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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


Oklahoma's religious profile varies markedly from national norms. The state's residents identify themselves as Southern Baptist almost seven times more often than other Americans, but Churches of Christ, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Holiness groups are also much more common in Oklahoma than elsewhere. Correspondingly, Oklahomans are much less often associated either with mainstream Protestant churches, Roman Catholicism, or Judaism. Nevertheless, Baptists are not as dominant in Oklahoma as they are in many surrounding states. The resultant mix is made even richer by the continuing strength of American Indian spirituality and religious influences. Such differences stem from the state's unique history and remain a major shaper of its people and institutions.

Long before the impact of such historical developments, a regional center for prehistoric American Indian religious practices was located at Spiro. The mound building practices of that culture did not endure, but subsequent tribal traditions defined religion for successive Native populations until the early nineteenth century. Although varying considerably between different tribes, American Indian spirituality and religious beliefs and practices also had much in common. Most notably, these peoples' tendency to see the spiritual as united in all elements of life remained constant, even though specific rituals changed in accord with changes in tribal ways of life. For instance, variations of the Sun Dance ceremony spread throughout the nineteenth century with related rituals retained in the Native American Church today. Most contemporary Oklahoma American Indians, however, maintain either a wholly Christian world view or one with limited elements of traditional beliefs. The latter may be seen in a deep respect for nature or a continuing commitment to historic ceremonies such as traditional harvest celebrations held each year by American Indian groups within varied denominations.

The first Christian adherents in Oklahoma were probably Roman Catholics found among French trappers or their Osage allies. Much stronger historical influences followed the introduction of Christianity to the Five Tribes after 1801 when Moravian missionaries first began seeking Christian converts among those tribes. The Moravian successes spurred missionary endeavors by numerous denominations and led to the organization of the United Foreign Mission Society (UFMS), a joint Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed initiative in 1817. Two years later, the UFMS sponsored the work of Epaphras Chapman and Job Vinal among the Osages in Oklahoma. By 1820 that work had led to the establishment of Union Mission near present Mazie, the first mission and Indian school in Oklahoma.

In 1821 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), which had been formed to carry on Presbyterian and Congregationalist missionary work, established Dwight Mission in Arkansas to minister to the Western Cherokees. That mission moved to Indian Territory in 1828. Even stronger Christian influences arrived with successive tribal migrations into Indian Territory. Many within the Five Tribes, particularly mixed bloods and emerging leadership groups, had already adopted Christianity by the time of the "trails of tears." Frequently, missionaries from the ABCFM or their Baptist and Methodist counterparts accompanied the tribes on their forced migrations to Indian Territory. Once there, the missionaries were major forces in tribal cultural and political life. Besides establishing missions and schools, the missionaries translated tribal languages into English, published Bibles and other native language materials, sponsored newspapers, founded orphanages, and promoted temperance and other programs they believed would benefit the tribes. At the same time, the missions indirectly influenced locations of roads, patterns of economic growth, and similar developments in their respective locations.

The Cherokees benefited from the work of two major endeavors. Samuel A. Worcester, a Congregationalist minister associated with the ABCFM, located at Dwight Mission in 1835. He established a printing press there and soon produced a translation of portions of scripture and a Cherokee primer, the first materials printed in Oklahoma. In 1837 Worcester moved his operations to Park Hill, near Tahlequah, where he eventually printed millions of pages of missionary and Cherokee and other tribal materials. His efforts were particularly effective among mixed-blood elements in the tribe, and the educational center that grew at Park Hill became known as "the Athens of the American Southwest."

Evan Jones, a Baptist, established a comparable ministry among full bloods near present Westville. The mission complex eventually included the Cherokee Female Seminary and printing operations exceeded only by Worcester's. Jesse Bushyhead, a Cherokee convert, was a key element in all of Jones's successes. The ABCFM's Cyrus Byington and Cyrus Kingsbury initiated comparable efforts among the Choctaw and Chickasaw. By 1838 the ABCFM maintained ten schools including the best known, Wheelock Academy, among those tribes. Byington published the first Choctaw grammar in 1843, and Alfred Wright's translation of selected biblical texts followed shortly.

