Faith was a key force in the development of Kansas

04/17/2011 12:00 AM

06/08/2011 11:08 AM

"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."

—John Brown, in one of his last letters from jail, shortly before being hanged for trying to incite a national slave rebellion

Since its beginnings, Kansas has often been the center for fiery, passionate strongholds of religious faith and freedom. In Kansas' 150 years as a state, the waves of its religious tides have rippled throughout the nation — from abolitionists and prohibitionists to anti-abortion demonstrators, each making headlines along the way.

"Faith has always been integral with Kansas," said Gary Entz, a Kansas historian specializing in religious social history.

"Of all the 50 states, only Utah has been shaped more by religion than Kansas."

For the past 150 years, religious faith and convictions have been — and still are — the fuel for righting social wrongs such as slavery, alcoholism, racism and sexism.

But what makes faith such a powerful force of social change and community-building in Kansas is the state's legacy of populist freedom — a belief in the rightness of the individual's choice, a belief that expressing your religious convictions in action can improve and strengthen your state.

In 1877, African-Americans leaving the post-Civil War South founded the town of Nicodemus in northwestern Kansas.

"When you visit a town like Nicodemus that still has a population linked to the original settlers, one of the oldest buildings in town is the church, and it is still functioning today," said Kevin Myles, president of the Kansas State Conference of the NAACP Branches and president of the Wichita Branch of the NAACP.

"That faith has been there in the struggle for civil and human rights since the inception of Kansas," Myles said. "Faith has been there as we fought the battles against slavery, against Jim Crow and lynchings, and continues today by the plurality of people who are overtly religious."

Today, churches, synagogues, temples and mosques stand as testimony to how Kansans have embraced a diversity of faiths and built a lasting sense of identity as citizens — equally civic-minded and spiritually minded.

Kansas has had a wide range of religions in its history. In just two decades, beginning in the 1870s, about 5,000 Mennonites settled in Kansas from Russia, bringing with them Turkey red wheat and a tradition of service to others; Arab Christians came to Wichita looking for economic opportunities and spiritual freedom; Jewish farmers created their own community near Dodge City, as they escaped persecution in Russia; and the second Baha'i community in the Western Hemisphere was established in western Kansas.

But three denominations have always been the most prominent in the state: Catholics, Methodists and Baptists.

Catholics are the largest religious denomination in Kansas, representing 27 percent of the population, followed by Methodists with 14 percent and Baptists with 12 percent.

Once religious groups settled in Kansas, the wide-open prairie offered them a safe haven to practice what they preached — both in faith and politics.

"It does seem odd, but it is because of how the state was founded," Entz said.

"There was a strong religious drive in founding Kansas to make it a free state. Those people remained, and their descendants picked up on the ideal. It is ingrained into the people of Kansas."

Finding faith, creating change

The early settlers who came to Kansas often saw themselves as "The New Hebrews," intent on changing the land that they claimed.

During the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, the issues of slavery and women's rights had been largely ignored nationwide. Then from the pulpits in New England came the first whisperings of an abolitionist movement.

It took hold in Kansas with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed settlers to determine whether their new state would allow or reject slavery.

One of the most fiery abolitionists to come from "Bleeding Kansas" was John Brown, who saw himself as a representative of the wrathful God of the Old Testament, empowered to strike down his enemies.

"It would be better that a score of bad men should die," Brown wrote, "than that one man who came to make Kansas a free state should be driven out."

A belief in the equality of all of God's creatures helped fuel the abolitionist, civil rights and women's suffrage movements in Kansas.

"Biblically, it is very clear in the New Testament that there is neither Jew, nor Greek, male or female, that we are indeed all equal," said Bob Gleason, a retired Wichita Methodist minister. "That mind-set would have been prevalent with the people of faith 150 years ago."

Regarding slavery, Gleason said, white abolitionists might have intellectually believed that African-Americans were their equals, but "in their heart of hearts," it would take many more generations of Kansans working for social change before civil rights issues would be reckoned with again.

The turning point came in Topeka's landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954. More progress was made during the summer of 1958, when Wichita's local NAACP youth chapter staged a sit-in at the segregated lunch counter at the Dockum Drug Store.

It was not an easy struggle. Gleason said he remembers growing up in the 1950s and seeing signs in places like Hays that said blacks could not stay overnight in town.

That's why, Myles said, faith would remain an important element in generations of Kansans' lives: to right wrongs and strengthen communities.

Religious values, social change

Through 150 years of faith, some Kansans have led the way to social reform.

Sobriety and temperance were embraced by Carry Nation, who became the leading spokesperson for the Women's Christian Temperance Union. At the turn of the 20th century, she traveled the world and write to her followers:

"Yes, I represent the mothers. ... So, I am crying for help, asking men to vote for what their forefathers fought for. ... The loving moral influence of mothers must be put in the ballot box. ... Pray for me that I may finish my course with joy, the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus.

"Carry A. Nation,

"Your Loving Home Defender."

Other Kansans have marched, openly prayed and displayed signs advocating their faith. The anti-abortion movement was first prompted, then championed by Kansas Catholics.

"From the moment of its conception, human life must be guarded with the greatest care; the life of the mother and the child is to be respected and protected," said Bonnie Toombs, director of Respect Life and Social Justice, a division of the Catholic Diocese of Wichita.

Others call attention to the issue of whether Kansans should be able to love whom they want and to marry whom they choose, regardless of gender.

"Our congregation openly accepts gays and lesbians," said the Rev. Robin McGonigle, pastor of Wichita's Pine Valley Christian Church.

"There are those of us who are stepping out further than the mainstream and saying we are called to recognize all people as God's people and we honor love, regardless of who it is between. ... When two people love each other, they ought to be given the choice of marriage and have the church bless them."

