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Evangelicals in Minnesota, Then and Now
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Evangelicalism is described as a complex descriptor for Christian following a specific political, theological and social worldview centered in deep engagement in missionary work, political activism, and personal piety. Though often associated with white conservatives and the Republican party, "evangelical" can describe a great variety of people from various backgrounds.
1. Early Missionizing in Minnesota and Evangelicalism's Infancy
Following the Louisiana Purchase, the 1830s became a time of rampant evangelical expansion into the newly purchased territories. The Minnesota Territory surrounding Fort Snelling was the site of a great number of revivals. Organized by the American Board of Commissioners For Foreign Missions (ABCFM), missionary groups held great "revivals," a trademark event of early evangelicals. These open-air religious experiences were often led by a charismatic preacher and were know to produce hundreds of converts through emotional testimony.
The ABCFM was primarily focused on the mission to the local Dakota and Ojibwe, evangelizing across Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Dakota and Ojibwe did not respond uniformly to these missionary efforts, as at first, they were peaceful relative to later governmental policies which interdicted certain Native traditions, most of the important of which was Dakota and Ojibwe language. Some natives embraced Christianity, bringing with them their own cultural and religious practices. Others resisted and remained dedicated to their own traditions.
While at first gentle missionary work, Christianity in Minnesota eventually became a tool for the state to oppress natives and force assimilation. To read more about this, check out our article about the Pipestone School.
2. The First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Minnesota and Immigration from Africa
The African Methodist Episcopal Church, the nation’s first Black denomination, was founded in Philadelphia led by Rev. Richard Allen. Forced to worship in separate galleries in Episcopal parishes, a group of devout free black Christians reluctantly sought to begin their own congregation, but church authorities later shut them out of access to donors. Allen was named bishop of the A.M.E. church in 1816. Mother Emanuel AME Church was founded the following year in Charleston, South Carolina, the symbolic place where white supremacist Dylan Roof fatally shot nine bible study members in 2015. St. Paul’s African American community built another A.M.E. dedicated to St. James in 1876. In Duluth, African Americans founded St. Peter’s A.M.E Church in 1900.
While the A.M.E. church does not itself claim to be evangelical, its policies coincide with many of the characteristics the evangelicalism is centered around. The primacy they place on the resurrection of Christ and the truth of both parts of the Bible marks it theologically as very similar to most evangelical and fundamentalist churches. Similarly, its political orientation toward active participation in public life shows its tendency toward evangelicalism. All A.M.E congregations are different, and some may be more evangelical than others.
Minnesota’s African American community grew visibly as a result of the Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North was felt in Minnesota, if not as dramatically as other more industrial midwestern cities in Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. Minnesota’s African American population grew especially after World War Two, growing 150% between 1950 and 1970. This would be another moment of growth for Black churches in Minnesota.
Later in the 1900s and early 2000s, another source of growth in the Black population came from immigration. Specifically, the Nile Our Savior Lutheran Church is a community of Sudanese Christians. They hold services in their own language, the Nuer language, and center their community around openness. This is a great example of how diverse the descriptor "Black" can be.
We have a feature article about this Nile Our Savior Lutheran Church, to learn more, click here.
3. Billy Graham and His Legacy in the Twin Cities
Billy Graham is remembered as one of the most important people of the evangelical movement. His base of operations in the Twin Cities would be a powerful center of gravity for a variety of missions, ranging from international to local. The sheer volume of mail that his administrative office received set records, and prayer requests from around the world poured into his Twin Cities Office. Billy Graham made Minnesota a locus of evangelical learning, policy, and life by creating a variety of institutions with fellow evangelical leaders. His evangelizing also created an entirely new generation of evangelicals that would bring their own innovations to missionary work and worship.
Incorporated in 1950, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association grew rapidly from a staff of fifteen mail workers to an organization that spanned multiple buildings and offices. While today the association has since left the Twin Cities, the mark it left can be seen on the variety of evangelical institutions in Minnesota, from colleges to radio stations.
Billy Graham designed a new form of evangelical missionary work that stayed true to the revivals of the 1800s while modernizing and further democratizing its structure. For his "Crusades," missions based away from home and typically staffed by a large team of temporary locals and a small cadre of professionals from the Twin Cities base. This small group of "professionals" would assist in the creation of temporary efforts as well as permanent community building to support converts. This structure proved incredibly effective and continues to be in use today.
