Speak Softly and Carry a Big Rifle: A Church Steeped in Abolitionist History
Don’t mess with Kansas’s Beecher Bible and Rifle Church.
A quick history recap (bear with us, it gets good) : In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, organizing the territory that would eventually become the great states of Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and the Dakotas.
The land was vast, and peaceful, already inhabited by Indigenous people and roaming bison. It lay north of 1820 Missouri Compromise, which meant slavery here was technically prohibited. However a powerful coalition of politicians from the South was trying to change that restriction and repeal the Compromise. To appease them, the 1854 Act stipulated that the new territory would be organized “with or without” slavery. In other words, the citizens could vote amongst themselves to be a free or slave state.
Kansas could go either way. And so, the race was on. Pro- and anti-slavery acts flooded the territories in an attempt to sway the vote in a time that became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” If you were going to come down, you needed to be armed.
Which is exactly what a group from New Haven, Connecticut did.
An anti-slavery coalition of 60 men were formed, led by activist Charles B. Lines, with the purpose of emigrating and setting up shop physically and idealistically in Kansas. Before they left, the congregation of New Haven’s North Church held a meeting to provide the group with the necessary provisions and arms for their journey. There, Yale professor Benjamin Silliman pledged $25 to provide them with a Sharps rifle. The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher from Brooklyn —who opened the meeting with an antislavery sermon—followed suit, promising that if 25 rifles were pledged that day, his congregation in New York would pledge 25 more. At the end of the meeting in Connecticut, 27 rifles were pledged.
A few days later Beecher (brother of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) sent Lines $625 for the rifles. With it came 25 bibles. According to lore the rifles were smuggled through Missouri—a slave state—disguised with the Bibles, most likely in crates marked “Bibles.”
Later, the imposing Sharps rifle would be nicknamed the Beecher Bible.
When the group of Connecticut settlers got to Wabaunsee (an indigenous word meaning “Dawn of the Day”) first by train to Kansas City, then by wagon partially along the Oregon Trail, there was already a bustling tent town in place. On the South bank of the Kaw—now Kansas—river a settler had built a tiny store. Streets were being laid out. Makeshift church services were held in tents, which later became cabins. Not all the settlers could endure the rough pioneer life: some gave up and went back up North. Things got better when company in the form of wives and children came down to join. With a steady population, in June 1857 they decided it was time to organize a church officially, and “the First Church of Christ in Wabaunsee'' was born. Of this initial group of 28 charter members, nine were women.
Funds for the permanent church were mostly raised in New Haven, and the structure was built using sturdy stone hauled from quarries by oxen. Mortar was mixed by hand. Straight-backed pews were divided down the center of the church by a partition that divided men and women. The churchyard was lined with hitching posts.
In 1861, the work of the settlers came to fruition: Kansas entered the Union as a free state. In May 1862, the church, now the Beecher Bible and Rifle Church, was dedicated, and became one of the largest and most influential Congregation churches in Kansas.
As time passed settlers moved on, and the church became deserted. But in 1950 the residents of Wabaunsee had formed a new church group. They began holding weekly services again, and it’s thought that this new incarnation was one of the first churches in Kansas to integrate, continuing the settlers’ legacy. Renovations came in 1957 to the rural century-old structure in the form of a new floor, a tile ceiling, and replacing coal stoves with modern heaters. New pews were put in with comfortable padded seating, and stained glass windows for a welcoming pop of color. In the back room is a cabinet of history with a plaque that reads “Integrity is Doing the Right Thing When No One is Watching,” flanked by pictures of the pioneers and parishioners throughout history. Black and white parishioners are represented, and a picture of an impressively-bearded Charles B. Lines—the original leader of the Connecticut group—makes an appearance. There’s also a couple of incredible shots of two older women wearing cat-eye glasses, handling one of the Sharps rifles.
In 1969, a monument was erected in a park a few blocks north of the church, which reads, “In Memory of the Beecher Bible and Rifle Colony, which Settled This Area in 1856 and Helped Make Kansas a Free State. May Future Generations Pay Them Tribute.”
In 1992, a new structure was added to the church, with modern facilities for classes and Sunday School. Today you can still attend a Sunday church service—continuously running since 1950—or take a tour. Maybe leave your rifle at home.
Other Historical Sites in the Area
Wamego Historical Museum and Old Prairie Village
A complex of buildings culled from around Pottawatomie County, now sitting in Wamego’s City Park, the Old Prairie Town includes structures from the 1800s, like a one-room schoolhouse, an 1840 log cabin, a general store, and the first jail in the county, built in 1872. Helming it is the museum, with items like the first Wamego dental X-ray machine, the first switchboard in the area, and a full-body taxidermied buffalo named Abigail. Attached to the museum, in the Transportation Building, is a seemingly out-of-place 1950 Chrysler. But it makes perfect sense if you know that Wamego also was the birthplace of Walter P. Chrysler (1875), founder of the Chrysler Corporation.
Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie
Along the Native Stone Scenic Byway, nestled in rare and endangered prairie tallgrass, is this 170-acre historic hilltop park, sacred to Indigenous people, and which once contained the westernmost part of the Underground Railroad. Trails take you up to the top of the hill for vast views of native prairie. At the top is also a brass plaque commemorating the Connecticut-Kansas Colony, a.k.a. the Beecher Bible and Rifle Colony.
Oregon Trail Nature Park
The Oregon Trail passed just north of Wamego, and wagon ruts can still be seen around Kansas. To get to this nature park and lake in the Kaw River Valley—a haven for birdwatchers with red-tailed hawks, northern harriers and turkey vultures—you drive part of the route of the trail, traveling the same route that immigrants going west did 150 years ago. Don’t forget to stop at the silos, painted with murals depicting scenes from Kansas history.