Vol. V, No. 3, Winter 1992

Fall 1988

Perspectives on the sacred:

Religion in the Ozarks

by Stanley Burgess

It was during the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee, which centered on the controversy between Creationists and Evolutionists, that H. L. Mehnken described that part of the South as the "Bible Belt." This appellation was but part of Mehnken's negative reaction to the staunch fundamentalist mentality which insisted on a literal interpretation of Scripture and rejected all attempts to identify human origins with Darwinian theories or scientific discoveries.

When I moved to Missouri twenty-nine years ago, I was told that not only is the Ozarks in the Bible Belt too, but that my new home city, Springfield, was the very buckle of that belt! However that may be, it soon become apparent to me that Ozarkers do take religion very seriously. This impression has not changed. The Ozarks is shaped by religion.*

References to the "Bible Belt" and "buckles" are trite cliches. Even worse, they are dangerously misleading over-generalizations. For one thing, religion in the Ozarks has been and continues to be full of variety. Not every religious Ozarker is a Bible-thumping, theologically conservative Christian. The region's northern and eastern border counties, for example, are predominantly German Catholic-- a tradition which draws from authority both within and outside the Scriptures. Other examples abound.

Religious Diversity: A Coat of Many Colors

Because of the strong feelings and intense provincial loyalties which many Ozarkers have about their religious life, few seem ready to celebrate this religious diversity. It is my opinion, however, that this rich variety has the appearance of a "coat of many colors"-- beautiful for its many hues, despite the suspicions of those who prefer the religious garment to be homogeneously unicolored, in the tint of their own choosing.

As early as 1673, the French brought Roman Catholicism to their Missouri settlements along the rivers, remnants of which culture still survive in the eastern Ozarks. The largest number of early American settlers in the Ozarks were Scotch-Irish. Originally Presbyterian, many had by then moved into Baptist, Methodist or Campbellite persuasions, which seemed better adapted to frontier and post-frontier situations.

Jews were not allowed into the Louisiana Territory while it was under French and Spanish Rule, but when it became a part of the United States, Jewish immigrants from Germany and Poland arrived. In 1836 their first services of worship were conducted in the Ozarks.

After the Civil War, many Christian blacks left the churches of their former masters, and formed their own groups--usually Baptist or Methodist--led by their own preachers.

Between 1830 and 1880 more than 100,000 German settlers came to the region. Their churches--whether Lutheran, Evangelical and Reformed, or Catholic--were of ultimate importance in their lives. Anyone who has been to Freistatt in Lawrence County, Missouri, with its hundred or so residents and massive Lutheran church, will understand that German tradition of the sacred.

At Sunlight, a rural hamlet in Washington County, Missouri.


A score of nationalities have come, generally in small groups or colonies, each with its own religious and ethnic traditions. These include the Italians at Rosati, Missouri and Tontitown, Arkansas; and in Missouri, the Swiss at Altus; the Polish at Pulaskifield; the Swedish at Swedeborg; and the Belgians at Belgique. Austrians, Bohemians, Danish, Dutch, Greek, Hungarians, Moravians, Portugese, Russians, Welsh and Yugoslavians also settled in the region. A number of Waldensians -- whose Italian-Swiss origins date back to twelfth century attempts to restore an uncorrupted form of primitive Christianity--settled in 1875 near Monett in Barry County, Missouri. About the same time a few Amish and Mennonite groups also found their way to the Ozarks, although their present settlements are of more recent origin.

Most recently, East Asian immigrants--including Korean, Vietnamese, and Philippinos -- have come to the Ozarks. The largest colony appears to be that of the Vietnamese in and around Carthage in Jasper County, Missouri.

Ozarks religion in the post Civil War era witnessed increased pluralism because of ethnic and cultural, as well as theological, conflicts. Struggles between conservatism and liberalism have been persistent for a century. Conservatives favor more literal interpretation of Scripture, and the need for spiritual regeneration. Liberals adapt religious ideas to modern culture and modes of thinking, emphasize social action, and approach Scripture historically more than literally. Thus far, conservatism seems to have prevailed.

"Holiness" groups emerged within the conservative camp, believing that even the conservative churches had become too worldly and modernistic, straying too far from the teachings of their own founders. In the twentieth century, Pentecostal and Fundamentalist churches sprang from such holiness thought.

Predominant Strands

Although reliable church membership data is difficult to come by, 1980 census data reveal that the Southern Baptist Convention has the largest number of members and adherents in most of the counties which make up the Missouri Ozarks. Roman Catholics are in the plurality in seven northern and eastern counties in Missouri, but no other single group predominates in more than two counties.