Billy Graham was a great innovator and a large part of the history of Evangelicalism within and beyond Minnesota. The BGEA is now located in North Carolina where it has been since 2003.
4. KTIS Radio and Northwestern College: Evangelical Mainstays
Among the institutions created by Bill Graham are two that loom large within Minnesota. KTIS radio and Northwestern College are two interconnected evangelical institutions that provide outreach and education. KTIS is run partially by Northwestern, and at the time of its conception was staffed almost completely by Northwestern students and faculty. The radio station has since grown far beyond this, employing professional on-air talent and audio teams.
KTIS radio provides a great variety of evangelical content from prayer to preaching to Christian music. The evolution of its programming is a miraculous emblem of the innovative and flexible nature of evangelicalism. Changes to broadcasts from sermons to music was a contested issue, but KTIS never hesitated when experimenting with new ways to reach their audience. To learn more, read our article on KTIS here.
Northwestern remains an important source of evangelical clergy and theology. While having its fair share of financial struggles, it remains an important remnant of Billy Graham and other evangelicals in Minnesota. Having contributed institutions like KTIS to the state, it is the site of a great deal of history in the state. Northwestern College was the first of many non-denominational Christian educational institutions and marked the beginning of an increase in non-denominational organizations.
Now offering several Master's programs, Northwestern College is known today as the University of Northwestern in St. Paul.
5. Living Word Christian Center: Megachurch and Global Missions
We have a spotlight article for Living Word Christian Center. To learn more, click here.
As seen above, Living Word Christian Center is an imposing structure, emblematic of a new trend in global Christianity. Evangelical churches this large are often (and sometimes derogatorily) referred to as Megachurches. They are characterized by first their huge size but also their variety of evangelical missions.
Living Word Christian Center is one among many of this type of congregation. They provide a great example of how evangelical theology crosses social and political boundaries in its missions. First, its focus on youth ministry is a great example of the evangelical focus on generational missionary work. Many scholars observe this as a reaction to the rapid decrease in church attendance since the late 90s. This has led to the misconception that Evangelicalism is "aging out," and while demographics can suggest this it is hard to ignore the intensity of evangelical youth ministry.
LWCC also has global missions focused on spreading Christianity, Evangelical Christianity specifically, around the world. This is not where evangelicalism's global reach ends, however, as global involvement extends beyond simple missionary work. LWCC maintains a theological and political relationship with Israel, following a certain brand of Christian Zionism. This combination of global and political activism is not rare across evangelicalism, and while most churches in the United States trend toward patriotic, foreign policy is not something evangelical leaders shy away from. The LWCC promotes many charitable and political associations that align with conservative elements in Israel, and advertise many ways to donate. Many members of LWCC are also involved with Christians United for Israel, and participate in its many events and lobbying efforts.
This is an example of one form of evangelical political involvement among many. It is not uncommon to see these types of political alliances formed between policy organizations and megachurches across Minnesota and the United States.
6. Bethlehem Baptist Church: Virtual, Multi-Campus, Televised, Evangelical
We have a spotlight article for Bethlehem Baptist Church. To learn more, click here.
Bethlehem Baptist Church is another great example of the evangelicalism of large-scale Megachurches. Bethlehem Baptist Church sports an imposingly large main campus in a prime location in downtown Minneapolis. It also sports two other campuses, one based in a high school in Lakeview, and another built by the church in Mounds View. The "multi-campus" organization is another example of how evangelical churches view community and tradition. Being comfortable with eliminating the necessity for a single, unified space shows how while typically associated with conservatism, evangelicals can be adaptive and innovative.
Many churches, Bethlehem Baptist and LWCC included, televise or livestream their services. Even before COVID-19, these congregations maintained a strong presence online, willing to go to great lengths to spread their message. While many churches have online services now in the 21st century, Megachurches have always been recognized as some of the first to embrace new forms of outreach.
Bethlehem Baptist is also a locus for evangelical thought, with a nationally renowned leadership. Notably, their former pastor for John Piper has published a series of critically acclaimed books on evangelical theology.
7. Ten Commandments in Real Life: A Contested Public Sphere
Fundamentalist and Evangelical projects have not been without conflict in Minnesota, especially as it has become more popular. The increasingly public displays of religion, especially in collaboration with the government, caused problems legally.
A prime example of one of these legal battles is the Duluth Ten Commandments Monument that was taken down in 2004. After an extended legal battle dealing with a range of legal precepts from freedom of speech to the separation of church and state.
