What brought the Methodists to Baldwin City?
It’s easy to see that Baldwin City is a Methodist stronghold, but why is that?
All one has to do is look at the numerous churches to see it. First United Methodist Church. Ives Chapel Methodist Church. Vinland United Methodist Church. Worden United Methodist Church. Clearfield United Methodist Church.
And, oh, yes, there’s Baker University, another Methodist Church group that has been at the heart and soul of Baldwin City since the beginning. As the oldest university in the state, it helps to explain the reasons Methodists flocked to the area in southern Douglas County.
There are several theories as to why the Methodists gathered here. Longtime Baker staff members shared their thoughts on why.
“Economic circumstances made Baldwin City the ‘Methodist place’ that it quickly became and remains today,” said Karen Exon, former history professor. “Palmyra and Prairie City appeared in the early 1850s to have the greater chance of becoming the community’s focal point. However, Baker University has survived continuously since 1858 within one city block of its original building — the Old Castle — and certainly by shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War became one of, if not the largest, employer of the concentric communities/villages.
“And, incidentally, John Baldwin, a strong Methodist from ‘back east,’ gifted the land for Baker University,” said Exon. “This information may not be Paul Harvey’s ‘rest of the story.’ But the factors of the university being gifted by a strong Methodist, its affiliation with Methodism and the university’s continuous success boded well for the town of Baldwin City and its tight connection to the Methodist Church.”
But the Methodists’ migration here started earlier than that.
“Beyond efforts to proselytize the ‘pagan heathen’ Native Americans, Methodist ministers came west for a myriad of individual reasons, which mirrored the reasons of most Americans who came west in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s — in no particular order, free land, a fresh start, adventure, potential to strike it rich and escape any number of personal or legal obligations,” she said. “As the number of the white American frontiers people increased in the late 1840s, the Methodist Church realized that these souls required ministering — hence the Circuit Riders.
“Circuit Riders’ first responsibility was to minister to the scattered pockets of white pioneer/sod busters,” said Exon. “Socio-political regional differences relative to the issue of slavery reached a tipping point by 1854, especially with Stephen A. Douglass’s Chicago-based railroad consortium pushing for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would allow for ‘residents’ in those territories to decide for themselves the issue of slavery vs. freedom in conjunction with seeking admissions of their territory to statehood.”
The whole slavery issue was at the cornerstone of the Methodist movement back in those times, she said.
“The Methodist Minister Circuit Riders became important point-people for the anti-slavery forces, with which the Methodist Church was closely aligned, if not synonymous to,” said Exon. “Simultaneously, the Methodist Church was engaged in sending Methodist ministers to Kansas to serve as ministers to settlements large enough to sustain a town and church.
“The Methodists in eastern Kansas Territory, as well as those ‘back east,’ recognized that, along with churches, schools were needed in these new frontier communities both to enhance intellectual skills and to spread the Methodist Church antislavery position.”
But hold on. There wasn’t complete agreement within the Methodist Church regarding the issue, according to Butch Ritter, former university minister.
“The Methodist Episcopal Church split at a General Conference held in Louisville, Ky., in 1844,” said Ritter. “The split had been brewing for years and the principal issue was slavery. The Methodist Episcopal Church South — often referred to as the Southern Church — started the Shawnee Indian Mission. Thomas Johnson, for whom the county is named, was the head of the mission.
“One of the teachers at the mission was Nathan Scarritt of Scarritt-Bennett College,” he said. “Scarritt wrote the Defense of Slavery for the Methodist Episcopal Church South. It was adopted as the official statement at one of their general conferences. I have a copy of it. It’s awful. He established a couple of ME South churches in the northeast area of Kansas City, Mo. One or two are still open. Baldwin City, Baker and First UMC are Methodist Episcopal Churches (North). The Circuit Riders that came into Kansas often made their way here through Nebraska — definitely not Missouri. They were ‘missionaries’ to establish ‘freedom’ churches.”
Many years later, this split in the church was healed.
“Eventually, many years after the Civil War, there was movement to re-establish ‘one church’ uniting the ME Church, the ME Church South and the Methodist Protestant Church — which had also split back in the day for various reasons, one of which was a ‘pox on both your warring houses’ attitude toward the other two,” said Ritter. “The merger was in 1939 in Kansas City’s brand new Municipal Auditorium. A small plaque recognizing the event is on a wall there.”
All of that led to another factor of the Methodist Church, according to Ritter.
“As for the Baldwin City/Methodist connection, education is and was a Methodist emphasis,” said Ritter. “Several Methodist colleges were established around Kansas. It was the Methodist ‘thing’ to establish churches and schools. Overall, most of the Methodists came to Kansas for the same reasons others came, but the Circuit Riders came with a message and with anti-slavery sentiments.”
All of this tied together in Baldwin City and made it the stronghold it remains today, according to Kurt Cooper of the United Methodist Campus Ministry in Emporia.
“I think, in the mid 1800s, the desire to mission and to create educational institutions was a deep desire of many Methodists,” said Cooper. “It was deeply tied to the culture of what it meant to be a Methodist in those days — personal holiness, opposition to slavery in the north and territories, developing schools.
“Baker and Baldwin City, once established, became a gathering place for Methodists, both in the faculty and the student body,” he said. “I think the depth of impact the Methodist faculty had on students and the town cannot be ignored. Students who were shaped by President Murlin’s wing in the early 1900s were directly in the mix of creating the Institute movement and national leaders in the Epworth League.”