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How Religion Has Shaped the State

Tradition, Schism, and Continuity in Minnesota’s Communities of Faith

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Color image of St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Duluth, 2001.

St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Duluth, 2001.

Historically, religious life in Minnesota has been complex. No single church has been able to control the state culturally or politically. However, Christianity in general has been the dominant tradition in Minnesota since the mid-nineteenth century, in terms of sheer numbers and influence. In that context, genuine tolerance and acceptance of religious pluralism have emerged only gradually, and not without reversals.

In the years between 1850 and 1925, both ethnicity and confessional differences shaped the variety of Minnesota’s overwhelmingly Christian religious life. The twentieth century, and the early twenty-first, have seen new, cross-denominational lines of progressivism versus conservatism organize Minnesota religion anew, as new religious minorities also have secured footholds in the state’s spiritual landscape.

EARLY HISTORY, 1680‒1850

In 1680, two spiritual worlds met in land claimed by France when Dakota inhabitants of the Lake Pepin region, near the current border between southeastern Minnesota and Wisconsin, came upon Father Louis Hennepin. Catholic missionaries like Hennepin—and, later, his Protestant counterparts—enjoyed little success in seeking converts among the Dakota and the Ojibwe (Anishinaabe), who lived further north in what is now Minnesota.

The spiritual life of the Dakota and Ojibwe people of the region was profoundly different than the exclusive church-based religion of Christianity (although it had more in common with the folk religion and practical beliefs of many Christianized peoples). The Native Americans saw themselves inhabiting a world full of supernatural forces—forces that they might, under the right circumstances, encounter.

To the Dakota, Wakan Tanka was a kind of supreme and transcendent sacred spirit, although probably not, as some have claimed, a “Creator” figure similar to that of the Abrahamic God. Some also have described the figure of the Kitche Manitou in Ojibwe culture as a “Great Spirit,” but this is inaccurate as a rendering of ancient Ojibwe belief—even though, in more recent times, some Native people have embraced the idea of a supreme being as part of indigenous spirituality. Less amenable to Christian refashioning, perhaps, was the tradition of the Midewiwin, or “Grand Medicine Society,” in which Ojibwe and other Great Lakes peoples gradually became adepts in powerful, occult knowledge about the world in all its dimensions.

In Minnesota as elsewhere, indigenous spiritual practice and belief proved adaptable and dynamic. Native Americans in the region were influenced by the successive spiritual revivals that swept the Midwest and promised a new beginning and new hope to peoples besieged by relentless enemies. The Delaware prophet Neolin helped inspire Pontiac’s rebellion against the British in the Great Lakes region in the 1760s, and the Shawnee Tenskwatawa did the same for Tecumseh’s effort against the Americans in years between 1805 and 1813. These Native men brought messages of spiritual renewal and empowerment through the purging of Western cultural influence.


By 1851, when the Roman Catholic diocese of Saint Paul was established, Christianity was entrenched and expanding its domain in Minnesota. The pivotal figure in this process was John Ireland, archbishop of Saint Paul from 1888 until his death in 1918. Ireland promoted what was known as “Americanism,” provoking a major church controversy. He favored public schooling for Catholic children in the United States, and urged instruction in English, even though many Catholic parents believed in maintaining parochial schools to prevent assimilation into the dominant Protestant public culture of the United States. Ireland’s tireless institution building included the establishment of St. Paul Seminary in 1894, intended to populate his archdiocese with American-trained priests.

Minnesota’s Catholic population was fractured by ethnicity. Many viewed Ireland as a partisan of Irish American clergy. Catholics of German ethnicity outnumbered the Irish in Minnesota, with concentrations in the Saint Cloud and New Ulm areas, and German Catholics often preferred to worship and school their children in German. German Benedictines established a German Catholic redoubt in central Minnesota, founding the Abbey of Saint John in 1857.

Although Ireland promoted abstinence from alcohol consumption, Minnesota Catholics largely resisted temperance efforts. They flocked to the Democratic Party, like Catholics in other states, partly because the Republicans were identified with efforts to legislate temperance. The tension between German and Irish Catholics in the state played a role in preventing Catholics in Minnesota from wielding statewide political power. Catholics totaled over 40 percent of religious adherents in Minnesota in 1900, and about the same in 2000. Yet no Catholic was elected governor until Rudy Perpich in 1982.

