Show Me Missouri: The history of Religion in the Ozarks

Bicentennial

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Near an overgrown patch of land on what is now college street in Springfield, hangs a marker commemorating the region’s first religious congregation. The marker also reminds us that race played a role in Missouri’s religion from the beginning.

In fact, African Americans literally laid the foundations for faith in the Ozarks.

“Hannah Fulbright was born in Maryland. And she lived in the late 19th century—the late 1800s,” said Missouri State University Religious Studies professor John Schmalzbauer. “And she says ‘I hauled logs for this cabin during the slavery era.’ She was an African American woman. And there were about 30 enslaved people that came with the Fulbright family from Tennessee. And numerous accounts, including the family of Aida Fulbright, who was a well-known educator in Springfield, say that yes: Our families built this cabin. Why does that matter? Because not only is it the first house in Springfield, but it’s the first place where people gathered for the first sermon, the first church service, and a few weeks later, the first congregation. And it was the Fulbrights inviting the circuit rider Rev. James Slavens. Not just because he had a doctor of ministry, which I don’t know if he actually had, but he was a medical doctor and a preacher, circuit-riding methodist. And he held that first service.”

“And it was right here,” said Schmalzbauer. “Normally, you don’t know where the first happened. And, of course, there is religion in southwest Missouri long before this. There are Catholics passing through in the era of the french and the Spanish in the state of Missouri. There are native Americans, and later the trail of tears doesn’t go that far from here, which is actually after this cabin. And we’re pretty near that too. So, the crossroads of lots of threads of American religion right here.”

The African American Faith Community in Springfield flourished after the Civil War. But the negative side of race and religion met again in 1906. Early on Easter morning, April 14t, 1906, an angry mob hanged two African American men in the square. The two were falsely accused of assaulting a white woman. These murders drove many African Americans, who had built a prosperous local economy of black-owned businesses out of the region.

Of course, Missouri’s religion is a broad experience that transcends.

The Pew Research Center says 77% of Missourians identify as Christian. This percentage has more or less held steady since the state’s founding. Evangelicals make up 36% of Missouri Christians, with mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics at 16% each. Black protestants are six percent of the Christian population. Mormons are just one percent, which may be owed, in part, to the so-called Mormon-Missouri war. In the 1830s, Mormon Evangelists in northwest Missouri clashed with other new settlers to the state. Armed conflict between Mormons and Non-Mormons–all of whom were Missourians–led the state to ban Mormons starting in 1838. That policy was eventually reversed, but its legacy lives on.

And the experience of the Missouri religion is racially diverse. Springfield’s African American population established several local congregations including Gibson Chapel Presbyterian Church.

Roman Catholics, who were the dominant faith group in St. Louis as that city led the state in growth, were unwelcome by some in southwest Missouri early on. In fact, the Ozarks were home to a well-known anti-catholic movement in the early 20th century.

Meanwhile, scholars refer to parts of the Ozarks as an evangelical epicenter. And that’s easy to see in the local manifestations of the Assemblies of God, the nation’s second-largest Pentecostal denomination, which has its headquarters in Springfield. The rural experience of Missouri’s religion is also deep. 20th-century revival meetings were a regular occurrence.

Other religious groups have been small in number in the Ozarks, but present and active in the community. Temple Israel in Springfield says the first Jews arrived in the area in the 1860s, with the temple organized in 1893.

About 100 years later, the Islamic Center of Springfield opened its doors.

Then there are those who don’t have a religion–fully 20% of the Missouri population, according to Pew. That may surprise some, but it is in keeping with a broader, national trend.

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