Greetings. Once upon a time, I did weekly blog posts. Now I’m glad when they are monthly. But these are trying times…
The last several weeks, I’ve been avoiding thinking about preparing for fall by working on my book, “On the Pilgrim Way”: The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’ve been writing chapter 7 (of 11). The draft is almost complete. As July begins, I’m going to have to make the pivot to class preparation for the highly uncertain fall and spring of 2020-2021.
Chapter 7 addresses the years 1911 to 1924 in Laura’s life. Laura and Almanzo were living on Rocky Ridge, their farm about a mile outside of Mansfield, Missouri. These were the years that Laura wrote articles and columns for the Missouri Ruralist, a regional farm newspaper. Laura was in her forties and fifties, and even as she first had cultivated an audience for her writing, she was also at the height of her participation in community affairs in Mansfield. She was regularly an officer in the Mansfield chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, the auxiliary to the Masonic Lodge which allowed female members. She was also a founding member and regular attender of two women’s clubs. One was the Athenians, mostly women from Hartville, the county seat of Wright County and about ten miles north of Mansfield, but with five members from Mansfield. The Justamere club was founded in 1919 by and for women from Mansfield; Laura wrote the club song, “We are All Friends.” During World War I, she volunteered for the local chapter of the Red Cross and she and Almanzo contributed to the Liberty Bond drive. She was active in local Democratic Party politics and helped to found the Mansfield Farm Loan Association, which received funds from the Federal Government and made loans to farmers. She was elected Secretary Treasurer for the Association every year from 1917 to 1928.
How do I know about these activities? Well, most of them are reported in biographies of Laura. But I got to read about all of these things when I looked at the copies of two local newspapers that have been digitized and made available by the Chronicling America program of the Library of Congress. The Mansfield Press is available from 1908 to 1909. The Mansfield Mirror is available from 1912 to 1922.
Authors like John Miller and Caroline Fraser have gone through these papers before me and relate what they say about Laura and Almanzo. I worked through them in order to see what they say about Christian organizations in Mansfield, and especially about the Mansfield Methodist Church, where the Wilders attended most of their adult lives, though they never officially became members. Here are some things that I learned:
- When Laura and Almanzo moved to Mansfield in 1894, she wrote in her diary that “There is everything here already that one could want though we must do our worshipping without a Congregational church. There is a Methodist church and a Presbyterian.” (On the Way Home, 74) The Methodist church was actually a Methodist Episcopal (or M. E.) Church, and the Presbyterian Church was a Cumberland Presbyterian (or C. P.) Church. In 1909 a Baptist congregation was formed, and a Church of Christ was founded in 1913.
- The Methodist Church building had been built in 1899, and it was a center of activity in the Mansfield Community. It housed dinners sponsored by the Methodist Ladies Aid Society, graduation services for the local high school, and at times civic events like Memorial Day or July 4 observances, especially if it was rainy—otherwise they were held outside.
- None of the churches in Mansfield had pastors who served the church there full time—all of them were shared with churches in other small nearby towns. As a result, none of the churches had worship services with a sermon every week. By the middle of the 1910s, the Church of Christ had preaching (this is how the newspaper describes it) the first Sunday of each month, the Baptist church had preaching the second Sunday, the Methodist Church had preaching the third Sunday, and the Presbyterian Church had preaching the fourth Sunday. Sunday school was held in all the churches every Sunday.
- The Methodist Church in Mansfield was part of the St. Louis Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The M. E. denomination was hierarchical, which meant that the leaders of the conference assigned ministers to the churches every fall for one year terms. At times a pastor might be returned to a church or set of churches for two or even three years, but most of the men that served Mansfield and other churches in small towns were only there for one year before being moved to another pastorate.
- My far the most colorful pastor of the Mansfield Methodist Church was the Rev. Guy Willis Holmes, who served there from 1916 to 1919. He is described in the newspaper as “an earnest and forceful preacher” and “a live-wire.” He must have been an electrifying speaker and a persuasive organizer. After only six months in the area, he was giving the commencement speech at multiple high schools, had helped to start a boy scout troop, and had conducted revival services that resulted in 22 conversions. But he came into his own during World War I, when he recruited a company for the Missouri National Guard, Chaired the County Council of Defense, and was named the Federal Food Aid Administrator for Wright County. Holmes was an outlier in that he served for three years. Subsequent pastors never quite lived up to his legacy.
I’ve been thinking about how these realities might have formed the Wilders and their faith. What might it have meant that there was only a worship service with preaching at the Methodist Church once a month? I don’t know if Almanzo and Laura went to Sunday School on the other weeks or not. Furthermore, what might it have meant for their church that it often had a pastor who was only there for one year and then moved on? Could a pastor really get to know many people in the church if he was only in town one weekend a month for one year? Finally, what did Laura and Almanzo think of Rev. Holmes and his striking career as pastor and war worker? For most of 1918, in his role as Food Administrator, Holmes published rules for farmers, stores, and individuals in the newspaper. Staples like flour and sugar were rationed and their prices were fixed, farmers had to market their wheat immediately when it was harvested, and threshing machine owners had to provide weekly reports. It is clear that the Wilders opposed what they saw as Federal Government overreach during the New Deal. I don’t know if they resented the U. S. Food Administration’s rules and regulations during the Great War.
As always, I’m working through these things as I write the book. Thanks for reading.
Quote is from Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Way Home: The Diary of a Trip from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894, with a setting by Rose Wilder Lane (New York: Harper, 1962).
For more on Laura and the Eastern Star and other community activities, you can check out Teresa Lynn’s Little Lodges on the Prairie: Freemasonry & Laura Ingalls Wilder (Austin: Tranquility Press, 2014).
The Coca-Cola ad is from the January 8, 1920 edition of the Mansfield Mirror.