The state’s population grew sevenfold between 1865 and 1900, aided by large-scale immigration, and the biggest share of this increase in religious terms was Protestant. The largest ethnic group in the state was the Germans, split between Protestants and Catholics. But the Scandinavians, nearly all of them Protestant, together came to outnumber Germans. Although the Republican Party, strongly identified with Protestantism, dominated Minnesota politics for about seventy-five years from the state’s establishment in 1858, the ecclesiastic fragmentation of Minnesota Protestants diminished their cultural predominance.

The schismatic tendency of Protestantism was amply displayed in Minnesota, driven by differences of language, ethnicity, and doctrine. Some Baptist churches were affiliated with the Northern Baptist Convention, German-speaking congregations typically with the North American Baptist Conference. Norwegian Lutherans divided between the “low church” Hauge Synod (named for an important evangelist in Norway) and the Norwegian Synod (tied to the established church of Norway).

Swedes in Minnesota formed several Lutheran synods as well as their own Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, and Mission Covenant churches. Some degree of reconciliation eventually emerged, and between 1890 and 1930 a series of mergers produced several new Lutheran churches (which ultimately fed into the 1988 formation of the “mainline” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, ELCA).

African Americans in Minnesota formed African Methodist Episcopal, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches, all of them Protestant. The Pentecostal churches, which grew out of the Holiness Movement in the early twentieth century, were generally split between the largely black Church of God in Christ (whose first Minnesota church was begun in 1923 in North Minneapolis) and the mainly white Assemblies of God. Its most famous Minnesota issue undoubtedly was Tammy Faye LaValley of International Falls. In the 1980s, she became a prominent television evangelist in partnership with her husband, Jim Bakker, whom she met at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. The Holiness Movement also produced the Salvation Army, which brought material and spiritual aid to the destitute; it spread rapidly throughout Minnesota in the 1880s and 1890s.

The late nineteenth century was a period of renewed trauma for Native Americans in Minnesota, and one of continued spiritual adaptation. New efforts by the U.S. government to extirpate indigenous ways of life, starting in the late 1880s, brought anguish and turmoil. One response by Native peoples was the Ghost Dance movement of 1889 and after, which prophesied a new world and was sometimes repressed with great violence. Another, made under duress, was to accept the offer of missionary-run boarding school education. These schools were remembered bitterly in later years as agents of cultural genocide. However, Native people, in Minnesota and other states, sometimes embraced these institutions, even at the price of family separation and the cultural alienation of their children, as the least bad of a set of terrible choices in a bleak time.


The conservatism of Minnesota Protestantism sometimes took on a crusading spirit. This was most evident among the state’s Baptists. The pivotal figure in this history was William Bell Riley, a Minneapolis pastor who founded Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School in the state’s biggest city in 1902. Over the next four decades, Riley, preaching the literal inerrancy of the Bible and supplying pastors to rural churches all over the upper Midwest, became a national leader in the fundamentalist movement. Riley was a powerful opponent of the teaching of Darwinian evolution. He also was a vicious and outspoken anti-Semite, railing against what he claimed was a Jewish conspiracy to seize world power.

Due to Riley’s agitation, the state legislature seriously considered banning the teaching of evolution in the state’s public schools in 1927. Many churches mobilized to help defeat the proposal, fearing it would erode the separation of church and state, which had allowed religious pluralism to flourish in America. In 1936 Riley and his allies ousted the leadership of the Minnesota Baptist Convention (MBC) at its annual meeting, held that year in Anoka, installing fundamentalists in their place; in 1948 the MBC withdrew from the too-liberal Northern Baptist Convention. In 1947, Riley turned his operations over to a dynamic young North Carolina Baptist, Billy Graham. Although Graham personally remained based in his home state, he established the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Minneapolis, which remained its headquarters until 2002.

The ethnic, linguistic, and doctrinal bases for church division faded in importance during the course of the twentieth century, but, in Minnesota as elsewhere in America, a rough divide between progressive and conservative religious and social outlooks began to reshape the religious landscape. Religious progressives were activated into a more organized push for tolerance by a 1946 magazine article that labeled Minneapolis the “capitol [sic] of anti-Semitism in the United States.” The state’s small Jewish minority, which had formed the Anti-Defamation Council of Minnesota in the 1930s to push back against religious bigotry, joined with African Americans and others to link the issues of religious and racial discrimination.

Starting in the 1960s, the left/right divide in Minnesota’s religious life increasingly focused on the question of whether there are natural, distinct, and God-ordained roles for women and men. The mainline Protestant churches gradually moved toward an acceptance of changing gender roles and fluid identities. Conservative evangelical Protestant denominations, Pentecostal churches, and the Catholic Church became more vocal in supporting the idea of fixed roles and morality—although the Catholic laity’s social views were similar to those of the population as a whole.

