© 2021
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Dakota Datebook

Bismarck Religious Census


The U.S. census is conducted every ten years, in every year ending in zero. But demographers are always gathering data on residence and migration. A similar effort was just beginning more than a century ago in Bismarck. A committee was organizing a religious census of North Dakota’s capital city on this date in 1912.

Ten religious organizations in Bismarck provided lists of their members. The city was split into districts of 30 homes each for canvassing in September. May Tousley supervised the census. She was the state superintendent of the North Dakota Sunday School Association’s Home and Visitation Department.

It’s unclear exactly what the association planned to do with the census information, but it likely intended to use the data to increase church membership. Organizers hoped the census would bring people and churches closer together. Pastors in Fargo had learned of previously unknown families who shared their faiths following a religious census conducted there in 1911. The Bismarck Tribune reported that “Churches that place good workers in the field immediately after the census to visit among the people, have in other cities reported large increases in Sunday schools and church memberships.”

Bismarck pastors and church representatives met with census organizers to go over the plans “to ascertain the church preference of each individual of the city.” Bismarck Methodists held a census rally in early September with hymns and prayers. Seventy canvassers, comprising men and women, covered Bismarck on an afternoon in mid-September. Everyone in Bismarck was to be included in the census, regardless of age, occupation or religious belief.

The results of the religious census were published in September. It tabulated 38 religious sects. Catholics were the biggest group, at 1,202 people. Methodists were next, at 772, followed by 674 Presbyterians, 204 Baptists, 187 Swedish Lutherans, 176 Episcopals, 157 Norwegian Lutherans, 19 Jews, and 14 Christian Science. Two hundred people gave no preference of faith. One household refused information. Sixty people weren’t at home. Canvassers found only one person for some preferences, including an atheist and a free thinker. Native spiritual practices were not mentioned.

Canvassers reached about 1,900 homes of almost 4,000 people. Bismarck had a population of about 6,000 people at the time. Pastors met at the Burleigh County Courthouse after the census to hear the final report. The entire cost of the census was $9.20 for printing, postage and stationary. The canvassers took no pay. The Tribune reported that the volunteers had “faithfully” conducted the religious census.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

The Bismarck Tribune. 1912, August 3. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1912, August 5. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1912, August 6. Page 5
The Bismarck Tribune. 1912, August 20. Page 3
The Bismarck Tribune. 1912, August 26. Page 3
The Bismarck Tribune. 1912, September 3. Page 7
The Bismarck Tribune. 1912, September 7. Page 8
The Bismarck Tribune. 1912, September 12. Page 3
The Bismarck Tribune. 1912, September 17. Page 1
The Weekly Times-Record. 1912, September 26. Page 3

Related Content