and conquest; the missions to the Native Americans frequently sought to serve the religious needs of soldiers and traders whose presence cemented Spanish control. Even today, given the increase in migration from Mexico into the Southern and Central Plains over the last several decades, Catholicism there retains a vital Hispanic cast.

In the Canadian portion of the Great Plains, institutional Catholicism owes much to those who sought to plant the seeds of Presbyterianism there. In 1812, Thomas Douglas, the Fifth Earl of Selkirk, established his Kildonan colony, populated by Scottish immigrants, along the Red River of the North near today's Winnipeg. As a Scottish community, Lord Selkirk's settlement was overwhelmingly Reformed (Presbyterian) in religious sentiment. But there were already some French Canadian traders in the area who were Roman Catholic by heritage, and in time Selkirk hired German soldiers, largely Roman Catholic as well, to provide protection for his people. What brought Joseph-Norbert Provencher to launch his mission to the Indigenous people in the area was Selkirk's request for a priest to provide spiritual guidance for those who were Catholic. Provencher's work is central to Roman Catholic growth in western Canada, which benefited from the gradual movement of Catholics to the area. In 1847 Provencher became the first bishop of St. Boniface (Manitoba).

As Roman Catholics moved into areas of the Plains, they brought with them their commitment to work in education through parochial schools and to promote health care through the establishment of hospitals–all in some ways also an extension of earlier missions to Native Americans. Other groups were to follow suit, and the story of higher education especially, and the developing networks of health-care institutions, is inextricably tied to the religious history of the Great Plains. For Roman Catholics, much of the labor that sustained such enterprises came from the numerous orders of nuns that sent workers wherever there were Catholic people to be served. For example, the Presentation Sisters have long been recognized as leaders in health care in Montana and the Dakotas.

The Scottish community at Kildonan was also indirectly the key to bringing the Anglican Church to the Prairie Provinces. When these settlers could not procure the services of a Presbyterian clergyman, they turned to the Anglican John West for spiritual leadership. For twenty years West served in Kildonan as the community awaited the arrival of a Presbyterian minister. But West used his post to promote Anglican work, overseeing for a time the labors among Native peoples sponsored by the Anglican Church Missionary Society.

The major influx of Protestants who remained permanently in the region came as a result of two factors: the expansion of railroads that linked the more heavily settled East with the Pacific in both the United States and Canada and the surge in immigration that marked the period after 1880 until restrictions were imposed in 1919 by a Canadian Order in Council and in 1924 by the United States. In Canada, for example, after the Canadian Pacific Railway extended service to Winnipeg in 1881 and to British Columbia in 1885, settlers flocked to Alberta and Saskatchewan. In both the United States and Canada, for several decades the bulk of the organized churches were to be found along the railroad lines. The landscape of towns and rural areas throughout the region was imprinted with churches and graveyards that told the story of the origins of the settlers.

The Scandinavian and German immigrants who came to the Dakotas were largely Lutheran and tended to organize churches based on country of origin. Even when English became the language of education and business, Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish remained the languages for worship, helping sustain a cultural and ethnic heritage. Not until generations had passed and languages of origin had faded did these groups enter into mergers with other Lutheran bodies, gradually diminishing their ethnic aura. A similar pattern occurred in Canada, where Swedish immigrants organized the Evangelical Covenant Church in Winnipeg in 1904; Norwegian and Danish Lutherans soon replicated the pattern in establishing their Evangelical Free Church.

Three examples bring into bold relief the fusion of religion, culture, and ethnicity among groups intent on preserving a distinctive identity: the Doukhobors, the Mennonites, and the Ukrainians who ultimately separated from the Russian Orthodox Church. The Doukhobors, the largest group of whom is known formally today as the Union of Spiritual Communities in Christ, trace their origins to a schism in the Russian Orthodox Church in the seventeenth century. Many of the more mystical among them began to regroup. Those who were followers of Peter Verigin migrated en masse to Saskatchewan in 1899. At times experimenting with communal living–the last of these attempts was largely done in by the economic turmoil of the Great Depression–the Doukhobors have sustained a Russian mystical pietism that stresses the inward apprehension of the law of God and a divinity that even in seventeenthand eighteenth-century Russia the more orthodox regarded as heretical. This inner-directed mysticism has also brought conflict with the Canadian government since Doukhobors refused to subscribe to any oaths of allegiance to the government.

