Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Presbyterians trace their theology to the Reformed tradition of John Calvin and their church structure to the Scottish reformer John Knox. The title Presbyterian describes the leadership in each church of "presbyters," otherwise known as elders or bishops. The Presbyterian system of government involves a series of three courts: the session, comprised of the pastor and elders of a local congregation; the presbytery or synod, comprised of the pastors and elders from a region; and the general assembly, a denominationwide meeting held annually. The growth of Presbyterianism in the Great Plains was driven by a missionary zeal to win Christian converts among Native peoples, a need to organize churches for the spreading American and Canadian populations, and a desire to promote a Protestant Christian civility.

Even preceding the arrival of missionaries in the Great Plains, Presbyterianism took root in the Red River Settlement in 1812, with its predominantly Scottish population. Missionary activity began in earnest in the 1830s with sponsorship from the Board of Foreign Missions. Rev. John Dunbar and Samuel Allis were sent to live in difficult and often dangerous circumstances with the Pawnees from 1834 to 1845. The father and son team, Reverends T. S. Williamson and John P. Williamson, ministered to the Lakotas from 1835 to 1898. Both Dunbar and the Williamsons learned the Native languages and translated parts of the Bible into them. Their program was to change the entire cultures–religion, education, and ways of life–in order to prepare the Native peoples for responsible American citizenship. To this end, John Williamson also established a school and a Dakota-language newspaper, Word Carrier, in 1871. Presbyterian missionaries to the Plains were also sponsored by the Board of Home Missions after 1870.

Presbyterianism spread into the Plains in the second half of the nineteenth century with European American settlement. In the Canadian Prairie Provinces, Presbyterians played an important role in the Social Gospel movement, which sought to apply the principles of Christianity to social reform. In the United States the establishment of numerous Presbyterian churches was accomplished by Sheldon Jackson, who was sent west by three presbyteries in the synod of Iowa in 1869. In the first year alone, he traveled 29,000 miles and organized twenty-two churches. Still, despite the western expansion, the core areas of Presbyterianism in both Canada and the United States remained in the East. Although there are now more than 1,500 Presbyterian churches in the U.S. Great Plains, Presbyterianism tends to rank third or fourth in numbers among Protestant denominations, behind Methodists (in the Central Plains), Baptists (in the Southern Plains), and Lutherans (in the Northern Plains).

Stu Kerns Lincoln, Nebraska

Coleman, Michael C. Presbyterian Missionary Attitudes toward American Indians, 1837-1893. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.

Drury, Clifford M. Presbyterian Panorama: One Hundred and Fifty Years of National Missions History. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Church in the United States of America Board of Christian Education, 1952.

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

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