Religions in Iowa
Native American Religions
Iowa's religious history began with the first human inhabitants. Native American cultures had their religious beliefs and practices. The few surviving written records make it difficult to know about these religions. Native American groups that lived in the area when the Europeans arrived worshipped objects of nature and explained mysterious occurrences in ways that satisfied their needs to understand. Native American groups who live in Iowa often retain their original religious beliefs. Foremost among these is the Meskwaki Settlement in Tama County, where their language and religion are cultivated with special attention.
European Settlers Bring Their Religions
The Europeans brought with them established forms of worship that differed from the Native American religions. The first Europeans to arrive in Iowa were French, Spanish and English and belonged to churches called Roman Catholic and Anglican. They brought religious leaders with them and worship services were held in the new settlements. The first known religious service to be held in the land that would become Iowa was in June 1673 when Father Jacques Marquette stopped on the west bank of the Mississippi River and offered a Catholic Mass.
After the U.S. government purchased the land that became Iowa, few people actually lived in the area until after 1833. The army drove Native Americans from Illinois into Iowa then, and also opened the area to settlement by white people. It is probable that African-Americans entered the area at the same time, although we know very little about their religious preferences. The Roman Catholic and the Methodist Episcopal churches both organized congregations in Iowa by 1834. By 1836 both denominations had constructed church buildings in Dubuque. Roman Catholic missionaries such as Father Samuel Mazzuchelli and Father Charles van Quickenborne founded missions along the Mississippi River.
As towns grew up along the Iowa frontier, other denominations arrived, particularly the Congregationalists, the Baptists and the Disciples of Christ. By 1843 a group of eight young men, recent graduates of Andover Theological Seminary in Connecticut, and collectively known as "The Iowa Band" came to Iowa to found Congregational churches, schools and colleges. By 1841 Missionary Bishop Kemper of the Episcopal Church visited Iowa and founded churches for that denomination. In 1839 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly called Mormon) settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, and many Mormons lived in Lee County, Iowa, in such settlements as Zarahemla. When the Mormon leaders were murdered in Illinois and the Mormons were forced to move, they crossed Iowa in one of the most famous migrations in the history of the U.S. frontier. As they passed through the state, they founded these Iowa towns: Garden Grove, Mount Pisgah, and Kanesville (now Council Bluffs).
As the 19th century passed, other religious groups made their homes in Iowa, including the Community of True Inspiration in the Amana Colonies (1857), the Dutch Reformed Church with Peter Scholte in Pella (1847), and the Society of Friends (Quakers) about the same time. Eastern Orthodox groups came too. Other denominations came although many of them were divisions from larger groups, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church. During the Civil War many churches split between northern and southern groups. As European immigration increased after 1845, many Lutherans moved to Iowa and divided into the national synods such as Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and German-speaking. Almost all of the groups founded churches, schools, colleges and other institutions.
Social Causes and Religious Groups
Some of the religious groups in Iowa were active in social causes, particularly abolition of slavery prior to the Civil War. The Quakers especially were active in helping escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. Because most Iowans were farmers in the early years of European settlement, most of the religious groups had agricultural roots. Those denominations that spoke languages other than English used their own language in church services and often also in school. They tended to stay within their communities, with little mixing with other groups. The use of languages other than English was ended by an "English Only" law during World War I. That action by the government broke the isolation of ethnic communities throughout the state.
Jewish and Muslim people lived in Iowa as early as the 19th century. Cedar Rapids is home to a longtime Islamic community and the oldest mosque in the U.S. Jewish synagogues and temples tended to be concentrated in larger cities. During the later 20th century, Iowa welcomed refugees from many parts of the world, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and other Asian countries. Some of these people were Christian, but many were Buddhist. Iowa is currently home to several Buddhist temples and Hindu temples. At the end of the 20th century refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Bosnia, and a variety of other troubled parts of the world moved to Iowa. They brought with them their religions, as well as their customs and ways of life.
Religion and Politics
Religious orientation of Iowans has had political effects in the state. For instance, during the days of Prohibition, struggles between those who wanted to prohibit alcohol consumption and those who were opposed to Prohibition was divided along both ethnic and geographical lines. Cities along the Mississippi River tended to believe that drinking was acceptable, while the southern and northwestern parts of the state were strongly for Prohibition. Often these positions were a direct result of the religious beliefs of people living in those areas. Similar disagreements were felt during the campaign for "Liquor by the Drink" laws, which would allow the sale of alcoholic beverages by the glass in bars and resturants during the 1960s, as well as the creation of gambling casinos in the 1980s. Where county options were possible, the religious base of population often determined whether liquor sales would be allowed or whether a casino or race track would be built.
Religious groups developed many Iowa colleges. More than three dozen were founded by church groups. Many began their existence as places for training of ministers and where church members could obtain higher education. Many churches also have been active in missionary work in developing countries and in social projects such as housing and health care. Church groups also have taken leadership positions in peace movements and aid to refugees from war zones. The diversity and the richness of Iowa's religious heritage is obvious when driving through large cities or small towns where places of worship populate the landscape.
In the 21st century religious groups deal with many issues that affect Iowans including ordination of women, homosexuality, divorce, abortion and child welfare. During World War I groups that were opposed to military service sometimes were subject to persecution, both legally and otherwise, but conflict among religions in Iowa has rarely been violent. In the 1960s the Amish were at the center of a controversy with the state when they resisted attempts to send their children to state schools. The government made some exceptions to the education laws and the problem was solved peacefully.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the Christian denominations which are most numerous in Iowa continue to be the Roman Catholic, United Methodist and various Lutheran synods. The variety of religions groups have added to the richness of the religious culture of the state.
Written for Iowa Pathways by Loren Horton.