Wigger to demonstrate ways American West shaped modern religion



Although Colonial settlers introduced religion to the United States, American religion wasn’t shaped into its modern iterations until the period between the Revolutionary and Civil wars.

John Wigger, professor and chair at the University of Missouri’s History Department, will examine the ways that at-the-time new 19th-century religious movements changed American society and culture.

His lecture, at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, is titled “Taking Heaven by Storm: Circuit Riders, Methodism, and the Expansion of Religion in the American West.”

Wigger will speak to what one scholar called the democratization of American religion: As religion rapidly expanded in the U.S., new religious groups in the West integrated American democratic culture into the way they did things in their religious practices, he said.

“America became a far more religious place between the Revolution and the Civil War,” Wigger said. “The percentage of Americans joining churches doubled between the Revolution and the Civil War.”

Week Five’s Interfaith Lecture theme is “The American West: Religious Evolution and Innovations.”

Followers of modern religions of the West, such as Methodists, Baptists and, later, Mormons, didn’t require formal education for their ministers, which meant preachers looked more like common people than they did in Colonial America. In some cases, African-Americans and women became ministers as well.

“You pretty much needed a college education to become a minister in a Colonial church, and of course a very small percentage of young men went to college,” Wigger said. “It was very much a province of the elite. … It just became a far more fluid and democratic atmosphere, and that worked well with the emerging democratic character of American society.”

The open, unclaimed space of the American West allowed for creativity and freedom when it came to religious expansion, Wigger said. 

Additionally, the U.S. was a much more openly religious society than Western Europe, so Americans fashioned churches that could become part of the way American society was developing.

“Old ways hadn’t expanded into the American West. It was a free market, if you will. The old-style churches from Colonial America and Europe didn’t expand into the West, and it was an open space for these new groups to win members,” he said. “Frontier religion looked a lot like frontier politics. They were developing at the same time and in the same way.”

Although many people have the idea that religion in America was established in the colonial era and has stayed relatively the same, Wigger will challenge that notion and show the ways modern American religion was shaped as the nation expanded westward.

“The patterns that are established in this period between the Revolution and the Civil War as the nation expands westward are still the patterns that we have with us today,” Wigger said. “Just as we’re still living with the same political system that we had in the 19th century … we’re still living with the same religious system we established in the mid-19th century, and it looks completely different than Colonial America.”