In 1842 Evan Jones initiated pioneer Baptist work in the Creek Nation, which had strongly opposed missionary influence immediately following the removal period. Nine years later the fruits of Jones's work and the efforts of Joseph Island, a Creek national minister, were seen in the establishment of the Muskogee Baptist Association. By that time Presbyterian missionaries had also resumed work among the Creeks, establishing Tullahassee Mission, which became the principal learning center for the Creek Nation under the direction of William S. and Ann Eliza Robertson. Ann Eliza Robertson was the daughter of Samuel Worcester and the mother of Alice Robertson, U.S. representative from Oklahoma (1921–23). John Bemo, a Seminole convert, spearheaded the initial efforts among his people in the same period.

The slavery issue divided many of the principal denominations represented in Indian Territory but did not interrupt the spread of Christian influences. In fact, resultant divisions of Baptists, Methodists, and other denominations into northern and southern wings often produced a competition that increased the number of groups sponsoring missionaries. In turn, the influence of the missionaries played key roles shaping tribal responses to the slavery issue and subsequent participation in the Civil War. For instance, Evan Jones was a strong supporter of Chief John Ross, and Jones's abolitionism accounts for the predominant antislavery sentiment among the Cherokee full bloods. Missionary influence on tribal politics was also seen after the war when John Jones, Evan Jones's son, played a major role in facilitating reunification of the Cherokees.

The Civil War effectively ended missionary efforts in Indian Territory for four years. Resultant tribal divisions, property losses, and other problems delayed restoration of mission work for years in many areas. Nevertheless, the resumption of missionary efforts contributed greatly to stabilization in Indian Territory. The same era also provided a foundation for expanded missionary efforts among the plains tribes with the introduction of Pres. Ulysses S. Grant's peace policy that encouraged Mennonites, Quakers, and other Protestants to work as Indian agents among these tribes in western Oklahoma. Despite such instances and notable work by John J. Methvin, Frank Hall Wright, and numerous others, missionary efforts among the Plains Indian tribes were handicapped by limited resources, changing federal policies, and economic and other problems. As a result, both missions and schools were comparatively limited in western Oklahoma, and most were formed only after 1890. The most notable of the missions included Sacred Heart Mission, a Catholic mission to the Potawatomi tribe, the Seger Colony, established by the Mennonites to minister to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, the Baptists' Rainy Mountain Mission, which served the Kiowa, Post Oak Mission, a Mennonite effort among the Kiowa, and Whirlwind Mission, an Episcopal effort serving the Cheyenne. As had taken place among eastern tribes, converts from within the Plains tribes also served as ministers spreading the message through those means. In 1881 the Episcopalians launched one of the most ambitious missionary campaigns among western tribes sponsoring David Pendleton Oakerhater and Paul Zotom as missionaries to their respective Kiowa and Cheyenne tribes. Perhaps of even greater significance were locally sponsored efforts that led to the establishment of Native churches among tribal people in communities across the state. Baptists and Methodists were particularly successful in this regard.

The most important factor shaping missionary responses after 1890 was the rapid influx of white populations. Indian Territory population grew more than ten fold, swelling from 71,000 in 1880 to 733,000 in 1906. The vast majority of the increase came from railroad workers, coal miners, farmers, and their families who entered the territory under tribal permit laws. Correspondingly, a series of land runs and other land openings in western Oklahoma after 1889 provided homes for 681,000 people by the eve of 1907 statehood. This flood of people overwhelmed available resources in the mainline denominations, which were unable to replicate their denominational structures or place the number of trained clergy required to serve burgeoning settlements. Episcopalians, for example, did not establish a bishopric for Oklahoma until 1895, well after both territories were largely settled. Under these circumstances, the organizational flexibility of the Baptists, Methodists, and comparable groups helped to assure their relative dominance in the emerging state.

Before that time, however, territorial-era migrations contributed to the state's ethnic and religious mix. The migration of African Americans to the Twin Territories added to already significant numbers of tribal Freedmen and their descendantswho clustered in All-Black towns, where African Methodist, Episcopal, Baptists, and similar groups dominated. In Indian Territory coal mining drew southern and eastern European populations, many with Catholic, Orthodox, or other religious convictions. The ancestors of much of the state's present Jewish population arrived during the same period. Saints Cyril and Methodius, a Russian Orthodox church at Hartshorne, reflects the regional diversity of eastern Oklahoma. Western Oklahoma communities frequently contain other ethnic churches such as those established by Mennonites and by other denominations characteristic of the Germans from Russia who established farms and communities on the plains.

