Missouri Humanities Council Logo

As Merinda Simmons notes, “too often in US contexts, “race” and “religion” serve as shorthand for “blackness” and “Christianity.” (Lim & Harvey, 2018). The Confluences project contributes to recent scholarship in American Religions by crafting a more capacious, inclusive, and historically accurate account of diversity, race, and religion. At the mounds of Cahokia, children learn of the Mississippian culture’s accomplishments, but little about post-Columbian indigenous culture or the destruction of other mounds and heritage sites across the state. Lewis and Clark’s trail markers dot Missouri’s highways, building a memoryscape that recalls Christian explorers bringing civilization to an uninhabited wilderness. Erased from Missouri’s heritage are the religions of the exiled, the enslaved, the incarcerated and the migratory (railroad workers, peddlers, coal miners) and other minoritized groups. The team begins our work with six case studies:

The Marian Days in Carthage, MO an annual festival that draws over 100,000 Vietnamese Catholics during the first week of August to honor the Virgin Mary. We will conduct ethnographic field research and historical research to document how this small Missouri town became a significant pilgrimage center for Vietnamese Catholics from all over the world.

The Harry L. George collection of Native American Artifacts in St. Joseph, MO Harry L. George (1848-1923), was an avid collector of Native American artifacts. His very extensive, but relatively little known collection is housed at the St. Joseph museums, along with numerous of his letters and photographs. Work with this collection will examine how Native American ritual objects are treated by a non-native historian. The study will situate the collection’s history and contents within current debates about the collection and display of sacred indigenous objects by museums.

Nation of Islam at the State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, MO. Beginning in the 1970s, a significant number of African American prisoners at the State Penitentiary converted to the Nation of Islam and began to study Arabic in jail. We will recover the relationships between race, religion, and incarceration during the twentieth century. The Mormon Wars. Missouri is a significant site for early Mormon history, and the Mormon Wars of 1838 offer an important example of religious violence and state identity in the nineteenth century. We will examine how this religious conflict developed, contextualize such violent events as the Haun’s Mill Massacre, and analyze the role Missouri and its landscape plays in the history and ideology of the Latter Day Saint movement.

Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897). Tolton, born a slave in Brush Creek, MO, became the first black priest in the United States. He had to study for the priesthood in Rome, since no seminary in Missouri would accept a black man at the time. In February 2019, the Congregation of Causes of the Saints voted to bestow on Father Tolton the Decree of Heroic Virtues, a significant step toward canonization. We are interested in the remarkable life story of the former slave from Missouri who may become the first African American saint and in the light his story sheds on African American religious history in Missouri.

Folk Art and Prophecy in Rural Missouri. Callaway County’s self-taught artist Jesse Howard (1885-1983) painted hand-lettered signs that are now included in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the St Louis Art Museum, the American Folk Art Museum, and other major national galleries. Yet Howard’s sign-painting has rarely been considered within its local religious context. By documenting how Howard’s art and religious beliefs made sense in the economic, racial, and agricultural crises he lived through, we are interested in situating his cultural legacy within Missouri’s religious history. We will create an interactive virtual exhibit that uses Howard’s life and art to re-tell the story of religion in rural Missouri during the 20th century.

The Departments of Religious Studies and Black Studies are sponsoring this work in partnership with the Missouri Humanities Council and with support from the National Endowment for the Humantiies and the University of Missouri’s Research Council