In response to proposals to relax Minnesota’s abortion statute, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) was founded in 1968, and it became a powerful voice in state politics after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. By this time the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party (known as the DFL) enjoyed the upper hand in state politics, but a significant fraction of Minnesota DFLers, mainly Catholics, were pro-life (i.e., against legalized abortion) and against antidiscrimination protections for gay Minnesotans.

These issues scrambled the political scene in the late 1970s, splitting the customary DFL voter bloc and resulting, for example, in the election of a pro-life evangelical Republican governor, Al Quie, and a pro-choice (i.e., pro–abortion rights) Catholic U.S. senator, David Durenberger, both in 1978.

In that same year, voters in Saint Paul voted to overturn a city law that had given gay and lesbian residents protections against discrimination. In the 1980s, Rudy Perpich was elected governor as the DFL candidate twice, having switched from his previous pro-choice position to a pro-life stance and gained the support of MCCL.

Today, both the religious right and the religious left are well mobilized in Minnesota. Progressive Catholics, Unitarian-Universalists, Jewish congregations, and liberal African American churches often unite with nonreligious Minnesotans to support government aid to the needy, to defend the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Minnesotans, and to oppose war. Conservative evangelicals and Catholics join forces to oppose abortion and gay rights. Some outspoken conservative activism has come from “megachurches,” large congregations often combining informal worship style with conservative theology, which spread rapidly in Minnesota around the turn of the new century.

One prominent megachurch is the Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park—nondenominational, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal—led by the Pastor Mac Hammond, who broadcasts a weekly television show, “Winner’s Way” (“Life is a race, but you don’t have to run it alone.”). Another is Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, associated with Converge Worldwide. Wooddale’s pastor, Leith Anderson, became president of the National Association of Evangelicals in 2006; former governor Tim Pawlenty (Republican, in office 2003–2011) and his wife were members.

The religious left and right are not always at loggerheads. Proposals to expand legalized gambling and (from Pawlenty) to reintroduce execution, banned in Minnesota since 1911, generated broad opposition from people of faith during the early 2000s.

In the twenty-first century, religion in Minnesota is more diverse than ever. The state is now home to new faiths, such as those of Somali and Hmong immigrants. The majority of Somalis in Minnesota practice Islam. Hmong Minnesotans follow multiple traditions, including Christianity and shamanism. Since the 1960s, Native Americans have reasserted indigenous spiritual traditions, sometimes through newly “pan-Indian” or syncretic institutions, including the Native American Church (begun in the early twentieth century), which employed peyote in its ritual quest for a heightened state of knowledge. These elements of diversity represent small proportions of Minnesota’s believers, but their open expression indicates the growth of a “marketplace of culture,” in historian R. Laurence Moore’s term, in which any efforts at repression by majorities contend with powerful values of choice and toleration.

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Atkins, Annette. Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.

Berman, Hyman, and Linda Mack Schloff. Jews in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.

Blegen, Theodore C. Minnesota: A History of the State. Second edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975.

Child, Brenda J. Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900‒1940. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Conzen, Kathleen Neils. Germans in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003.

Gjerde, Jon, and Carlton C. Qualey. Norwegians in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.

Holmquist, June Drenning, ed. They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State’s Ethnic Groups. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1981.

Johnston, Basil. Ojibway Heritage. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

McAvoy, Thomas T. The Americanist Heresy in Roman Catholicism, 1895–1900. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963.

Pond, Samuel W. Dakota Life in the Upper Midwest. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1986.

Regan, Ann. Irish in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.

Spear, Allan H. Crossing the Barriers: The Autobiography of Allan H. Spear. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Taylor, David Vassar. African Americans in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.

Trollinger, William Vance, Jr. God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Vang, Chia Youyee. Hmong in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2008.

Villerbu, Tangi. “Early Catholic Minnesota: New Sources and New Questions.” In The State We’re In: Reflections on Minnesota History, ed. Annette Atkins and Deborah L. Miller, 173–195. St. Paul: Minnesota State Historical Society Press, 2010.

Walker, James R. Lakota Belief and Ritual. Raymond J. DeMallie and Elaine A. Jahner, eds. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.