Many of the Mennonites who found their way to the Plains also had Russian backgrounds. By 1812 Mennonites from Poland and Prussia had established several colonies in southern Russia, where one group that later called itself the Kleine Gemeinde (today's Evangelical Mennonite Conference) broke away from the larger body. That year they began to migrate in large numbers to Manitoba and Nebraska, although the smaller Nebraska cluster eventually dissipated. Blending their own pietism with the agrarian ways of southern Russia, the Kleine Gemeinde flourished in western Canada, where, by the late twentieth century, adherents spread across five provinces. Yet other Mennonites, forerunners of today's Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, experienced rapid growth in the Great Plains because they were able to gain converts among the increasing numbers of immigrants who came from Russia and Germany to parts of Kansas and Manitoba in the late nineteenth century.

A second wave of Mennonites came particularly to Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba following World War I. There the availability of land offered promise for sustaining a simple agrarian existence that had been disrupted by the violence and land dispossessions of the Russian Revolution. Mennonite migration had received earlier encouragement when the Canadian government created preserves for the group in Manitoba in the 1870s and in Saskatchewan in the 1890s. Adhering to a quasi-communal way of life and encouraging the young to marry fellow believers, the various clusters of Mennonites represent both a religious community and an ethnic group.

A similar story is that of the Hutterites who came to the Northern Great Plains. With roots in the sixteenth-century Moravian Anabaptist movement that saw adherents persecuted and pushed into the Ukraine and elsewhere, Hutterites came to the United States in the 1870s. They established colonies (Bruderhofs) in South Dakota and Montana, where they hoped to maintain a simple agrarian life in which they shared common ownership of goods and property. But fearing persecution because of their pacifist principles (and because of their largely German heritage), hundreds crossed the border into western Canada during World War I, although some later returned to the United States.

A significant Ukrainian migration into the Canadian Plains also provides an illustration of the fusion of religious, cultural, and ethnic dimensions into a single whole. In the Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church had established itself as dominant, but because it was seen as an agency of the state many Ukrainians regarded the church as ethnically Russian, an arm of a regime that imposed its will on the Ukrainian people. Hence, when the Ukrainian National Republic asserted its independence following German occupation during World War I and the disarray that came with the Russian Revolution, some Ukrainians in Canada moved to establish a separate church that would merge a distinctive ethnic heritage with Orthodox Christianity. Thus in July 1918 the Ukrainian Greek-Orthodox Church of Canada was organized in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Less tied to Ukrainian nationalism is the Russian/Ukrainian Baptist Union of the United States, formed in 1901. Although now reduced to a handful of churches, this body had its genesis in an immigrant community in Kiev, North Dakota, made up of persons who had come from southern Russia and the Ukraine in the late nineteenth century.

Many other Protestant denominations took root in the Great Plains. Congregationalists, for example, owed their growth largely to those who migrated to the Northern Plains from New England, although when the United Church of Christ was formed through mergers in the twentieth century, many whose origins were in German Congregationalism, as manifested in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, became part of the new venture. Methodism, the largest Protestant body in the United States in the mid–nineteenth century, also traces its strength in the Plains to conventional patterns of migration. But Methodism, which by 1950 boasted having at least one church in every county in the Great Plains south of the Canadian boundary, can also look to its pattern of itinerant ministry, the practice of sending clergy from place to place to minister to a scattered flock, as another reason for its growth. In the Canadian Prairie Provinces, most of the Methodist, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian churches joined their parent denominations in forming the United Church of Canada in 1925.

In the twentieth century, congregations' associations with the Southern Baptist Convention have grown rapidly and extended westward from a traditional stronghold in the South into the Great Plains of Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. In a solid block of counties in West Texas, stretching from Amarillo on the north to Odessa on the south, Baptists account for more than 50 percent of church membership. Beyond this block, in adjacent areas of western Oklahoma and eastern New Mexico, Baptists constitute 25 to 50 percent of church membership. The main exception to this dominant Baptist presence in this entire area is a handful of counties where more than 25 percent of church members are Catholics, the result of Hispanic immigration.

