KU News Release

Oct. 21, 2009
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, (785) 864-8855

Student researchers help document memories of religion in Kansas

LAWRENCE — During the past century, Kansans have embraced an array of religions ranging from the commonplace to the obscure. Although some faiths have flowered in the state, others no longer retain active congregations.

Now, student researchers from the University of Kansas Department of Religious Studies are scouring Kansas to record oral histories of everyday people with recollections of a host of faiths. They are taking part in a new class led by Tim Miller, professor of religious studies, who hopes to collect memories of older Kansans’ experiences in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples before such stories are lost to time.

“I got to thinking, ‘what are we losing?’ ” said Miller. “And we’re losing everything of a certain age, or most of it anyway. We have a number of really unusual religious stories in Kansas. We’ve had some that are already too far in the past to capture through people, but more are recent and not very well documented. Religion is a huge part of the lives of a whole lot of people in Kansas — and preserving that for the future is great.”

A dozen of Miller’s students will spend the semester recording interviews, gathering documents and traveling the state to compile stories that otherwise would vanish. The materials will be collected and made available to the public.

“Through my grandmother, I’ve interviewed four people mostly from Methodist or Lutheran backgrounds,” said Rachel Gadd-Nelson, a junior from Kansas City, Kan. “It was really interesting because they were raised in the Great Depression and religion has been important to them forever. They’ve lived with religion since they were children, so it’s not a separate part of their lives.”

During hour-long interviews, students pose questions about a person’s memory of daily experiences within a religious body; how membership in a group colored life outside the congregation; what kinds of rituals were prevalent in a group; the way religious groups were governed; and how new members were recruited into the fold.

According to Miller’s students, Kansas is a fascinating panorama for research into spiritual conviction.

“I think that Kansas within most of the last century has been a fertile breeding ground for religious ideals,” said Clint Shriner, a graduate student from Wichita. “Pentecostalism was founded in Topeka. A lot of new ideas swirled around, making Kansas very interesting.”

According to Miller, Kansas’ largest religion is Catholicism. The dominant Protestant group has been the Methodists, but that religion is contracting gradually in the state. Religions on the rise in Kansas include Pentecostalism and other brands of conservative Protestantism.

But there are many lesser-known religions with roots in Kansas that Miller and his students are eager to preserve through the oral history project. For instance, Alfred Lawson was a baseball player turned spiritual leader who enjoyed a following in Kansas during the early 20th century.

“He came up with a universal theory of everything,” said Miller. “He called it Lawsonomy. He attracted thousands of followers, particularly during the Depression. He had an economic theory that was going to solve the Depression. But it was metaphysical and it was religious. He had a very wide-ranging system. And out of his work came a few churches called Lawsonian churches, and one of them was in Wichita.”

Indeed, one of Miller’s students has tracked down “the three remaining Lawsonians” in Kansas and has scheduled interviews with them.

But Miller stresses that his class is looking to collect stories of people’s experience with as many religions as possible — including the religious mainstream.

“Kansas really in many ways is the average center of America,” Miller said. “When people selling consumer products have a new product they want to test market, our area is where a lot of the national test marketing is done because we’re considered average America. And I think that’s true for religion as it is for consumer products. We’re pretty much a slice of the country.”

Kansans with interest in participating in the documentation and oral history project should contact Miller at (785) 864-7263 or tkansas@ku.edu.

Students participating in the project are listed below by their hometown, year in school, major, parents’ names and high school (when available).

From Lawrence 66044
Jeff St. John, senior in film and media studies preparing to study nursing; Wheat Ridge High School, Wheat Ridge, Colo.

From Lenexa 66215
Timothy Paul Adams, master’s student in religious studies.

From Olathe 66062
Sarah Elaine Heidrick, senior in history, daughter of Julie Heidrick; Olathe East High School.

From Overland Park 66212
Sean Patrick Manning, master’s student in religious studies, son of John and Anna Manning; bachelor’s degrees in history and religious studies from KU, spring 2007; Shawnee Mission South High School.

From Overland Park 66223
Amanda Marie Coon, sophomore in social welfare, daughter of Steve Coon; Blue Valley West High School.

From Buhler 67522
Jeffrey Michael Caton, senior in economics, son of John and Mary Caton; Buhler High School.

From Wichita 67212
Clinton David Shriner, master’s student in religious studies, son of Tarreld and Kelly Shriner; bachelor’s degree in religious studies from KU, spring 2009; Wichita High School Northwest.

From Liberal 67901
Jamie Rachelle Reeve, senior in American studies and religious studies, daughter of Carol Kummer; Liberal High School.

From Topeka 66606
Ben Nelson, senior in film and media studies and religious studies, son of Hank and Nan Nelson; Topeka High School.

From Topeka 66615
Stephanie Meador, master’s student in geography, daughter of Joe and Lori Meador; bachelor’s degree in geography from KU, spring 2007; Topeka High School.

From Kansas City 66103
Sara Elizabeth Vestal, senior in political science and religious studies, daughter of Mark and Jody Vestal; Sumner Academy of Arts and Science.

From Kansas City 66111
Rachel Gadd-Nelson, sophomore in social welfare, daughter of David Nelson and Jennifer Gadd; Sumner Academy of Arts and Science.

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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