Doing for others

Nearly 150 years ago, homesteaders came to the Kansas Territory knowing that the only way to survive on the unprotected plains was through a sense of community.

A sod house or a log cabin could be miles from the next neighbor, but families watched out for one another. If one family's barn burned down, neighbors appeared to rebuild it. They did the same for devastation from floods and tornadoes.

For some, such charitable acts were an outgrowth of their spiritual identity.

During World War I, most Kansas Mennonites lived in small German-speaking communities. They were pacifists, and the nation was at war with Germany.

"What Kansas did for the Mennonites is that it provided the economic opportunity and the possibility of religious tolerance during an era where governments were increasingly repressive," said Rachel Pannabecker, director of the Kauffman Museum in North Newton, which specializes in telling the story of Mennonites on the Central Plains.

In the 1870s, realizing the role that Mennonite farmers could play in the development of the Great Plains, railroad companies touted the advantages of settling in the Midwest. Some railroads even offered discounted tickets and land for large groups of Mennonites.

The Mennonites came, bringing Turkey red wheat and helping turn Kansas into the breadbasket of the world.

"They had this freedom, but the two world wars were difficult times, as their German language and traditions created discrimination," Pannabecker said.

"The Mennonite belief in nonresistance was critical to reaching past these tensions and giving Christian service to others."

So, for nearly four decades, more than 70 Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, and Amish congregations have donated their gifts and services for the Mid-Kansas Mennonite Central Committee Relief, one of the largest benefit sales in the nation. The money raised goes toward disaster relief, and to provide food, clothing and community development throughout the world.

Building cathedrals, temples and faith

One of the first things early settlers often did before building their homes was to erect a place of worship.

Such was the case in the summer of 1882, when 24 Jewish families built a town out of Kansas sod.

Named for the ancient city of Beersheba in Israel, the Kansas colony stretched over several sections of land a few miles north of Cimarron and northeast of what is now Kalvesta in southwest Kansas.

The Jews who came to Kansas were Russian refugees and part of a large-scale migration from czarist pogroms — violent, government-sponsored attacks against ethnic or religious groups.

Within a few years, however, the Jewish Utopian communities died out, victims of the harsh Kansas weather and discrimination.

"Perhaps one of the mistakes these early settlers made was trying to copy a European model in the United States," said Rabbi Michael Davis of Wichita's Congregation Emanu-El.

"In eastern Europe, these Jews lived in little villages and weren't allowed to live anywhere else. There was cohesiveness born out of being persecuted from outside. In the United States, strength came from not being isolated or segregated, but rather maintaining your culture and values while becoming part of the American landscape."

And while the tiny Kansas Jewish settlements may have dissolved, some of the individuals who settled them moved to Wichita to become the city's earliest business leaders and entrepreneurs.

"The Jews that thrived here thrived because they were part of Wichita and not part of an isolated community," Davis said.

A love for the great cathedrals of Europe caused some Kansans, mainly immigrant Germans, to build towering churches on the plains at the turn of the 20th century.

The early Volga German settlers left their mark on the prairie by using native limestone to build their cathedrals. St. Fidelis Catholic Church in Victoria, with its landmark twin spires, is listed as one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas Architecture by the Kansas Sampler Foundation. When completed in 1911, it was one of the largest churches west of the Mississippi.

But other Kansans chose to build strong relationships instead of buildings, embracing minorities and women, and welcoming the poor from the "wrong side of the tracks."

A social reform movement known as the Social Gospel period was rooted in the question "What Would Jesus Do?" posed by the Rev. Charles Sheldon of Topeka in 1896 to himself and members of his church.

The phrase became so popular in the past century that people worldwide now use it, typically abbreviated to its initials: "WWJD."

Sheldon became one of the leading social reformers in the nation, turning a bar into one of the state's first kindergartens, and preaching equal rights for minorities, women and the working class.

But his was not the only religious movement to spring from Topeka.

On New Year's Day in 1901 in Topeka, Agnes Ozman asked her minister, the Rev. Charles Fox Parham, to lay hands on her and pray. He did, and she began speaking in tongues, sparking the beginning of the Pentecostal movement.

As Pentecostalism spread, it became one of the fastest-growing denominations in the United States and the world.

"You have Pentecostalism and social reform both starting at the same time — in the same town," said Alan Bearman, professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka.

"What they do is start to tell one of the most important stories in Kansas — that faith movements have long been concerned with the dispossessed. They focus heavily on the poor and needy."

A era of awakening and religious change

The 19th century was a time of great religious awakening, as evangelical Protestants established themselves as one of the main forms of Christianity in America. Their emphasis on personal conversion, the authority of the Bible, and missionary work grew out of revivals across the southern and midwestern United States.

Along with revivals, however, unrest began to build with mainstream churches, which critics claimed had lost their focus on social change and building community.

"People lose faith in traditional religious institutions because the mainstream churches tended to support politicians in the Republican Party, and those politicians were supporting big businesses and railroads," Entz said.

"Farmers and workers felt betrayed. And people began to put their faith in the Populist Movement rather than Christianity — for a while."

Farmers rebelled against the railroads, which controlled when they could sell and ship crops. The Populists controlled the Statehouse during the 1890s. After a decade, interest waned and Kansans turned back to the mainstream churches.

But the belief in the populist concept remained. For many Kansans, religious faith in the 20th and 21st centuries builds on convictions — led from the grassroots level — into the righting of wrongs, of confronting social fears and embracing diversity.

"What makes Kansas so fascinating is the story of faith," Bearman said.

"It is so vibrant in its many shades and colors. Kansas is the place people come to."

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