Miller initiates project to collect oral histories of religion in Kansas

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 Department of Religious Studies are scouring Kansas to record oral histories of everyday people with recollections of a variety 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.

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Wendy Rohleder-Sook, associate dean for student affairs, School of Law
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