Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 1981


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 4, Fall 1981, pp. 224-38.


Copyright 1981 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


There can be little doubt that the church as an institution played a major role in the organization and development of community on nineteenth-century American frontiers, especially in the Middle West. Zealous missionary activity was characteristic of American Protestantism in the nineteenth century, and a good portion of that effort was expended on midwestern frontier populations. Thus the region emerged as a locus of fierce competition between the established American denominations. In addition, the Midwest was fertile ground for the establishment of new denominations. Many who settled the region were immigrants who came directly from Europe. Their uprooting severed ties with the formal churches of Europe and created a need in America that was filled by a variety of ethnic denominations.

The result was a heavily churched landscape, especially in the strongly ethnic band of settlement that stretched across the Upper Midwest from northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin to the eastern parts of the Dakotas and Nebraska. A map of churched population based on county data from the 1890 federal census illustrates this religious intensity.1 It shows t'hat a high proportion of the population along this band of ethnic settlement was affiliated with religious organizations and that an especially high rate of church membership existed in the German and Scandinavian areas of southern Wisconsin and central Minnesota. Indeed, by the end of the century many church leaders considered the Midwest to be "overchurched" and lamented what they clearly felt had been overly competitive efforts to establish churches in the region.2

The competition among denominations in the nineteenth century has attracted the attention of scholars and a sizable literature has emerged on the organized efforts to reach and gather the unchurched souls of pioneer populations. Many of these studies focus on the denomination, chronicling the process of denominational mission work, the struggle to establish the new ethnic denominations, and the theological issues that made the denominations distinctive and competitive.3 Less attention has been paid to the role of religious organization at the level of the individual pioneer congregation. Yet it was at this level that the church was most relevant to the new settlers. Whereas the denomination was a structural and purposive organization, dedicated to the preservation and propagation of a theological point of view, the local congregation was a social institution that fulfilled the pioneers' more immediate need for a sense of belonging and for community leadership.

My purpose here is to examine the functional roles of the immigrant church of the Upper Midwest in defining community and in preserving cultural values, with special emphasis on the way in which the physical presence and architectural style of the church may have symbolized these roles. While the functional roles of the immigrant church may be fairly well understood, its place on the cultural landscape has received only passing comment. Historians of American immigration, for instance, generally characterize the church as a symbolic place but do not define the manner in which its symbolism is evident on the landscape. Geographers who make a practice of studying religious landscapes argue that religion can make a substantial impact, particularly under conditions of low diversity . Yet they have done relatively little to demonstrate this in the United States.4 In his book on American cultural geography, wilbur Zelinsky noted that the church has been "scandalously neglected" in studies of the American settlement landscape.5