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).