Wingerd, Mary Lethert. Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place in St. Paul. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

———. North Country: The Making of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Related Images

Color image of St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Duluth, 2001.
Color image of St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Duluth, 2001.
Black and white photograph of the interior of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, ca. 1883.
Black and white photograph of the interior of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, ca. 1883.
Aerial color photograph of Saint John's Abbey and University in Collegeville. Created by Henry Anderl c.1960.
Aerial color photograph of Saint John's Abbey and University in Collegeville. Created by Henry Anderl c.1960.
Photograph of First Baptist Church, Minneapolis
Photograph of First Baptist Church, Minneapolis
Photograph of the Reverend Billy Graham speaking at the stage door of the Minneapolis Auditorium.
Photograph of the Reverend Billy Graham speaking at the stage door of the Minneapolis Auditorium.
Photograph taken at the bar mitzvah of Leland Fleisher at Adath Jeshurun Synagogue in Minneapolis.
Photograph taken at the bar mitzvah of Leland Fleisher at Adath Jeshurun Synagogue in Minneapolis.
Color photograph of Rabbi Stacy Offner with a congregant of Shir Tikvah Synagogue.
Color photograph of Rabbi Stacy Offner with a congregant of Shir Tikvah Synagogue.
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Color image of the of St. Paul Cathedral from John Ireland Blvd. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user McGhiever, 2012.
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Color image of group prayer during the purchase of a building for Dar Al-Hijrah, 2006.


Historically, Minnesota is a diverse state in religious terms, with no one denomination or church dominating the state’s culture.

Catholic and Protestant missionary activities directed at Native Americans in early Minnesota history enjoyed only limited success.

Minnesota’s Catholic population and clergy were divided along ethnic lines by the late nineteenth century, with German Americans and Irish Americans, the two main Catholic ethnic groups, going their separate ways when possible and battling for position when necessary.

Saint Paul became an important center of Catholic thought in America beginning with the career of Archbishop John Ireland, who established important Catholic institutions and advocated “Americanizing” the Catholic Church in the United States—that is, demonstrating that American Catholics had no “divided loyalties” between church and nation and that they accepted the reality of religious pluralism.

The growth of immigrant populations from the Scandinavian countries and from northern Germany beginning in the mid-nineteenth century produced a Protestant majority in the state.

Despite the numerical superiority of Protestants in Minnesota since the nineteenth century, Protestantism in Minnesota has been fractured into so many different churches that the capacity of the Protestant majority to shape the culture and society of Minnesota has been limited.

Minnesota has been home to important conservative evangelical Protestant churches, organizations, and institutions since the late nineteenth century.

Churches have left a heavy imprint on higher education in Minnesota. The state has been home to a large number of private colleges and universities, most of which were established with a church affiliation, and many of which continue to express a strong religious mission up to the present.

In the late twentieth century, religious life in Minnesota, as elsewhere, was shaped by a broad divergence between (doctrinally and socially) progressive and conservative religious tendencies, with the former represented by “mainline” Protestant denominations and minority religions, particularly Minnesota Jewish congregations, the latter represented primarily by evangelical churches, and Minnesota’s Catholic community pulled between different tendencies.

Several developments have enhanced Minnesota’s religious diversity in recent years, including the growth of Hmong and other East Asian immigrant communities in the state, the proliferation of “megachurches,” usually combining conservative evangelical doctrine with an informal style of worship, the growth of Pentecostalism, and the appearance of mosques and a notable Muslim population in the state for the first time.



Dakota people encounter Father Louis Hennepin in what is now Minnesota.


The Roman Catholic Church establishes the Diocese of Saint Paul.


African Americans form the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in the village of Saint Anthony (later part of Minneapolis), the first African American church in Minnesota.


Archbishop John Ireland establishes St. Paul Seminary in Saint Paul.


The Reverend William Bell Riley establishes Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School in Minneapolis.


The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet establish the College of St. Catherine in Saint Paul.


The Minnesota legislature defeats a proposal to ban the teaching of evolution in the state’s public schools.


Reverend Billy Graham takes the helm of the Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis.


Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life is established.


Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary (now Luther Seminary) is formed through a merger of Luther Theological Seminary with Northwestern Lutheran Theological Seminary.



This history omits Gideon and Samuel Pond, important early figures in relation to the Dakota. The article mistakenly makes it appear as if only Catholics were active before 1850. The patronizing characterization of Hmong spirituality as "what English-speakers tend to call 'ancestor worship,'" should be revised. Consider placing Augsburg Seminary on the timeline, in Minneapolis in 1872.


Thank you for your comment. The sentence referring to "ancestor worship" has been revised.