It is Sunday morning in August, 1837.  A little group of pioneers stand around under some trees on the bank of the Des Moines River in Van Buren County.  They have come to church, but there is no church building.  The preaching is to be under a large lem tree.  Most of these people have come in ox wagons, but a few have come in canoes.

Here comes another family.  The oxen swing slowly into the grove.  The driver has a whip, but no lines.  The oxen know that when he calls out "Gee," they are to turn to the right.  If they are to go to the left, the driver calls out "Haw."  The father and mother sit on chair in the front of the wagon, but the children have to sit in the bottom of the box.

Finally the driver stops the ox team and one of the larger boys jumps out, unyokes them, and leads them away into the woods.  The father climbs down and goes over to talk to some men.  He is dressed in his best clothes, and very good clothes they are, too, for the pioneers.  On his head is a tall black fur hat.  His coat and trousers are made of homemade blue jeans, very much like the overall suits of to-day.  A vest made of the skin of a spotted fawn covers the front of his flannel shirt.  On his feet are large, heavy boots.

The mother passes the baby to one of the girls who has been quicker in getting down, and climbs out without assistance.  Then she moves over to talk to some women.  The boys and girls have already found some friends.  The mother, the girls, and the younger boys wear sunbonnets made of yellow cloth.  Some of the girls have dresses of the same color.

Here comes the preacher, a thin white-haired man.  He takes off his hat and starts a hymn.  Now the people gather around him and sit down on the ground.  The men take off their hats and the women their sunbonnets.  We cannot count the people, but there are about one hundred in the grove.  Among them are many Indians who stand on the edges of the crowd, their blankets over their shoulders, watching to see how the white people worship their God.

All the people, except the Indians join in the singing.  The preacher prays, and then reads a text from the Bible and begins his sermon.  He is a good speaker and the people listen with interest.  He talks for two hours, but in those days the pioneers were not able to go to church very often, and they were glad to hear a preacher.  They did not mind if the sermon was long.

After the sermon there is another hymn which echoes in the woods and across the river.  Then the preacher dismisses the people with a short prayer, and the men and women crowd up to shake hands with him.  The boys and men bring up the oxen and soon the families are again in the wagons or in the canoes in their way home.  In early pioneer days open air meetings of this sort were common.

Before schoolhouses or churches were built, the pioneers assembled at a neighbor's cabin for religious meetings.  Later the pioneers often held their church services in a schoolhouse.  The preacher, perhaps, came to this place once a month or once in six weeks.  He had a number of places at which he preached and he sometimes rod two or three hundred miles before he got back where he started.  The pioneers called these travelling preachers circuit riders.

The people came in ox wagons, on horseback, or on foot to these meetings.  The women usually sat on one side of the room, and the men on the other.  There was no organ, no piano, no musical instrument of any kind.  Indeed, many of the pioneers thought that it was wicked to have an organ or piano in a church.  There were not even hymn books, so the minister read the hymn and the people sang it after him.

Perhaps the preacher had sent word that he could come in the evening.  It was not so easy to go to an evening service when you had to drive an ox team, but many families came if they could.  The service began at "candle-lighting," that is, early in the evening.  Each family brought a tallow dip, and these candles were fastened along the walls.  Whenever the door opened the candles flickered and almost went out, but as the preacher did not read his sermon and the people knew the hymns, it did not matter.

In those days it was hard work to be a preacher or a priest.  These men had to make long journeys on horseback.  The roads might be rough or muddy, and the horse had to wade through the creeks and rives, for at first there were no bridges.  Sometimes the snow was deep and the wind piled it still deeper.  But the pioneer priest or preacher went on.  If his horse could get through, he kept his appointment.

The early pioneers liked to have a church as soon as they could.  The first church building in Iowa was a little log church built by the Methodists at Dubuque in 1834.  It was a small building, only twenty-six feet long, and cost $255, about half the price of a Ford car to-day.  It looked exactly like the log schoolhouses, for it had no steeple of any kind.  The next year a Catholic church was built in the same town.

One of the priests who had charge of this little Catholic church at Dubuque was Father Mazzuchelli, who had been educated in Italy.  He built a number of churches in eastern Iowa and made the plans for the capitol building at Iowa City, now called the Old Stone Capitol.

There were soon many churches in Iowa.  We have mentioned the Methodists and the Catholics.  There were also Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregationalist, Episcopalian, Christian, Lutheran, Quaker, and Mormon congregations in the state.  A man by the name of Abner Kneeland tried to start a town where no one should be allowed to build a church.  But not many people wanted to live in such a town.

Many of these churches started schools to educate their children.  The Methodists established Iowa Wesleyan College at Mount Pleasant in 1842.  Twelve young Congregational preachers came out to Iowa in 1843.  They decided that each one would start a church and all of them together would start a college.  They called their school Iowa College, but later its name was changed to Grinnell College.  Other church schools were established at an early date.

The pioneer also had Sunday schools.  They were usually held after church, but often some of the church people started a Sunday school before there was any church or any preacher.  In that case the Sunday school might be held in a cabin or in the schoolhouse.

There was another service in pioneer times which was called a camp meeting.  This was church service held in a grove and might last several days, perhaps a whole week.  The pioneers often brought their families and a supply of food and camped out in tents or in covered wagons.  How they enjoyed seeing all the people, for their homes might be many miles apart.

Somewhere in the grove a space was railed off and provided with seats of split logs.  On one side a platform was built, and here the preachers stood.  Can you imagine how they lighted this space at night?  There were no electric lights, of course, and not many lanterns.  But the pioneers knew what to do.  Here and there around the circle they built platforms about four feet high.  On top of this platform they put a layer of earth.  As soon as it got dark they built fires on these platforms and added wood as they burned down.  How queer the people and the trees looked in the light of these fires, and how dark it was beyond them.

The pioneer preachers were not paid very much.  Some of them received less than a hundred dollars a year.  To help the minister and his family the people sometimes gave what they called donation parties.  The members of the church agreed to surprise the preacher on a certain evening, and each one was to bring a gift.  One brought butter, another potatoes, another wood, another clothing.  The minister and his family no doubt were pleased to get these things, but they were glad when the people could pay a regular salary, so that they could buy the things they needed.


Back to Stories of Iowa Index