Southern Baptist 305,963
Roman Catholic 170,493
United Methodist   99,541
Assemblies of God   51,833
Churches of Christ   43,364
Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod   43,170
Christian Churches   28,237
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)   24,632
Bernard Quin et al., Churches and Church Membership in the United States. 1980.

The majority of Ozarkers today are of a type often referred to as "right-wing Protestants." They are either Evangelical (emphasizing the Bible, the good news of salvation, and the need to proclaim the gospel) or Fundamentalist (also evangelical, but with a more militant opposition to liberalism, Darwinism, non-literal interpretation of Scripture, and modern religious adaptations). Their churches represent popular religious expression. They are conservative in theology and socio-political preference, personal in both social and ritualistic expression, and vigorous in proselyting. They offer religious certainty with direct and simple answers. Above all, they are strongly individualistic--a feature which makes them at home among independent Ozarkers. Not surprisingly, Springfield, Missouri, is the international headquarters for two such conservative Protestant denominations--the Baptist Bible Fellowship and the Assemblies of God. The first is a growing and highly active Fundamentalist body. The second is by far the world's largest Pentecostal denomination, with approximately 16 million members (this group also is considered Evangelical). In addition, several smaller groups have chosen to locate their denominational headquarters in the Ozarks, e. g. The Church of God of Prophecy at Van Buren, Missouri, and the General Baptists in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.

Thorncrown Chapel, near Eureka Springs, Carroll County, Arkansas. A devotional chapel for tourists and vistors, this architecturally significant structure, designed by E. Fay Jones, has no denominational affiliation and does not serve a congregation. Photo by Christopher Lark.


Religion as Community in the Ozarks

Since pioneer days, religion has been a center of social life in the Ozarks. Frontier Ozarks churches differed, however, on the extent to which they were willing to include or exclude persons from the broader community. Some were exclusivistic--separating themselves from other religious folk and unbelievers alike, with such endogenous practices as marrying only one another. Others were inclusivistic, worshipping and socializing with all who shared their broad-mindedness.

Certain groups came to the Ozarks because they found here both the cultural separation and the cheap land they desired. These included the Amish and Mennonites, who insisted that "the world," i.e. everyone else, was a contaminating force. Their identity as well as their religious liberty depended on their continued separatism. Consequently, they have maintained their uniqueness in a relatively uncompromised form. And for both Amish and Mennonites, this uniqueness included a devotion to pacifism--"a peace witness."

But not all exclusivistic religious groups choosing to live in the Ozarks have promoted a gospel of peace. In recent decades the region has seen the coming of several radically militaristic religious groups, including one called the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord. Attracted not only by opportunities for inexpensive land and cultural isolation, but perhaps also by regional toleration of radical individualism, these extreme right-wing and sometimes Neo-Nazi militarists have given new dimension to the intolerance of exclusivism. This is evidenced in their use of violence to maintain their own system and lifestyles and by their threatening posture towards minorities whom they consider inferior.

Most Ozarkers reject such radicalism, choosing instead a broad socio-religious fellowship. Most notably, a highly inclusivistic religious institution has grown up and continues to flourish in the Ozarks: the community church. Community churches are typically interdenominational or nondenominational; with members evidencing sometimes pre-denominational, sometimes post-denominational tendencies. Usually the community church serves a particular geographical area, rather than a confessional group. Creeds are brief and simple, with the rest left to individual consciences. It is not uncommon to find Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals, Methodists, and others worshipping together in such an environment, and doing so free from sectarian spirit. Here the colors in the coat of many colors are blended. Another expression of community spirit occurs when established denominations cooperate, especially in rural areas, for gospel sings, vacation Bible schools, religious holidays, and even summer revivals.

Religion as Education in the Ozarks

Many early schools in the Ozarks were established by religious groups, because public schools were largely absent until after the Civil War, and education was usually considered a function of the church. Pioneers were especially concerned for preservation through education of their language, culture and distinctive faith. The minister, who could not be supported in a full-time capacity by most rural congregations, might serve as school teacher during the week.

The need for better educated clergy and laity became apparent late in the nineteenth century, and a number of religious colleges were founded. These included Drury College in Springfield, begun in 1873 by Congregationalists as Springfield College, and John Brown College in northwest Arkansas, founded by Methodists. Such institutions far outnumbered secular colleges. In 1923 there were fourteen colleges in northern Arkansas, of which only one--the State University at Fayetteville--was not supported by a church. The mortality rate for church-related colleges proved to be very high, however. Many did not survive into the twentieth century because of meager support and because they were based in a rural society and economy. The weaker colleges either were amalgamated into stronger institutions or were closed. The Disciples of Christ buried five such schools, the Baptists and Methodists closed at least four each, and the Cumberland Presbyterians shut down three.

