Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Counting Chariton's churches

I'm due to give a presentation this morning on the history of Chariton's churches --- quite a bit of territory to cover in half an hour. But I said I'd try, and so ...

The first thing that occurs when you think about it is how many congregations there are --- I count about 22 in a town of 4,300; "about" resulting because I'm not sure if some still are active and also because I don't know how many Slavic Pentecostal congregations our newest neighbors, ethnically Ukrainian or Russian, have divided themselves into.

Still, that would allow more than 400 people per church --- if everyone went to church; but in Chariton as nearly everywhere else, the percentage actively involved is relatively small. I'm thinking that well under a quarter of the population actually turns out regularly on Sundays.

The Methodists were first --- Methodists almost always were first on the Iowa frontier because they had an amazingly effective missionary setup. It's said that our pioneer forbears dragged themselves by ox and wagon 80 miles across the prairie from the nearest settlement, exhausted themselves building a cabin, finally got the door in place, pulled in the latch string and fell exhausted into bed --- when there was a knock: A Methodist missionary wanting to preach. 

The first reported preaching services in Lucas County, conducted by Methodists, occurred at Xury West's place down at Greenville during 1849. Chariton's Methodists organized themselves during October of 1851.

Three more congregations were organized here in the mid-1850s --- First Baptist, First Presbyterian and First Christian (Disciples of Christ). First Presbyterian organized in 1856 but because it wasn't quite Presbyterian enough for some, a United Presbyterian congregation organized in 1858. The latter congregation eventually merged with its slightly older sister and its building, after a scary time as meeting hall for the Ku Klux Klan, became the Assembly of God church.

St. Andrew's Episcopal Church arrived with the first train --- in 1867; and what now is Sacred Heart Catholic (it started life as St. Mary's) was organized during 1869 as a mission parish of St. Patrick's, Georgetown, one of southern Iowa's great "mother" parishes.

First Lutheran was organized in 1869, too, to serve what by then was a considerable number of Swedish pioneers. Non-Lutheran Swedes launched, in 1878, a Covenant Mission congregation --- but it did not survive and its building on West Braden Avenue, after serving other congregations, now has been refurbished by Slavic Pentecostals.

Everything else came later, in no particular order, for a variety of reasons.

Grace Baptist, now one of Chariton's largest congregations, emerged from Baptist wars of the 1950s; Cornerstone Community, also quite large, from later wrangles among Baptists and others. Trinity Lutheran (Missouri Synod) moved in to gather its flock as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (First Lutheran) became more inclusive.

The Christian Union congregation, representing an older denomination and now located on Highway 14 north of town, resulted from a merger of two earlier congregations, one located in Chariton and the other a country church, Whitebreast Christian Union.

Our Community of Christ Congregation, formerly Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, continues to reflect Joseph Smith's vision but in a more mainstream and inclusive way than its big sister, the LDS.

Several congregations, early and late, grew out of the "holiness" movement among Wesleyans, so are related in a distant sort of way to Methodists. These include First Church of the Nazarene, Truth Assembly of God and the United Pentecostal congregation.

What now is the Church of God --- a congregation that I'm not sure still functions --- started life as Foursquare Gospel --- a movement launched by Aimee Semple McPherson.

Two Church of Christ --- like First Christian descended from the Campbellite or Restorationist tradition --- occupy buildings built by other congregations --- one the old First Lutheran building; the other, a long-vanished Church of the Open Bible.

I quite frankly have no idea where the Bible Holiness church or Full Faith Christian Center came from, but they're certainly here.

Several churches, including the previously mentioned Covenant Mission, United Presbyterian and Church of the Open Bible, have simply vanished. Kingdom Hall (Jehovah's Witnesses) is a fairly recent loss. Merger of the Methodist Episcopal and Evangelical United Brethren denominations spelled the end for the old United Brethren church. And Chariton's African Methodist Episcopal and African Baptist churches departed with our black population.

It's also interesting to think a little about some of the religious expressions that never got off the ground here. The most notable, from the early days, would be Congregational --- an absence explained primarily because that denomination had fewer missionaries on the frontier than did the Methodists, and none of them reached Chariton. 

Although Chariton certainly had Jewish residents over the years, never enough to support a congregation. These families were for the most part affiliated with B'nai Jacob Synagogue in Ottumwa (originally Orthodox and later Conservative) or Temple B'nai Jeshurun (Reform) in Des Moines.

There were several early Quakers in Chariton, but never enough to gather a meeting; and although the Unitarians and Universalists held occasional meetings here, never aroused much interest.

So that's some of what I'll talk about a little later ....

No comments: