SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Near an overgrown lot on what is now College Street in Springfield, hangs a marker commemorating the area’s first religious congregation. The marker also reminds us that race has played a role in Missouri religion from the beginning.
In fact, African Americans literally laid the foundation for faith in the Ozarks.
“Hannah Fulbright was born in Maryland. And she lived in the late 19th century, late 1800s, ”said John Schmalzbauer, professor of religious studies at Missouri State University. “And she said, ‘I hauled logs for this cabin in the days of slavery.’ She was an African-American woman. And there were about 30 slaves who came with the Fulbright family from Tennessee. And many testimonies, including the family of Aida Fulbright, who was a well-known educator in Springfield, say yes: our families built this cabin. Why does it matter? Because not only is it Springfield’s first home, but it’s also the first place people gathered for the first sermon, the first church service, and a few weeks later the first congregation. And it was the Fulbrights who invited the circuit pilot, the Reverend James Slavens. Not just because he had a doctorate in ministry, which I don’t know. ‘He really had it, but he was a doctor of medicine and a preacher, a traveling Methodist, and he held that first service.
“And it was right here,” Schmalzbauer said. “Normally you don’t know where the first one happened. And, of course, there’s religion in southwestern Missouri long before that. There are visiting Catholics during the French and Spanish times 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 close to that too. So the crossroads of a lot of the threads of American religion here. “
Springfield’s African-American faith community flourished after the Civil War. But the negative side of race and religion met again in 1906. Early on Easter morning, April 14, 1906, an angry mob hanged two African-American men in the plaza. The two were falsely accused of assaulting a white woman. These murders drove many African Americans from the region, who had built a thriving local black-owned business economy.
Of course, the religion of Missouri is a vast experience that transcends.
The Pew Research Center says 77% of Missourians identify as Christians. This percentage has remained more or less stable since the founding of the state. Evangelicals make up 36% of Christians in Missouri, with major Protestants and Roman Catholics at 16% each. Black Protestants make up six percent of the Christian population. Mormons are only one percent, which may be due, in part, to the so-called Mormon-Missouri War. In the 1830s, Mormon evangelists in northwestern Missouri clashed with other new settlers in the state. The armed conflict between Mormons and non-Mormons, who were all Missourians, led the state to ban Mormons from 1838. This policy was eventually reversed, but its legacy lives on.
And the experience of the Missouri religion is racially diverse. The African American people of Springfield established several local congregations, including the Presbyterian Church at Gibson Chapel.
Roman Catholics, who were the dominant faith group in St. Louis as that city led the state’s growth, were unwelcome by some in southwestern Missouri from the start. In fact, the Ozarks were home to a well-known anti-Catholic movement in the early 20th century.
Meanwhile, scholars are calling parts of the Ozarks an evangelical epicenter. And that’s easy to see in the local events of the Assemblies of God, the second largest Pentecostal denomination in the country, which is headquartered in Springfield. The rural experience of the Missouri religion is also profound. The revival meetings of the 20th century were regular.
Other religious groups were few 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 Springfield Islamic Center opened.
Then there are those who have no religion – 20% of Missouri’s population, according to Pew. This may come as a surprise to some, but it is part of a larger national trend.