A Little House Sampler and A Little House Reader

It’s been several weeks again since I’ve posted. This summer has been going incredibly fast. I’ve been trying to get my classes ready for the fall. But I’m back working on Wilder materials this week. Yesterday I was able to read A Little House Sampler and A Little House Reader.

A Little House Sampler was published by HarperCollins in 1988. William Anderson was the editor. The book contains an eclectic collection of writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane. There are some of Laura’s Missouri Ruralist articles and columns, some of Lane’s short stories and articles, some articles Laura wrote for other publications (including The Country Gentleman and The Christian Science Monitor), and a few speeches. Several of the materials had previously been unpublished. Like his Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anderson has arranged the pieces in chronological order and provides an introduction for each.

Probably the most important pieces in the book that are not readily available in other publications are “My Work,” Laura’s speech about her writing to a local women’s club during the 1930s, and her speech to the Detroit Book Fair in 1937. Both give descriptions of how she came to write the Little House books. Each gives the same simple story: she wanted to preserve her father’s stories by writing them down, they became Little House in the Big Woods, and that book’s success and requests from children inspired her to write more. Knowing the longer story of how Laura and Rose attempted to get Pioneer Girl published, this seems a bit disingenuous. But it may also be that Laura had come to believe this narrative. The Book Fair speech was an occasion where Wilder placed her life in the context of the history of the frontier and the American West: “I realized that I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers, and the towns. Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American History. That the frontier was gone and agricultural settlements had taken its place when I married a farmer.” (Sampler, 217) Fascinating stuff to file away for when I write my book…

This volume doesn’t add much to our understanding of Wilder’s faith. Christianity and the church are mentioned just a few times. Two of the Missouri Ruralist articles include meditations on Sundays as a child, Biblical themes, and Thanksgiving. These articles are also available in Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farm Journalist. There is also an account by Lane of the family’s trip from South Dakota to Missouri that parallels the events in On the Way Home. Lane confirms that the family did not travel on Sunday, but doesn’t say anything about church attendance. (Sampler, 83)

Anderson also edited A Little House Reader, which was published by HarperCollins in 1998. It is another collection of writings, mainly by Laura but also by other members of her family. Like A Little House Sampler, each selection is introduced by Anderson. Unlike the Sampler, the Reader is organized thematically and laid out as a children’s book, with larger type and more margins between lines. The book begins with some extant writings from Charles and Caroline Ingalls (Pa and Ma), Mary, Carrie, and Grace. It then proceeds with excerpts from the Missouri Ruralist and other published writings by Laura and Rose.

The Reader has a number of selections that attract the attention of one studying Wilder’s faith. First, in a nature poem about winter, she inserts the first four verses of Psalm 19 about creation showing forth the handiwork of God. (Reader, 100) Second, the book includes a description of “Sacrament Sunday” at a local General Baptist church, which apparently she and Almanzo attended. This included a morning worship service, a luncheon, then an afternoon worship service where the congregants washed each other’s feet at the end. Laura was impressed by the humility of those who participated.

However, most important for this project is the last section of the book, which Anderson titled “Of Time, Life, and Eternity.” The introduction contains Anderson’s bead on Laura’s Christianity:

Laura Ingalls Wilder held private her most personal beliefs and thoughts, so it seems almost invasive to speculate upon her religion. She transcends any effort by any sect or creed to claim a shared faith or denomination; her values and morals stood for more universal qualities of courage, honesty, kindness, and compassion, as her public and private writings indicate. Like those of other uncommon characters in history, Laura’s appeal and influence are widespread; her philosophy is best understood through the principles she practiced and the life she lived.

Although formal religious training was sporadic for Laura Ingalls while she grew up in a pioneer family, what she missed in church and Sunday school was more than compensated for through the teachings of her parents. Reading from the Bible, memorizing and quoting its verses, and singing the hymns of the era along with Pa’s fiddle were routine activities in the Ingalls home. (Reader, 185)

Later, Anderson says more about the influences on her faith outlook:

“Through more than sixty years in Mansfield, Laura was associated with the town’s Methodist church, though interestingly, neither she nor Almanzo ever joined officially. They attended Sunday services, entertained the minister, and were involved in the congregation’s efforts to build a church [building]. At home the Bible was a frequently consulted resource. The big black embossed family Bible, a gift to the Wilders from Pa and Ma soon after their wedding, was always a visible part of the household, but Laura preferred her own small well-thumbed Sunday school Bible. Surprising as it may seem for one who was a bookworm, and who accumulated a whole library of volumes, Laura evidently considered the Bible her only needed religious text…. In her later years, her Bible was a fixture on the table next to her favorite rocking chair, as familiar to visitors as the piles of mail that always accumulated in the same place. In ink, on the same soft lined tablet paper she used to write her Little House books, Laura wrote down a guide for important Bible references. (Reader, 195)

I certainly agree with Anderson that Laura was very private about her personal religious beliefs. But I don’t think that the best way to characterize her is as holding some kind of universal beliefs. She was a Christian, and her outlook on life was formed by the Congregationalist and Methodist churches she attended. By contrast, she certainly wasn’t a Presbyterian, as she rejected predestination and strict Sunday observance. I agree that her worldview was shaped by her upbringing and the Bible.

This section contains two poems that Laura wrote as a teenager. One, “Love Your Enemies,” is a meditation on how hard it is to do and a prayer for help from God. The other is “Praise Ye the Lord,” an imitation of one of the Psalms. It praises God for showing His people goodness and mercy, watching over them, giving the weak and oppressed strength, and caring for His people’s troubles. The poem ends:

Praise ye the Lord.