The social conservatism of the Southern Baptist Convention has had a great influence on ways of life in the Southern Great Plains. Their abhorrence of alcohol, for example, delayed the emergence of a successful wine industry in West Texas until the 1970s and today makes difficult the passage of any referendum that proposes easing public access to liquor.

The story of individual Christian groups in the Plains would fill many volumes. Virtually every denomination that is not restricted to a single American region has at least a handful of congregations in the U.S. Great Plains. By the late twentieth century, the same held true for the Canadian Prairie Provinces. But throughout the Plains there are countless independent churches as well. Many of the smaller denominations and independent churches trace their beginnings to religious movements such as fundamentalism or pentecostalism that cut across traditional denominational lines.

Crossdenominational Movements and Currents

Fundamentalism is a many-faceted phenomenon. Many forces coalesced to give it birth in the decades surrounding the start of the twentieth century: a rejection of modern critical methods of biblical interpretation, perceived intellectual threats to orthodox Protestant theological formulation, a surge of interest in biblical prophecy informed by dispensationalism, reactions to immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and a host of others. In the United States, fundamentalism had its greatest early impact in the Northeast, particularly among Baptists and Presbyterians; in Canada, Toronto and the ministry of the controversial and colorful Thomas Todhunter Shields were at the core of early fundamentalism. Fundamentalism's base of support expanded across both nations, in part because of the popularity of the study Bible produced by C. I. Scofield (the Scofield Reference Bible), first published in 1909. Scofield's own career in law and ministry took him to Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Texas, and Massachusetts. His personal influence in the Southern Plains was enhanced especially by his pastorates in Dallas.

Indeed, it was use of the Scofield Reference Bible that first drew Canadian Presbyterian and then Baptist layman William "Bible Bill" Aberhart into the dispensationalist-fundamentalist orbit. At the heart of dispensationalism lies an understanding that history from Creation to its final consummation is divided into different epochs or dispensations and that humanity now is approaching the final dispensation. Hence there is a passionate concern for unraveling biblical prophecy to identify links with contemporary events. This concern, fostered by a host of prophetic Bible conferences in the United States and Canada that started in the 1880s, means that the Bible itself is of tremendous significance to dispensationalism. The conviction that the Bible is an inerrant guide to history cements the connection between dispensationalism and fundamentalism.

Aberhart was a dynamic Bible teacher based for many years at the Westbourne Baptist Church in Calgary, Alberta, who derived much of his early thinking from a correspondence course written by Scofield. Aberhart was quick to take advantage of advancing media technology to promote his teaching, issuing a monthly fundamentalist magazine (Prophetic Times) and in 1929 beginning a regular radio broadcast from Calgary that soon gained a large audience. Indeed, radio was to prove a major medium for the transmission of evangelical and fundamentalist thinking throughout the Plains. Aberhart also founded the Prophetic Bible Institute that served as an educational agency and at times as a church.

Unlike many fundamentalists of the 1920s and 1930s, Aberhart took a keen interest in economics and politics, adapting the economic ideas of C. H. Douglas on "Social Credit" as the foundation for a political party that for a time dominated the Alberta legislature and allowed Aberhart to serve as premier of the province. Many of his social ideas distressed other fundamentalist leaders, who believed that Aberhart had abandoned a religious vocation for political expediency.

A more moderate evangelicalism, albeit laced with some fundamentalist ideas in popular understanding, has remained more deeply entrenched in Protestant religiosity in the Plains. Mass revivalism and deft use of the media are largely responsible for its enduring impact. Evangelist Charles E. Fuller was among the first to make extensive use of radio in addition to organizing revival meetings that drew thousands in attendance. Launching his radio ministry from California in 1930, Fuller found that his program, ultimately named the Old-Fashioned Revival Hour, became one of the most popular radio shows of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It reached millions of homes in the Great Plains of the United States and Canada.

Further cementing the presence of evangelicalism in the Plains has been the multifaceted ministry of Billy Graham. Although not a native of the region, Graham has held crusades in many of the major cities of the Great Plains, proclaiming to millions his gospel of simple trust in God as the answer to personal and social problems. Like Aberhart, Graham has deftly used broadcast media, especially radio, and publications ranging from his own Decision magazine to Christianity Today to make a conservative religious message plausible and respectable. Today, television brings virtually every media preacher into the homes of the Plains.

