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The Religious History of the Ozarks is Rich and Varied, Part 1

The religious landscape of the Ozarks is rich and varied. As a part of KSMU’s ongoing series A Sense of Place, Missy Shelton visits with Religious Studies Professor John Schmalzbauer about the history of religion in the Ozarks.

(Listen to Part 2 of our report to learnmoreabout the history of religion in the Ozarks, including a look at the presence of Islam and eastern religions in the Ozarks.)

Shelton: John Schmalzbauer holds the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies at Missouri State University. John, glad to have you with me. I guess if you’re going to start with mapping out the religious history and the early landscape of what it looked like in terms of religion here in the Ozarks, where would you start?

Schmalzbauer: You’d probably start with the Native Americans. You talk about the Osage and groups that came through the area like the Cherokee. Some of those groups had indigenous Native American religious traditions. Others like the Cherokee had been exposed to Christianity and that was part of what they brought with them on the Trail of Tears through the Ozarks. You also have to talk about the French and Spanish. Catholicism which is something that’s still a minority religion in the Ozarks, was one of the earliest western religious traditions to arrive here.

Shelton: Once we get past the French and Spanish folks who came through the area, is it after that time that we start to see the early stages of what evangelical Christian?

Schmalzbauer: That’s right. The group that continues to be by far the most important religious tradition in this region. You only have to look at the origins of people in Missouri. The geography Russ Gerlock who taught at Missouri State mapped where people came from. They came from Kentucky and Tennessee, from Appalachia, bringing with them Baptist religion, revivalism, the Disciples of Christ and later the Churches of Christ, these traditions that came out of frontier experiences, a period called the Second Great Awakening. This wave of revivalism swept places like Kentucky and Tennessee where out in the forest, there would be meetings with spirited preaching and very much emotional expressiveness in the worship. People showing bodily expressions of their faith. These are sort of the ancestors of Ozarks evangelicalism. These revivals don’t take place in the Ozarks but they shape the religious cultures that move into the Ozarks a little but later.

Shelton: As these people come to the Ozarks, how do their religious traditions evolve and change, and take on a uniquely Ozark characteristic?

Schmalzbauer: One characteristic is that this area may not have been all that heavily churched. You do have people coming from this area of revivalism but lots of them are not particularly church-y. Revivalism which is episodic, periodic but not weekly services is the form of religion you get in a lot of places. And you don’t have enough clergy to supply Sunday preaching every week. Gradually, over time, the area becomes more churched.

Shelton: It seems there was still some of the elements of the revivalism, the outdoor meetings that carried over?

Schmalzbauer: That’s right. Camp meeting was the term for what took place during the Second Great Awakening. That kind of outdoor religious service became popular here. What took place back in East in Appalachia but also here were the so-called brush arbor revivals, which were outdoor services where there were benches and a canopy of braches that would be put over the people and often held in the evening.

Shelton: What other groups, Catholic or non-Christian religious groups are trying to find a place in the Ozarks as those brush arbor revivals are happening?

Schmalzbauer: You have a German Catholic presence in parts of the Ozarks in the 1800’s onward. You also have German Lutherans in places like Freistatt. In terms of groups that would not identify as Christian, there’s been a Jewish presence in Springfield since the 1890’s at least in terms of a formal synagogue. What was once actually for much of its history two congregations under one roof—United Hebrew Congregations, an orthodox congregation and a reform congregation, representing the more tradition and the more liberal branch of Judaism, now known as Temple Israel.

Shelton: I’ve been speaking with John Schmalzbauer, associate professer of Religious Studies at Missouri State University about the history of religion in the Ozarks.