The religious preferences of original settlers continued to shape the state's religious profile. Therefore, Southern Baptists remain strongest in those areas immediately adjacent to Texas and Arkansas where their denomination enjoys comparable strengths. In contrast, they are weakest in northern areas of the state, settled by midwestern populations.

The territorial period also produced issues and organizations that frequently competed with churches for the loyalties of Oklahomans. Rapid growth of populations, the agricultural crises of the years before statehood, and other pressures virtually assured problems for the new state and its peoples. In response, Populists and Socialists attracted supporters with tactics and appeals mirroring the religious-revivalist techniques of the era. Oklahoma Socialists, who attracted at least 15 percent of the state's votes for the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1912 and 1916, were often noted for identifying their causes with those of Christianity. Thomas W. Woodrow, a Universalist minister who published Woodrow's Monthly from 1914 to 1919, was an exponent of this view. Similar sentiments were echoed in the songs of Woody Guthrie.

Oklahoma's churches and charitable institutions responded to the state's needs in other ways. Poverty and corresponding pressures on institutions increased the importance of church-related work in many fields. Even those denominations that struggled to gain a foothold in the new state often made valuable contributions to the well-being of the state's residents. The most notable examples of this were seen in the proliferation of hospitals, colleges and academies, and other services. Many denominations established hospitals, often the only ones serving large numbers of people. The contribution of varied Catholic orders from Benedictines to the Sisters of Mercy were especially significant as providers of this vital service.

Church-based programs from newspapers to orphanages also served the new state. Masons, Odd Fellows, and other fraternal groups joined numerous denominations supporting children's homes and other programs that benefited their charges long before state or federal governments assumed their present roles as social services providers. Many of the denominational children's ministries continue as significant contributors to the well-being of the state's children.

Similarly, Baptist groups alone established five colleges before statehood, of which Oklahoma Baptist University and Bacone College remain. Bacone was established in 1884 as Indian University, the joint effort of Joseph Murrow and Almon C. Bacone. Murrow, who had begun his missionary efforts among the Seminoles in 1857, was a linchpin in Oklahoma Baptist work in the last half of the nineteenth century and is also regarded as the father of Scottish rite Masonry in the state. Bacone College, which functioned historically as a junior college, has retained a mission to American Indian students and began to offer senior college course work in 2000. It is supported by the American Baptist Convention, one of the last evidences of that group's one-time prominence in Oklahoma. Oklahoma Baptist University and the majority of the remaining Baptist work in the state is associated with the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and the Southern Baptist Convention.

Other religious colleges and academies serving Oklahomans at one time included Cordell Christian College, Epworth (Methodist) University, Oklahoma Presbyterian College, Phillips University (Disciples of Christ), and a number of Catholic institutions of higher education. Religious colleges active today include St. Gregory's (Catholic) College, Oklahoma Baptist University, Oklahoma City University (Methodist), Bartlesville Wesleyan College (Methodist), Hillsdale Free Will Baptist (Junior) College, Bethany Nazarene College, Oklahoma Christian University of Science and Arts (Church of Christ), and others.

Baptists and comparable groups also played a key role supporting a constitutional mandate for prohibition of intoxicating beverages. Passed as an amendment to the Oklahoma Constitution in the same 1907 election that ratified the basic document, prohibition represented victory for a diverse group of reformers. These ranged from local churches to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League, and social reformers such as those who sought to retain long-term restrictions on sale of alcohol to American Indian populations. The prohibition issue was a major shaper of state politics until its repeal in 1959. In addition, it represented a part of a larger Protestant social-political synthesis typical of the southern United States. In this synthesis, Fundamentalism and revivalism are linked to prevailing cultural norms to give religious sanction to cultural practices and values. Besides prohibition, this attitude was also seen in frequent church support for other southern practices, including racial segregation, as well as in the political conservatism that prevailed in the state by the 1930s. Another extreme manifestation of related practices occurred in 1917 when the state passed a "Bone Dry" prohibition law banning purchase or consumption of sacramental wine.

