Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Methodism emerged as a lay organization within the Church of England in the mid–eighteenth century and separated from that parent body in 1784. By that time, Methodist evangelists had been active in North America for more than twenty years, spreading a religion that emphasized the primacy of the Bible, but also the importance of reason, experience, and social action. The sermons of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and the inspirational hymns of his younger brother Charles were, and are, the heart of the theology.

In the United States, Methodism quickly became the most successful frontier religion, spreading westward in step with the expansion of the nation. (See the entry on Canadian Wesleyan Methodism for the Canadian story.) The emphasis on personal salvation, the galvanizing effect of Charles's hymns, and especially the groundswell of conversion through circuit rider preaching and camp meetings accounted for this rapid growth. By 1830 Methodism dominated more American counties than any other denomination. Also by 1830 Methodism had reached the Great Plains, with the establishment of the Shawnee Mission in what is now Kansas. Over the next thirty years, Methodist missions were established in Kansas and Indian Territory for the Delawares (1832), Choctaws (1832), Kickapoos (1833), Peorias (1833), Potawatomis (1837), Senecas (1839), Quapaws (1843), and Sauk and Fox (1860).

The Methodist Church established conferences–its system of regional organization–in Nebraska and Kansas soon after the Civil War and continued its extraordinary rate of expansion into the Great Plains. Only a series of schisms, mainly over the issues of centralized control and slavery, slowed the advance. By 1890 most counties in the eastern half of Kansas and across the entire breadth of southern Nebraska had more than eleven Methodist churches; many had more than twenty.

Methodism continued to gain members in the Great Plains and in the country as a whole to about 1970, when national membership reached about 11 million. Most of the branches of the denomination were reunited in 1939 and in 1968 as the United Methodist Church. By 1950, while the number of Methodist churches per county in the core area of Kansas and Nebraska had fallen, as other denominations became established, most counties in the Great Plains had at least three Methodist churches. But thereafter, and in common with many other mainline Protestant denominations, church membership declined nationally and regionally. In 1990 Methodists accounted for 17.8 percent of denominational membership in Kansas (compared to 28.5 percent in 1890), second only to Roman Catholics. In Texas, Methodists ranked third behind Roman Catholics and Baptists, with 9.3 percent of denominational membership (compared to 32.3 percent in 1890), and in Nebraska Methodists accounted for 14.5 percent of denominational membership (compared to 22.1 percent in 1890), behind Catholics and Lutherans. In other Great Plains states in 1990, Methodism ranked third in New Mexico in denominational membership (6.2 percent), second in Oklahoma (15.6 percent), fifth in Colorado (7.2 percent), sixth in Wyoming (4.9 percent), third in South Dakota (9.2 percent), third in North Dakota (4.9 percent), and fifth in Montana (5.7 percent).

Despite the recent decline, however, Methodism continues to exert a major influence on Great Plains land and life. Methodism has always emphasized education, and fifteen theological seminars, universities, and colleges in the Great Plains are associated with the Methodist Church. Among them are Iliff School of Theology (Denver, Colorado), Dakota Wesleyan University (Mitchell, South Dakota), Rocky Mountain College (Billings, Montana), Nebraska Wesleyan University (Lincoln, Nebraska), Baker University (Baldwin City, Kansas), Oklahoma City University (Oklahoma), and Texas Wesleyan University (Fort Worth, Texas). While many rural Methodist churches are humble frame buildings, some church structures are prominent landscape features. Trinity Methodist, completed in Denver in 1887, has a 182-foot spire and once dominated the city's skyline; and the Art Deco-style Boston Avenue Methodist Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma, designed in 1926 by Bruce Goff, has a 280-foot tower and an auditorium that can hold 1,800 worshipers. In Kansas, Methodism is the leading denomination in most counties, and Methodism is still regarded as one of the two foundations of Kansas culture, the other being the Republican Party.

See also ARCHITECTURE: Goff, Bruce.

David J. Wishart University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Gaustad, Edwin Scott, and Philip L. Barlow. New Historical Atlas of Religion in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Szasz, Ferenc M. The Protestant Clergy in the Great Plains and Mountain West, 1865–1915. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988.

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