Little House in the Big Woods

I was able to read Little House in the Big Woods yesterday. So this puts me a little bit ahead of schedule. Big Woods is such a lyrical book, full of beautiful descriptions of nature and family life. Wilder does an excellent job evoking the world of a toddler in rural Wisconsin during the late nineteenth century. The centerpiece of nearly every chapter is a story, either told by Pa or enacted by the characters. These stories express timeless moral truths about concern for nature, kindness to others, and survival in difficult circumstances.

Since this blog is about the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I was especially looking for how the church and Christianity are described. To tell the truth, they are not as present as one might expect for someone described as “devout” or having an “abiding religious faith.” While morality and propriety are ever-present, there is very little attention given to the Bible or the church. The name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned at all.

Chapter 5, “Sundays,” is where religion is mainly addressed. It describes the Ingalls family Saturday night ritual of taking a bath and their normal practices on Sunday: the kids could not play, Ma read Bible stories, and they could look at pictures. Laura impulsively says that she hates Sunday, and Pa responds sternly at first, but then tells a hilarious story about his father and uncles. The thrust of the story is that things used to be much more strict when Laura’s grandfather was a child. The day ends with Pa playing hymns on his fiddle.

The only other mention of religious observance is the mention of bedtime family prayers at the end of several chapters. Chapter 6 records that the children said the classic prayer from the New England Primer: “Now I lay me down to sleep,/ I pray the Lord my soul to keep./ If I should die before I wake,/ I pray the Lord my soul to take.” (I, 47)

When the family goes to town in Chapter 9, the store dominates the description of Pepin. Church is not mentioned. The book says it was a seven mile ride to town in the wagon. One might imagine that it would be possible to go that distance to church, but they didn’t.

I hope that this doesn’t sound too critical. These were some of her earliest memories of her childhood, and Wilder was over sixty years old when she wrote this during the early 1930s. Perhaps Christianity proper did not dominate Laura’s early life such that it registered in her earliest memories. Also, Wilder—and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who edited the manuscript—were presumably writing with a particular audience in mind. It may be that they did not see more overt references to Christianity as important or appealing to that audience.

Obviously, I’m not saying that Wilder was not a Christian. And I’m not saying that we should jump to any conclusions about the nature of Wilder’s faith from this first of the eight little house books. But I had to start somewhere. I’d be glad to hear others comments.

(Note on references: I am reading the Little House books in the two volume set published by the Library of America in 2012, and I will give the volume and page number.)

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Author: johnfry2013

Chair, Department of History, Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, IL

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