Despite evident strengths during early statehood, the Southern Baptists and similar groups had barely reached half of their present percentages in the state by 1916. Their subsequent growth followed successive population movements from farms to towns, thence to cities and on to suburbs. Oklahoma was still almost 70 percent rural in 1930, a decade after the rest of the nation had more than half of its population in urban settings. The Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and World War II forced many Oklahomans out of isolated rural areas and into the towns and cities. There once again, the flexibility of the less-structured denominations allowed them to adapt most effectively to the rapidly changing conditions, with many local churches sponsoring new congregations to serve growing communities. By the time of the 1950s Cold War these advantages were augmented by the gradual decline of mainline denominations and the more conservative church groups' ability to link their teachings with prevailing anticommunist concerns of the era. An extreme example of this linkage was seen in Billy James Hargis's Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, which was headquartered in Tulsa. That city also served as home for Oral Roberts, a Methodist minister who moved from Pentecostal tent meetings and healing crusades to national recognition for his television ministries and who subsequently founded the Tulsa university bearing his name.

Despite the continuing impact of historic patterns favoring such expressions, diverse religious traditions have persisted in Oklahoma and have often challenged the prevailing conservative-Protestant synthesis. Nicholas Comfort, who headed the Oklahoma School of Religion at the University of Oklahoma (1924–47) was an outspoken proponent of the social gospel. More dramatic departures from the norm emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century as forces shaping regional and national culture increasingly affected Oklahoma. By the end of the 1970s significant Vietnamese and Hispanic migrations had altered the religious as well as the ethnic profile of the state. Religious groups stemming from the countercultural movement of the 1960s also found homes in Oklahoma. The state's larger cities now provide homes to Islamic mosques and Buddhist temples alongside the churches that embody the state's older religious and cultural roots.

Alvin O. Turner


Frank A. Balyeat, "Joseph Samuel Murrow, Apostle to the Indians," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 35 (Fall 1957).

Althea Bass, Cherokee Messenger: The Life of Samuel Austin Worcester (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968).

Thomas Elton Brown, "Oklahoma's 'Bone Dry Law' and the Roman Catholic Church," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 52 (Fall 1974).

Louis Coleman, "Cyrus Byington: Missionary to the Choctaws," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 62 (Winter 1984–85).

Robert V. Cottrell, "The Social Gospel of Nicholas Comfort," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 61 (Winter 1983–84).

J. M. Gaskin, Baptist Milestones in Oklahoma (N.p.: Good Printing Co., 1966).

Arrell M.Gibson, Oklahoma: A History of Five Centuries (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981).

Richard H. Harper, "The Missionary Work of the Reformed (Dutch) Church in Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 18 (Part I, September 1940, Part II, December 1940), 19 (Part III, June 1941).

Roland Hinds, "Early Creek Missions," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 17 (March 1939).

Roger Horne, "The Christian Socialism of Thomas W. Woodrow: Oklahoma's First Preacher," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 69 (Spring 1991).

H. J. Lloyd, "Right Reverend Francis Key Brooke," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 12 (March 1934).

Alice Hurley Mackey, "Father Murrow: Civil War Period," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 12 (March 1934).

William McLoughlin, Champions of the Cherokees: Evan and John B. Jones (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990).

W. B. Morrison, "The Choctaw Mission of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 4 (June 1926).

Sister Mary Joachim Oberketter, "Bishop Francis Clement Kelley," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 42 (Winter 1964–65).

Herbert Miner Pierce, "Baptist Pioneers in Eastern Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 30 (Fall 1952).

E. C. Routh, "Early Missionaries to the Cherokees," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 15 (December 1937).

E. C. Routh, "Henry Frieland Buckner," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 14 (December 1936).

Keith Tolman, "The Sacramental Wine Case of 1917–18," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 62 (Fall 1984).

Alvin O. Turner, "Journey to Sainthood: David Pendleton Oakerhater's Better Way," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 70 (Summer 1992).

James D. White, "Destined for Duty: The Life and Diary of Bishop Theophile Meerschaert," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 71 (Spring 1993).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Alvin O. Turner, “Religion,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=RE024.

Published January 15, 2010

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