Religious Diversity and the Shaping of Kansas

Circuit Rider

Circuit riders were assigned to travel around specific geographic territories to minister to settlers and organize congregations. Most were clergy in the Methodist Episcopal Church and related denominations, although similar itinerant preachers could be found in other faiths as well.

The role of religion in Kansas has been ubiquitous since before the founding of the state, and Kansas has frequently been characterized by its diversity of religious beliefs. Religiously, Kansas is a microcosm of the United States. Due to its location at the “crossroads where Northerners, Southerners, immigrants, and Native Americans found access to the West, it is difficult to religiously pigeonhole the state” (Entz 122).

Immigrants and Religious Influence

The influx of immigrants continued to diversify the religious communities of Kansas. While there was a growing population of new religious groups, the majority were mainstream Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Baptists. Methodists made up the highest percentage of the religious population. Much of the Holiness movement theology that influenced Pentecostalism would come out of these Methodist churches. Joanna Stratton points out it was not always “possible to build a church, let alone find a minister for every represented denomination” (Entz 137). When a church could be constructed, it was a source of pride and became the center of the community. 

Life on the plains was difficult and people often sought solace in their religious faith and their church communities. Robert Swierenga describes how farming becomes “an act of faith, and one’s religion is practiced through farming as much as through gathering for Sunday Worship” (Entz 124). Farming was a calling and an expression of ultimate commitments. 

Religion and Social Causes

By the 1840s, there was a religious shift from focusing on converting Native Americans to reforming socio-political conditions. Religion became inextricably linked to politics and social causes. Yet the unsettled character of the population challenged effective congregational life. Both Catholics and Protestants employed circuit riders to organize congregations throughout the region. However, "the economic hardships of life on the plains contributed to the instability of Catholic and Protestant congregations alike" (Entz 131). Despite this, religion and religious thought became increasingly politicized during the territorial period. Only Utah with its large Mormon population was more religiously politicized than Kansas.

Religion was also tied to debates over slavery and prohibition. In 1861 the Kansas State Temperance Society was formed; all the founding members were associated with religious sects. One of their first resolutions was, “look to the churches of our state for earnest cooperation in the work of temperance” (Frances 200). Religion was woven into the social fabric of life.

However, by the late 1880s many churches in Kansas "had fallen short in satisfying their expected spiritual and social responsibilities" (Entz 138). According to historian Peter H. Argersinger, "The churches failing to develop during the plush boom years, entered a period of retrenchment with the onset of hard times, leaving many Kansans without religious service or solace" (Entz 138). People began to turn to Populist politics for social support and change, though many individuals retained ties to religious ideas and institutions. As a result, Populism in Kansas took on a more religious based character than it did in other states. Communities infused Populist policies into religious organizations, encouraging churches to refocus on the role of defending those most in need.

Central Congregational Church

This is an exterior view of Central Congregational Church, 1248 SW Buchanan, Topeka, Kansas. This is where Reverend Charles Sheldon first read his book In His Steps.

Following in His Steps

Following in His Steps by University of Kansas Professor of Religious Studies Timothy Miller.

Charles Sheldon

During this period, some preachers rose to prominence. One of the most well-known preachers was Charles Sheldon, minister at Central Congregational Church in Topeka. He attained near folk-hero status in Topeka. Sheldon used sermons as a mode of storytelling, with each sermon ending with a cliffhanger. This encouraged people to come the following week to hear the conclusion.

He developed the phrase, and framed his sermons around the question, "What would Jesus Do?" He expanded on his theme to write the religious fiction novel, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? The novel was not about personal redemption, but instead moral choices related to encountering circumstances of poverty and deprivation.

Sheldon was also a leader of the Social Gospel movement. This applied Christian ethics to social issues such as economic inequality, poverty, crime, alcoholism, child labor, and racial tensions. Sheldon was particularly concerned with equality. He believed that all people were equal and should be treated as such.

He was a pioneer among Protestant ministers in welcoming African Americans into a mainstream church. He was also committed to fair treatment for Jews and Catholics, and proclaimed the equality of men and women. In March 1900 Sheldon became the editor for a week at the Topeka Daily Capital applying the "What Would Jesus Do?" concept. During that time, the newspaper's circulation exploded from just under 12,000 to 387,000, overwhelming the paper's Topeka printing plant.

Operating on a postmillennialist theology, followers of the Social Gospel believed the Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort. The Social Gospel swept through American Protestantism.

Similar to Pentecostalism, this movement targeted those who considered themselves unwelcome in other denominations. In particular, he targeted students at Washburn College who were looking for a strong religious community that would support them during their studies. The Social Gospel provided renewed optimism during difficult times.

Charles F. Parham

Charles F. Parham

Charles Parham

Concurrent with Sheldon's ministry was the work of Charles Parham, who would go on to found the Pentecostal movement. Sheldon wanted to “first alleviate the social problems of his listeners before converting them to Christianity. Parham believed that the solution to the challenges of life in Kansas would follow the embrace of full faith, evidenced by speaking in tongues” (Bearman 121). For Parham, the end times were imminent and it was imperative to evangelize the world right away. Therefore, while he was deeply invested in social welfare, he prioritized missionary efforts.

Both men ministered in the same small Topeka community, each seeking to alleviate the suffering so present in their local communities and across the country. However, they had opposite views on how and why social ministry was important. Due to their doctrinal differences, each man had a separate following and they mostly ignored each other.

Bearman, Alan F., and Jennifer L. Mills. “Charles M. Sheldon and Charles F. Parham: Adapting Christianity to the Challenges of the American West.” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 32 (Summer 2009): 106–23.

Entz, Gary R. “Religion in Kansas Review Essay.” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 28 (Summer 2005).

Frances, Clara. “The Coming of Prohibition to Kansas.” In Collections of the Kansas State Historical Society, Vol. 15. Topeka Kansas: B. P. Walker State Printer, 1923.

Kansas at the Turn of the Century
Religious Diversity and the Shaping of Kansas