Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The pattern of allegiance to religious groups in the Great Plains is largely a function of immigration history. Although denominational mergers and missionary activities over the years have made linkages to specific ethnic groups difficult to discern in places, they nevertheless remain largely intact. Four broad bands of dominance trend east and west across the region: the United Church of Canada in the Prairie Provinces; a Lutheran-Catholic mix in the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and northern Nebraska; a diverse amalgam headed by Catholicism and Methodism in Kansas, Colorado, and southern Nebraska; and a Southern Baptist hegemony throughout most of Oklahoma and Texas.

The United Church of Canada, a body created in 1925 by a merger of most of the nation's Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian congregations, dominates religious life in the Prairie Provinces. This authority is partly by default. Canadian Catholics did not move west from Quebec in large numbers, and most early Prairie settlers avoided the Anglican Church because they associated it with the upper social classes of Southern Ontario. Catholicism (counting both Latin and Byzantine rites) is the second most important grouping in the region, some of it connected with the early Métis population and some with the Ukrainian colonists who came to the northern fringe of settlement in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. French Canadian settlers established St. Boniface, now a part of metropolitan Winnipeg. Other important religious regions in the Prairies have evolved from two German Russian Mennonite colonies south of Winnipeg and an American Mormon settlement at Cardston in southwestern Alberta.

When Dakota Territory was first settled by Europeans and Americans in the 1870s, it and other parts of the Northern Plains attracted primarily Yankee settlers drawn from the northern tier of American states. They brought with them Congregational, American Baptist, and Unitarian churches. Most of these people decided to move elsewhere after a long drought in the 1890s, however, and left this land to be occupied by a variety of more permanent immigrants and faiths from Bohemia, Germany, Holland, Russia, and Scandinavia. Norwegians and other Scandinavians came first and concentrated their Lutheranism in northeastern Nebraska and in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota. Two counties there (Steele and Traill) still report that more than 70 percent of their church membership is Lutheran. Norwegian Lutheranism also dominates across extreme northern North Dakota and into extreme northeastern Montana.

Germans and German Russians settled widely across the Northern Plains and brought along with them Catholic, Hutterite, Lutheran, Mennonite, and Reformed churches. Catholicism is the leading religion in most of the Plains counties of Montana and Wyoming, plus those in the western half of South Dakota. Most of these churches are German and Bohemian-based, but some are the product of successful missionary work among Native Americans. Episcopalians were active on the mission front as well, and this church can claim more than 20 percent of the religious adherents reported in five counties populated by Lakotas. Several of the smaller denominations in the Plains have exceptional strength in certain places, including the United Church of Christ in the Nebraska Sandhills; the (Dutch) Reformed Church in Douglas County, South Dakota; and the Hutterian Brethren (or Hutterites) southwest of Lewistown, Montana. The Native American Church and other Indigenous religions are important in parts of the Northern Plains as well, but reliable statistics for them are unavailable.

In most of the counties of the Central Plains in Kansas and Nebraska, the United Methodist Church claims more members than any other religious body. This preeminence is similar to that found in rural sections of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and southern Iowa and reflects the origins in these states of most early immigrants to the midsection of the Plains. Kansans, in turn, extended Methodism southward several counties when they participated in the late-nineteenth-century land rushes into northwestern Oklahoma. In many communities across these states, Methodists account for about a third of the church membership. Catholicism is the other major church in this section. With a strong presence in Kansas City, Omaha, Wichita, and other large cities, this faith actually has the largest number of adherents in the Plains. Catholicism also is important in several rural areas, including the Volga German communities of Ellis County, Kansas.

Neither Catholicism nor Methodism is really dominant over the Central Plains as a whole, because settlers came from a comparatively wide variety of places in the United States and abroad. Northerners scattered American Baptist and Presbyterian churches across the region, for example, and people from the Ohio Valley brought their Disciples of Christ faith. Similarly, various Europeans established Catholic, Lutheran, Mennonite, and other congregations. The biggest of the Protestant immigrant churches is the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, with 11 percent of the religious membership in Nebraska and 5 percent in Kansas. This organization was created by German settlers in Illinois and Missouri and it came west with them. Another Germanic faith, Mennonitism, is a major presence in Harvey, Marion, and McPherson Counties in Kansas. The ancestors of local people there bought land from the Santa Fe Railroad.

With the exception of some Germans in the Hill Country of Texas, European settlers generally avoided the Southern Plains. So did emigrants from the northern states. The religious scene in Oklahoma and Texas is thus dominated by the traditional southern denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church. Both faiths grew because they encouraged local leadership and worked hard on the mission front. In the past their strength was nearly equal to one another, but in the 1990s Baptists could claim about 50 percent of the church membership in a typical Southern Plains county and the Methodists only about 15 percent. Fundamentalist Protestantism is a significant and growing presence in the region. The Church of Christ claims 4 percent of the religious adherents in Oklahoma, for example, as does the Assemblies of God, the largest of the nation's pentecostal groups.

The western and southern fringes of the Southern Plains are a transition zone between Latino and Southern culture, and thus between the Catholic and Baptist religious traditions. Expansion of settlers into eastern New Mexico took place nearly simultaneously from east and west, with Latinos seeking irrigation sites and Anglos grass for their cattle. Since 1900 the Latino migration has continued eastward and northward. Some of this is to rural counties, but most has been to urban, industrial areas. Lubbock, Texas, now has a major Catholic presence. So do Pueblo, Colorado, Garden City, Kansas, and Lexington, Nebraska.

See also ARCHITECTURE: Religious Architecture / EUROPEAN AMERICANS: Settlement Patterns, Canada; Settlement Patterns, United States.

James R. Shortridge University of Kansas

Bradley, Martin B., Norman M. Green Jr., Dale E. Jones, Mac Lynn, and Lou McNeil. Churches and Church Membership in the United States 1990. Atlanta: Glenmary Research Center, 1992.

Gaustad, Edwin S. Historical Atlas of Religion in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

The National Atlas of Canada. Ottawa: Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources, 1985.

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