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The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May of 1854 formally opened a new region of the United States to settlers. Hundreds came with news of the creation of Nebraska Territory, but not in comparable numbers to the major western migrations that would follow after the Civil War. Instead, the initial small waves of Nebraska settlers would cling to the Missouri River and its settlements establishing communities on the eastern edges in the newly opened territory. These first settlers set the foundations for culture and society in Nebraska.
From 1854 until 1860, pioneers claimed lands near the Missouri, with few towns founded in the territorial interior. The initial settlements of Nebraska Territory also grouped around areas previously inhabited by whites such as the Indian mission and fur traders at Bellevue, the old Fort Kearney (Nebraska City), and the Mormon Winter Quarters near Florence. Coming mostly from northern states, these new settlers included a variety of farmers, merchants and laborers.
It was into this area that “home” missionaries and ministers were sent. Men went to the frontier or white civilization to bring the gospel message to their fellow American citizens in an effort to “save the West,” and thus Nebraska, from what easterners believed to be barbarism. Men came to Nebraska Territory from Protestant churches to win over the unconverted and to maintain a Victorian way of life for the good of the nation in a grand patriotic gesture. This cohort of missionaries came from several distinct denominations, but instead of competing, as was the tendency in the East, they cooperated. Instead of choosing to squabble interdenominationally, they rallied against the threat of irreligion, and what they considered to be sects – Campbellism and Mormonism. Campbellites, as the followers of Thomas and Alexander Campbell were sometimes derisively called by mainstream Protestant denominations, began with strong antidenominationalism and relied heavily on the theology of Alexander Campbell. He insisted on the maxim, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent,” which led to and estrangement with other denominations and the foundation of a denomination for “Christians,” “Reformers,” or simply “Disciples.” Mormons, following the teachings of Joseph Smith and the leadership of Brigham Young, had traveled through pre-territorial Nebraska on their way to settling by 1850 in the Great Salt Lake Valley and were sending missionaries elsewhere to draw more people into their church. The Campbellites and Mormons were self-identified outsiders, alienating themselves by insisting that their interpretations of religion were correct and all others were wrong. Thus, to Protestants ministers were needed to win over and shape the American frontier and maintain an American national identity they defined to embody morality and civilization. These men worked to build the moral and social groundings upon which Protestants believed “good” people needed in order to establish themselves within the new territory. The era of settlement from the opening of Nebraska Territory until the Civil War has not attracted much historical attention. It might be assumed from reading various texts on the history of the American West that nothing occurred in Nebraska until statehood and the railroad. Instead considerable settlement occurred with a new social foundation. In particular, several Protestant ministers entered Nebraska from 1854 until 1860, and they quickly secured a presence and influence on the development of Nebraska’s frontier culture and society.
Three ministers represent this important development. Reuben Gaylord, a Congregationalist minister, settled in Omaha, Nebraska Territory, after working in Iowa Territory. Henry T. Davis, a Methodist circuit rider who traveled through Nebraska on his way to the gold fields of California as a young man, returned to Nebraska as a minister once he personally “found religion.” And Amos Billingsley, an Old School Presbyterian minister, initially settled in Florence and then later moved to Brownville, where he established a church only to move on to the Colorado mines in 1861.
These home missionaries revealed their concern for how they spent their time. All three missionaries expressed the need to account for their time, of which the most bold was Rev. Amos Billingsley. On the title page of his diary, in large, bold print is “Redeem the Time.” More than a simple Victorian preoccupation with time management, these ministers felt responsible to God for how they spent their time.
Each of these men recorded their personal accounts and recollections in some form: Billingsley left a diary, Gaylord wrote letters to his sponsoring agency, and Davis wrote an autobiography of his ministry in Nebraska. They recorded their temporal investments as a way to “redeem the time.” The similar experiences that these men shared despite being from different denominations in a time of notorious national denominational strife are startling. Personal accounts of difficulties, both physical and mental are common in their writings, but each of the ministers took on a spiritual burden unique to their profession, bringing out a depth of personal character. Unlike the many men who came west in an extractive effort, these ministers sought to invest in the lives of the men and women leading the immigrant vanguard and to become spiritual anchors by which to hold back the rambunctious nature of a frontier people, all the while revealing their spiritual needs.
Seeking souls for conversion, the ministers set out for Nebraska Territory along different routes, each with a similar destination. These ministers preceded a call for ministers following the Civil War that resulted in large Protestant migrations. Instead of Lutherans and Baptists, these men were Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Methodist. Their churches did not gain large numbers – at least during this period – so their actual influence is difficult to quantify. Choosing the professional ministry, these men did not supplement their incomes through farming or other labors, but instead they relied on the donations of local church members and those with whom they had contact. Rather than proselytizing or recruiting members from similar competing denominations to join their churches, these Protestant ministers worked together to strengthen inter-church bonds and to convince the unconvinced of, as they called it, the need to “get religion.” When closely investigated, these early Nebraska Protestant ministers defy common assumptions about churches and missionaries in the West.