Modern pentecostalism has also secured a place in the religious life of the Plains. Revivals conducted in 1901 by Charles Fox Parham in Topeka, Kansas, where he had already founded a Bible college, are one of the formative events of neo-pentecostalism, with its emphasis on speaking in tongues and divine healing. A generation later, in 1948, a revival emanating from an independent Bible school at North Battleford, Saskatchewan, was critical in the spread of the Latter Rain Pentecostal movement across North America, giving fresh power to belief in healing through the laying on of hands. Oral Roberts, perhaps the best-known healing evangelist of mid-twentieth-century North America, conducted his own brand of tent revivals in many Great Plains locales. Based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, since 1947, Roberts has been a major force in making a pentecostal style acceptable in many Protestant circles. All of these streams of pentecostalism have helped fuel the growth of both independent churches and denominations, such as the Assemblies of God, that emphasize the reality of charismatic gifts of the Spirit.

More liberal religious currents have also influenced religious developments in the Plains. In the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Social Christianity, or the Social Gospel, emerged as another response to the way industrialization and urbanization were reshaping life in North America. Informed by modernist theological ideas that applied critical analysis to Scripture, the Social Gospel sought to apply the ethical principles derived from the teachings of Jesus to contemporary social issues, particularly those having to do with labor, working conditions in factories, and living conditions in urban slums. In the United States, the more industrialized areas of the Northeast were the major centers of the Social Gospel impulse, but in Canada its core was in Winnipeg. This was the result of the work of the Methodist Salem G. Bland, professor at Wesley College there, and particularly of the efforts of another Methodist, James Shaver Woodsworth, who as head of All Peoples Mission in Winnipeg had a powerful ministry among the unemployed and illhoused of the city. Woodsworth's Strangers within Our Gates (1909) and My Neighbor (1911), written for a popular audience, served to instill Social Gospel ideas in the religiosity of ordinary men and women.

Another piece of popular literature helped make Social Gospel principles bywords for the faithful in the United States. In 1896 Topeka, Kansas, pastor Charles M. Sheldon published a series of sermons he had preached to his Sunday evening congregation. Appearing as a novel the following year, In His Steps remains in print today. It represents a critical effort to personalize and individualize the corporate ethic of the Social Gospel through its depiction of a band of women and men who covenant for one year to ask the question "What would Jesus do?" before making any business decision. All are driven to abandon the traditional trappings of success for work with the poor and outcast. And although the result is not the social change sought by the larger movement, the individuals involved undergo significant personal transformation. By reaching a mass audience, Sheldon ensured that the Social Gospel's impact would not be restricted to a single denomination in its impact. However, in both the United States and Canada the coming of World War I and then the Great Depression shattered the optimism that undergirded the Social Gospel's hopes for farreaching, immediate social change. Nevertheless, its heritage lived on in the United States in the enduring strains of progressive politics and in much of the New Deal promoted by Franklin Roosevelt, and in Canada in the policies of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation government that came to power in Saskatchewan in 1944.

Other Religious Movements and Communities

Countless other religious movements and communities have found the Plains fertile soil for propagating their own visions of life here and hereafter. Some groups have come into the Plains because they believed that conditions there favored their growth. For example, in 1887 Charles Ora Card led a small group of Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormons, from Utah to Alberta, where they founded what is today Cardston. At the time they left Salt Lake City, the U.S. government was placing increasing pressure on the Mormons to renounce the practice of polygamy as a condition for admitting Utah as a state. What drew Card's group to Canada was both the limited toleration of already existing polygamous marriages (although not recognition of future ones) and the availability of land suitable for the irrigation methods developed by the Mormons. From Alberta, Mormon missionaries fanned out across Canada.

