University Studies of the University of Nebraska


Date of this Version



University of Nebraska Studies, new series no. 14, December 1955


(c) 1955 University of Nebraska


At a time when the control over the relationship of church and state seems to be shifting from the state governments to the Federal Government, it was decided to undertake a case study of the church-state problem in Nebraska. Such a study, stretching over a century, appeared to make possible a contribution to the understanding and solution of problems which have recently gained prominence and which will probably appear frequently in coming years. Any contribution, however slight, to an understanding of what constitutes the most desirable relationship of the church and the state may be of considerable value. Such a contribution would be especially valuable when the human freedoms to which the western world has paid allegiance seem to be facing the threat of extinction. Interwoven into the relationships of church and state are the problems of religious freedom. It is largely the relationship of these two institutions which determines the degree of religious freedom enjoyed by individuals. The right of religious liberty "is as fundamental in a free government like ours as is the right of life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness."

One result of religious freedom in the United States has been extreme denominationalism. The various denominations have a variety of beliefs and represent several different types of ecclesiastical organization. These differences have increased the demand for the protection of the religious freedom of all. Nebraska has had numerous religious sects represented within its borders from the earliest days of its history. As a background for consideration of the church-state problem in Nebraska, some knowledge of the religious complexion of the state is useful; for out of sectarian differences have arisen many problems in which the secular government has been involved. Several conclusions may be drawn from church membership statistics available for Nebraska since 1890.5 First, most church members have belonged to a few major sects. Never more than one and onehalf per cent of church members have been included in other than the twenty-seven major groups. Second, Protestants have always greatly outnumbered Catholics in Nebraska. Of the twenty-seven largest groups, the Roman Catholic Church has consistently been the largest single denomination, but, without exception, the combined membership of the two largest Protestant groups (Methodists and Lutherans) has outnumbered the Catholics. Moreover, the six largest Protestant groups (Baptists, Congregationalists, Disciples of Christ, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians) in each of the census reports, with the exception of that of 1916, show a combined membership double that of the Roman Catholic Church. These comparative figures are even more meaningful when the definition of membership is taken into consideration. Roman Catholics consider all baptized persons as members, while most Protestant groups consider as members only those who have officially joined the church. Thus, children are included in Catholic membership figures and excluded from Protestant membership statistics. It is important to note, too, that the majority of those in the population who were not officially affiliated with any church normally considered themselves Protestants. Third, not only has there been a consistent increase in church membership, but percentagewise this increase has been more rapid than population increase.