That He pardons and forgives us!

Pardons all who repent and turn from the wrong!

Oh! Praise ye the Lord, for His goodness and merchy

Praise him in heart and praise him in song.

Praise ye the Lord! (Reader, 188)

This is certainly a more full description of Christian doctrine about sin, repentance, and forgiveness than given anywhere in the Little House books. However, neither poem mentions Jesus Christ.

The other materials in the last section of the book do not mention God, Christianity, or the church; they are more or less secular in outlook. They are: a prose description of her dreams written to Almanzo when she was traveling west with Rose in 1925; a poem about resignation and optimism in the face of troubles, and a poem about eternity.

I’ve begun writing the paper I’m going to present to the Conference on Faith and History Biennial Conference this October. I will be traveling the next two weeks to visit family in Pennsylvania, so I don’t know when I will post again. Thanks for reading.

Page number references are to Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, A Little House Sampler, edited by William Anderson (New York: HarperCollins, 1988) and Laura Ingalls Wilder, A Little House Reader, edited by William Anderson (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).

 

Correspondence at the Hoover Library

Earlier this week I posted the first of two entries about the research I did last week at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. This is the second. (I’m feeling pretty good about two posts in the same week; I haven’t done that since January…)

The Rose Wilder Lane Papers at the Hoover Library include six boxes that are categorized the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Series.” These boxes contain correspondence, some typescript drafts of several of the Little House books, the original manuscript of The First Four Years, some clippings, and hardcover copies of the books. I was able to look through all of these materials. What I found most enlightening, however, were the letters in the collection from Laura to Rose. Many of these are reproduced in The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson. However, some are not included. I found three that shed light on Wilder’s faith.

The first is from Wilder to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, on August 19, 1937. Actually, it is a series of “character sketches” that Wilder had written roughly twenty years earlier, “when Wilson was president.” Laura had meant to give these notes to her daughter so that Rose could use them in a short story. The letter is reproduced in Selected Letters, but the character sketches are not. Thankfully, the Hoover Library houses them.

The sketches are of Christians who were part of the Mount Zion church in rural Wright County. Uncle Alf Mingus and Brother Frank Ellis were pastors there, and the pillars of the church were Aunt Julie Mingus, Eppie Mingus, Aunt Anne Bradshaw, and “Aunty Pickle” (yes, really). All the families in the church were farmers, including the pastors. They were all good farmers. The women of the church got together to spin and sew and gossip, but the gossip was edifying, not negative. The church community cared for those who were less fortunate, supported formal education and music instruction for their children, and inculcated good morals: “In all the hunt for illicit liquor no still has ever been found in the neighborhood.” The church building was the center of community entertainment. At the end of her descriptions, Wilder draws this contrast: “Not all communities are like the ones I have described. There are three not far away where the churches declined, were allowed to go into decay, and the wholesome life of the community and the value of its property declined with them.” (Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Laura Ingalls Wilder Series, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, Box 13, Folder 193)

Wilder’s depictions are of a church that served as the social center of its community, which was a popular idea among many mainline churches in the early twentieth century, because Social Gospel pastors argued that the church should be just that. Wilder’s descriptions are heartfelt. She argues forcefully that an active church community can make a great difference in the life of a rural neighborhood. It’s interesting that she wrote these for Rose, who had rejected the church. Perhaps this was a way to introduce the topic of Christianity into their correspondence.

The second letter is from Laura to Rose on February 20, 1939. Much of this letter is also reproduced in Selected Letters (192-193). About a page and a half is not reproduced. The excised material is the revelation that several of Laura and Rose’s acquaintances had begun attending the Roman Catholic Church. Wilder is incredulous; she could not understand why they would have done so.  Their decision caused troubles for one of the families, and in fact one member had decided to move to a different part of town. This kind of genteel anti-Catholic sentiment was also widespread among Protestants during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it’s not surprising that Wilder was susceptible to it. I don’t believe that this is a breakthrough discovery, but it is another reference point for constructing Wilder’s adult religious beliefs.

The final letter is one Laura wrote a month after the previous one. It was written on March 17, 1939, and it appears on pages 193-196 in Selected Letters. However, there is a section of news about women in the Mansfield community that was omitted from the book. It contains this account concerning the Methodist church:

          The leaders in the Methodist Aid have told Mrs. Hoover that they don’t need her help any more when they serve dinners. Mrs. Davis said Mrs. Hoover was heart broken over it because she always had helped. “But you know she is 74 years old and not much help any more.”

          A picture of me two years from now! I told the bunch talking about it that Mrs. H. ought to have done as I did – ‘quit while the quitting was good’ and Mrs. Craig said, ‘You and me both.” (Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Laura Ingalls Wilder Series, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, Box 13, Folder 195)

I’m working to fit all of this in with what I’ve already put together about Wilder’s faith in previous posts. It seems that she was a committed Protestant Congregationalist, but willing to worship in a Methodist church when a Congregationalist church was not available. She was not a Presbyterian, as multiple times she criticized predestination and strict Sabbath-keeping. She worshiped regularly at the church in her community, but it appears not so much when she was out of town. Her faith was important to her, but she also was pretty private about it. Her expression of Christianity in her Missouri Ruralist articles tended towards moral injunctions, not a celebration of God’s forgiveness through Christ. She had good memories of growing up in the church, though those memories as presented in the Little House books are distorted by her daughter’s influence.

I have a couple more books to read through (including A Little House Sampler and A Little House Reader), and then I need to put together an outline and start writing my paper for the Conference on Faith and History this fall. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Page number references are to Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson (New York: HarperCollins, 2016).