The famous mid-nineteenth-century gold rush and then the need for workers to build rail lines brought an upsurge in immigration to Canada and the United States from Asia. Chinese and Japanese settlers helped establish a Buddhist presence in western Canada; Lethbridge, Alberta, has remained the center of a vibrant Japanese Buddhist community. More recently, new immigrants from South Asia have broadened the ethnic and religious pluralism of the Great Plains, though their total numbers remain small. Nonetheless, the presence of a wider range of Asian religions promises to bring new challenges. In Canada, for example, there has been conflict centering on the growing Sikh community, some of whose members have fought government regulations that sought to require them to wear the traditional headgear rather than turbans while serving in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Throughout the Plains, the Jewish population remains small, concentrated more in the larger towns and cities. Yet the Plains plays a significant role in Jewish history in North America. The large emigration from Russia around the turn of the century included thousands of Jews. Although many remained in the major ports of entry for immigrants, several thousand ultimately made their way to the Plains, some as a result of the conscious efforts of Jewish groups to establish agricultural colonies and farm communities. In such settings, it was thought, Jewish identity would be less threatened by the religious pluralism of the larger culture, and immigrants would be able to replicate their traditional agrarian life without the danger of the Russian pogroms that had forced many to leave their homeland. A Jewish farming community was organized in Oxbow, Saskatchewan, in 1892; other Canadian ventures followed in Alberta and Manitoba. Winnipeg remains an important Jewish center. Farther south, the Am Olam, a group of Jewish farmers in eastern South Dakota, owe their genesis as a community to similar impulses. Early in the twentieth century, some Jewish leaders in the United States mustered support for the "Galveston plan," an organized movement to bring immigrant Jews directly to Galveston, Texas, and from there to relocate them in towns and farming communities scattered throughout the interior of North America. As with similar programs, the stated rationale for the Galveston plan was to protect Jewish immigrants from the religious and social corruption of the cities in the East.

Although Islam in North America has witnessed steady expansion since the close of World War II, so that it is now among the fastestgrowing religions in the United States and Canada, Muslims have been in the Plains at least since the start of the century. Evidence reveals, for example, that in 1900 a Muslim family in Ross, North Dakota, was using their home as a mosque for communal prayer on a regular basis. Around the same time, Muslim immigrants came to Edmonton, Alberta, working as peddlers. The community there, although small, was su.ciently stable and prosperous that it erected a mosque in 1938. It has continued to grow to the point that in Edmonton, Muslims are now able to take advantage of government provisions that allow for religious instruction in public schools after regular school hours.

An Increasing Diversity

Over the years, the religious life of the Great Plains has become increasingly diverse. Despite years of suppression, the religions of the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains have endured and adapted to changing circumstances. The westward migration of Americans on both sides of the border and the heavy influx of European immigrants coming in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries added greatly to the diversity. In countless towns and communities from Alberta to Texas, the heritage of the immigrant past endures in religious beliefs and landscapes. More recent immigration from Mexico (the latter augmenting a Hispanic and Roman Catholic presence that has existed on the fringes of the Southern Great Plains for centuries) and from Asia has contributed even more detail to this rich tapestry of regional religious life.

See also ARCHITECTURE: Religious Architecture / EDUCATION: Indian Boarding Schools, United States; Indian Residential Schools, Canada / EUROPEAN AMERICANS: Douglas, Thomas (Earl of Selkirk); Jews; Ukrainians / LAW: North Dakota Anti-Garb Law / NATIVE AMERICANS: Sacred Geography / PROTEST AND DISSENT: Aberhart, William; Woodsworth, James Shaver / WAR: Wounded Knee Massacre.

Charles H. Lippy University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1972.

Blau, Joseph L. Judaism in America: From Curiosity to Third Faith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Bowden, Henry Warner. American Indians and Christian Missions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Epp, Frank H. Mennonites in Canada, 1786–1920: The History of a Separate People. Toronto: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1974.

Epp, Frank H. Mennonites in Canada, 1920– 1940. Toronto: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1982.

Gaustad, Edwin Scott. A Religious History of America. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990.

Hennesey, James, S.J. America's Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Kilbourn, William, A. C. Forrest, and Patrick Watson. Religion in Canada: The Spiritual Development of a Nation. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, Ltd. 1968.

Lippy, Charles H., and Peter W. Williams, eds. Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1988.

Noll, Mark A. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992.

Woodcock, George, and Ivan Avakumovic. The Doukhobors. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. Nashville: Abingdon Press, published annually.

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