The monument has a storied history, originating from a perfect storm of evangelical collaboration. It was the result of several members and affiliates of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a patriotic fraternity, collaborating to erect the monuments across Minnesota and later the country. Recently, the monument in Faribault has received increased attention and scrutiny, to learn more click here.
The battles over these monuments underline an important disconnect between evangelical policy and American laws and society. With increasing awareness and population of non-Christian religions, the United States is more contested than ever. The evangelical demand it dominates the public sphere, especially its discussion of "Culture wars," puts into tension the various key freedoms that characterize American citizenship. Due to cases like the Ten Commandments Monument, Freedom of Speech is put in tension with the Separation of Church and State, as proselytizing becomes increasingly regulated by laws and court decisions limiting the presence of religion on government property and in government-run services like schools.
While not solely an evangelical problem or project, conflicts within the public sphere have come to characterize much of the public image of evangelicals.
8. Asian Evangelicalism: Culture AND Religion
Asian Minnesotans have also come together to form their churches. There is a great variety to these, and they are not all evangelical, but one can see how the evangelical sensibility can help in forming these communities.
Churches like the Korean Evangelical UMC in Hopkins and the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Society have embraced the ideals of public engagement and personal piety. The dedication made to both community and advocacy are powerful for groups like Asian Americans who are marginalized politically.
Their communities also follow the legacy of early evangelical churches, which despite being dedicated to a gospel for the entire world often fell along ethnic lines, for example, an all Swedish or all Norwegian church. The combination of racially homogenous congregations with non-racial missions is a complex and opaque paradox, often left unexplored. It is important to note that for many evangelicals it is not a paradox, and that their own churches are simply a product of circumstance, while their mission is an infailable service to God.
9. Latinx Evangelicalism: Making a Home in Minnesota
Similarly, since the immigration reform of the mid-20th century immigration of Latin America has been a great factor in the changing demographics of Minnesota. Coming from diverse backgrounds in Central and South America, Latinx immigrants share some things but are still distinctive. Despite this, Spanish a shared language for many serves as a point of gravity. Spanish-speaking evangelical churches typically are Pentecostal, a brand of charismatic Christianity centered around the book of Acts in the New Testament.
Today, Evangelicalism is the fastest-growing type of religious affiliation in Latin America, featuring homegrown movements and movements brought by international missionaries.
Specifically, Brazilian Evangelicalism is popular and has made it all the way to Minnesota. The Brazilian Church of Hope in Bloomington is one example, and it holds services in both English and Portuguese. Click here to learn more.
Latinx Evangelicalism is a perfect reminder that while the movement originates in American, Canadian, and British Christianities, it is a global movement with so much variety and diversity that it betrays and resists static categorization.
10. Policy Makers of the Left and Right
Policy, activism, and advocacy are some of Evangelicalism's most obvious calling cards. Originating from the Progressive Era and Prohibition, social advocacy. Megachurches themselves are often a political force, forming alliances with organizations like CUFI. Evangelical pastors are also inclined to guide their congregations politically, with sermons dedicated to current issues such as abortion or the minimum wage. There is a great deal of theological creativity that goes into these sermons but they are sometimes criticized for going where religion should not.
Many evangelical churches are conservative, and political commentators often refer to "White Evangelicals" as an important base for the Republican party. They are typically drawn to causes alongside other mainline Christians like abortion and gay marriage. They typically ground their stances in the biblical text, upholding it as divine truth that despite the division of church and state should be heeded for its wisdom, or simply obey due to its divine stature.
There is also an Evangelical left, however, which has played a key role in politics since the election of President Carter. In Minnesota, many of these individuals are attracted to organizations centered around interfaith social action, like ISAIAH or the St. Paul Interfaith Network. They are typically more interested in the economic issues of poverty alleviation and hunger, seeing charity as a core value of their work where conservatives see the preservation of social norms. This should not construct a black-and-white picture, however, as many evangelicals on the left has significant disagreements with leftist social policy, particularly abortion. Similarly, Conservative evangelical still contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars toward national and international charitable work.
Evangelicals in Minnesota
Evangelicals have played a key role in the history of Minnesota. They have built headquarters, spread missionary work, and even contributed toward the media and education sectors of the state. Their part of Minnesota's story is not over, and their presence can be seen across the state. Representing a broad range of racial backgrounds and even a variety of immigrant communities, Evangelicalism remains an important religious sensibility to understand Minnesota's history, and Minnesota today.