This week, a conference at MU will look at whether the common understanding of religious history in America changes when viewed through the lens of the Louisiana Purchase.
“We usually tell the story of America and America’s religion from the starting point of New England and the Puritans,” said Richard Callahan, an assistant professor of religious studies at MU. “We forget that there were people to the west (of New England) already.”
In 1803, Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the United States when he bought more than 800,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi from France. This became known as the Louisiana Purchase and included land that extended west to the Rocky Mountains and as far north as present-day Montana.
Callahan said that at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, American Indian, French and Spanish cultures — each with distinct religious beliefs — were present in the newly acquired land. As the United States grew, other religious ideas made their way west.
Influences from Caribbean, Creole and African-American cultures gained a foothold, and itinerant Protestant preachers and Mormons left footprints as well, Callahan said.
In the wake of the Louisiana Purchase, he said, these beliefs came together — sometimes colliding, sometimes coexisting.
“The Louisiana Purchase was not just a political or economic event but also influenced religion and culture in America,” Callahan said. “The problem of religions working out how to live with each other was there from the beginning.”
The conference, presented by MU’s Department of Religious Studies and funded by the Missouri Humanities Council and the offices of the chancellor and the provost, will examine the religious history of the Louisiana Purchase through presentations given by scholars from across the nation. It is part of MU’s annual Arts and Science Week.
“We want to bring scholars and public together,” Callahan said. “MU is the first land-grant university in the Louisiana Purchase. It’s about public education.”