Drury College survived; it became non-sectarian, and drew successfully on an expanding urban base. Another, the School of the Ozarks at Point Lookout, Missouri, made possible the attendance of the poorest youth by providing work programs. Perhaps better than any other institution of higher education in the region, it uniquely identified with Ozarks values of frugality and individualism.

Because of the region's widespread interest in religion, a Department of Religious Studies was created in 1963 at Southwest Missouri State University, Springfield. It was one of the most important developments in the religious history of the Ozarks. A major in Religious Studies now is offered, and a masters program awaits approval. Ozarkers recognize that religion is an integral part of our culture, and should not be ignored in a curriculum funded by the State.

Abandoned church in Tuscumbia, Miller County, Missouri.
Van Buren, Carter County, Missouri
Waldensian Cemetery, Monett, Barry County, Missouri

Boxley Baptist Church, Newton County, Arkansas. Affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, this congregation dates from the nineteenth century and still plays a significant role in the life of the Boxley Valley of the Upper Big Buffalo River. The hamlet, mill, stores and school are gone. The church alone remains.


Instruction in religious studies at a state university is uniquely different from that at private religious colleges. In the state university setting, it is necessary to teach about religion, rather than to teach religion. In other words, it is expected that such instruction be objective and non-sectarian.

Religion in the Establishment of Ozarks Values

Religion always has been a significant force in determining the basic Ozarks value-set. For example, Ozarkers always have been somewhat dualistic, believing that two great forces--one good and one evil--battle for control in each person. Consistent with their individualism, however, they argue that each individual can do something about the outcome of this cosmic struggle. Early religionists believed it necessary to avoid all evil, even the appearance of evil. Practically, this meant fighting intemperance and shunning certain amusements such as card playing and dancing. Gambling, physical contact between the sexes, and the "devil's brew" were the root of virtually all evil in society. Tolerating them meant victory for evil over good in both individuals and in society. In place of all these amusements and vices of the world, religious people substituted a full life in the church, with a wide range of activities intended to provide a full and wholesome (or edifying) social life.

More recently other perceived evils have been added to the list: dishonoring the Sabbath, teaching evolution, "godless humanism," "godless communism," and abortion. Advocacy of blue laws, the teaching of "creation science," prayer in the public schools, and more open and activistic patriotism are common and widespread.

Ozarkers also keep a special place for anything they consider "conservative.'' They are suspicious of cultural change agents. Most have reasoned that conservative religion calls for conservative politics and a conservative lifestyle and value system. Practically, this means that they struggle to conserve the past--especially the value systems of the nineteenth century--against the onslaught of modernity, which they perceive as intrinsically evil.

Traditional Ozarks values include a strong sense of kinship: emphasis on the extended family unit and loyalty to its members. Most Ozarkers emphasize the sacredness of human life. Being essentially ruralists, they have a deep love for their land, "God's outdoors."They have a strong work ethic. They also are strong individualists. They love privacy, even isolation. And, in order to live in this "world of the past," they are willing to make certain sacrifices: simple, even austere lifestyles; and doing with less rather than having to depend on others (especially government agencies). They also are quite willing to be different from their neighbors, especially "neighbors" living in Kansas City and St. Louis.

I do not suggest that such ideals are always played out in reality to their logical conclusion. Sadly, despite the propensity for social conservatism and a pervasive sense of the sacred, the Ozarks still suffers from a high incidence of such anti-social practices as incest and child and spouse abuse, and more than its share of mass murders.


Renowned for the natural beauty of its changing seasons, the Ozarks is clothed as well year-round in a religious coat of many colors. But it is a diversity of color, not of fabric. Nowhere in the United States is religion more central to the life and practices of its people than here. Ozarkers share a commitment to things religious which in large measure provide the community, the education, and the values which make up their everyday lives.

In the German Ozarks. Roman Catholic church in the town square, St. Elizabeth, Miller County, Missouri. Photo by Gary D. McMichael.

Presbyterian Church, Caledonia, Washington County, Missouri; National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1870 it houses a congregation founded in 1816.
River baptizing, Buffalo River, Newton County, Arkansas.
*Theologian Paul Tillich says religion is that which is of ultimate concern to an individual or a group. By this definition, religion encompasses not only things sacred--normally considered the substance of religion--but also things secular as well.
Stanley Burgess is Professor of Religious Studies at Southwest Missouri State University.


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