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 Iowa History

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Our Iowa, Its Beginning and Growth

Herbert L. Moeller and Hugh C. Mueller

New York, Newsom and Company


Transcribed by Debbie Gerischer & Kaylee Bopp




Ministers and missionaries played an important part among the early settlers.  We may rightly say that the church and religion had much to do with the early life of our state.


Most of the pioneers were religious.  The settlers gathered in someone's house, a schoolhouse, or out in an open grove, to hold a religious service.  The ministers usually rode on horseback from one preaching place to another.   A few hymns were sung; then the minister preached, sometimes for two hours or more.

The early preachers who were know as "circuit riders" lived a rough and rugged life.  Charles Blanchard in The People of Iowa says of one of them:  "Pitner was somewhat noted as a trapper and hunter-occupations that stood the pioneer preacher well in hand.  He was especially given to bee-hunting.  At one time  on his way to conference he employed his skill in bee-hunting and loaded his buggy with honey, some of which he peddled to pay expenses on the way and with the remainder treated his preacher brethren at the conference.  It was thus the old circuit riders and early Methodist preachers managed to live, in a 'land of milk and honey blest'!  They ate the sweet and when they didn't have honey they were well satisfied with sorghum."


The Catholic Church and Jesuit missionaries were among the very first to do religious work in Iowa Territory.  Professor M. M. Hoffmann in his book called Antique Dubuque says:  "Existing records show that on July 10, 1833, at 'Cadfish near Dubuque Mines,' a Jesuit from St. Louis, Charles Van Quickenborne, who the year before had visited in the Half-Breed Tract in southeastern Iowa, baptized the children of a half-breed Fox Indian, Kennoche, and the grandchildren of Denis Julien, a widely known trader of the Northwest, who at Prairie du Chien had supported the British in the War of 1812.  On July 12, 1833, he preformed a marriage at 'Cadfish' and two days later he married three more couples in the Dubuque village."

Father Mazzuchelli, a Dominican, in 1833 organized at Dubuque the first church on Iowa soil, and in 1835 the cornerstone of St. Raphael Cathedral was laid there.  In 1837, Very Rev. Mathias Loras, of Mobile, was made bishop of Dubuque.  He arrived in April, 1838, and his diocese included all of what is now Iowa, Minnesota, and a part of the Dakotas.  

Father Mazzuchelli also founded the chapels of St. James, in Lee County, and St. Anthony in Davenport.

Bishop Loras visited the Chippewas, the Sioux, and the Menominees and sent priests to carry on the work that he started.  Churches were organized at Ft. Madison, Burlington, Keokuk, Bellevue, Muscatine, and other points along the Mississippi.

Bishop Loras wrote interesting letters about his experiences among the Indians and the pioneers.  Once, while conducting a service on July 4, he heard a strange noise.  As he looked through a window he could see a band of Sioux Indians  in a war dance.  They were singing one of their death songs and showing the scalps of members of an enemy tribe.  Bishop Loras was not frightened or discouraged.  He wrote,  "Instead of discouraging me these events have only inflamed my desire to labor in the civilization of these unfortunate beings, by imparting to them the blessing of the Christian Faith."


The first church building in what is now Iowa was built at Dubuque in 1834.  A man by the name of Johnson went from house to house to ask for money.  He told the young men that some day they would be proud to say that they had helped to build the first church in the "new purchase," meaning the Black Hawk Purchase.

Over $250 was collected for this first church building.  The gifts varied from twelve and one half cents (a "bit") to twenty-five dollars.  The church was built of logs and was twenty feet square.  It is said that the building was raised "without spirits of any kind."  The preacher said in regard to the undertaking, "Well done!  To collect the money, build a splendid house and pay for it, hold a two days' meeting, and receive twelve members all in four weeks."

While Iowa's first church building was to be used by all denominations, the men who were most active in raising the money were Methodists.  Other prominent early ministers of that denomination were:  Baton Randall and John T. Mitchell, the first circuit riders of the Dubuque region, and Barton H. Cartwright, the first Methodist preacher of southeastern Iowa.


Perhaps the most interesting of all early Iowa churches was "Old Zion" at Burlington.  The building was 60 feet long, 40 feet wide; and it cost $4,500.  It was started in 1836, enclosed and plastered in 1838, and completed in 1846.

Many important public meetings were held in "Old Zion."  Governor Lucas, in 1840, held a council there with the chiefs of the Sac and Fox Indians, which wound up with an Indian show and war dance.  Four sessions of the Territorial Legislature were also held in "Old Zion."


The first Presbyterian churches to be organized in this state were at Ion, Allamakee County, in 1834; in Des Moines County, in 1836; at West Point, Lee County, in 1837; and at Fort Madison, in 1838.  Lancelot G. Bell, Michael Hummer, John M. Fulton, and Enoch Mead are called the four "Iowa immortal Presbyterian ministers."

The Baptists were close rivals for first honors with other early Iowa churches, their first being organized at Danville, Des Moines County, in 1834.


One of the most important groups of religious leaders was the "Iowa Band."  They came here to help certain men of the "Yale Band," which consisted of eleven young Congregational ministers who came west to work for their denomination in the Mississippi Valley.  Some of them came to Iowa, one being Asa Turner, who for thirty years was pastor at Denmark, where he started Denmark Academy.  Turner, with several others, pioneered the way for the coming of the famous Iowa Band.

The Iowa Band was made up of eleven young men who had been classmates at Andover Seminary.  Seven of them were ordained on their arrival at Denmark.  They started more than twenty-five Congregational churches in Iowa.  It was J. J. Hill, a member of this group, who in 1846 placed a dollar on the table and said to his associates, "Now appoint your trustees to take care of that dollar for 'Iowa College.'"  That is said to have been the beginning of the present Grinnell College.

One of the most famous of early Iowa Congregational churches is the "Little Brown Church in the Vale."  It is located at old Bradford, near Nashua, and was built under the ministry of Rev. J. K. Nutting in 1864.  It had been made famous through a song written by Dr. William Savage Pitts, an early day "singing master."  The first stanza of the song is:

"There's a church in the valley by the wildwood,

No lovelier place in the dale,

No spot is so dear to my childhood,

As the little brown church in the vale."


The first Church of Christ congregation was organized at Lost creek in 1836 and the first Quaker, or Friends', settlement was located at Salem, in Henry County, in 1835.  The German Evangelical Lutheran church began about 1840 with organizations at Fort Madison, Keokuk, and Burlington.  The oldest congregation of the United Presbyterian church is located at Crawfordsville, Washington County, where it was organized in 1836.  The first church of the United Brethren in Christ was organized in Muscatine County in 1841.

The early ministers played an important part in the establishment of schools and colleges.  They also took an active part in the early political and governmental affairs.  A writer in describing the work of Rev. Asa Turner, of Denmark, Iowa, who was a member of the Yale Band, says of him, "Among the notable things in his active career was the stand he took for temperance and anti-slavery."


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