The Conference on Faith and History

Last week a student of mine from Trinity Christian College and I attended the 30th Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. My student presented at the Undergraduate Research Conference, I presented at the Professional Conference. We had a great time meeting students and faculty from other colleges and universities, listening to other Christian historians present their research, and (for me) meeting old friends and catching up. On the last day of the conference, we went to Jamestown to see the site of the first successful English settlement in America.

My last post was a preview of the paper I was going to present. Here is a report on my panel. The panel was held on Friday, October 21, at 2:45 pm. It opened with a presentation titled “Where are the Women: Writing Religious Biographies of Women” by Kristin Kobes du Mez, a historian from Calvin College. Kristin has written a biography of Catherine Bushnell, and she is currently working on a project tracing the faith of Hillary Clinton. Second, Karen Swallow Prior, who teaches literature at Liberty University, spoke about writing a biography of Hannah More in a presentation titled, “Just a Handmaiden: An English Professor Attempts to Write History.” I then presented my paper on the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Finally, Tim Larsen of Wheaton College responded to the presentations. Then the floor was opened for questions and comments from those assembled. I counted thirty-five people in the audience, of whom around twenty-five were women.

Everyone that I spoke with thinks that looking more closely at Wilder’s faith is a great idea, and I received a lot of encouragement. Unfortunately, I did not get much help from anyone with my questions about historical context. I’ll have to pound on that a little myself. But I did get some interesting ideas about audience in the shape of two suggestions that I write an entire book on Wilder’s faith:

After the session, Tim Larsen spoke to me about whether I was interested in writing a book-length biography of Wilder with particular emphasis on her faith. He edits a series of books for an academic press that examines the faith of a variety of famous figures in history, and he said that he believes that the publisher would be interested in a book on Wilder. I hadn’t thought much about this, because I was thinking that the faith of Wilder would be one chapter in a book that addressed Wilder’s views on a variety of topics (politics, the environment, ethnic diversity, etc.). But I said that I would think about it.

When I got back to where I was staying Friday night, I had an email from another Christian historian who edits a series of religious biographies for a trade publisher. He wanted to set up a time to talk about whether I’d be interested in writing a book on Wilder’s faith for that series. So I spoke with him yesterday. He was downright excited about the project.

So I’m warming up to the idea of writing a biography that highlights Wilder’s faith. I do think that multiple publishers are interested in Wilder because those who read the Little House books buy other books. I believe that I will begin thinking about how I would structure a Wilder biography. I’m not sure who I would rather have publish it.

So overall the conference was a great experience—even though all the meetings on Saturday had to be shifted to another building on Regent’s campus because of a rally for Donald Trump (imagine that). Jamestown is an amazing place. There has been an archaeology project going on there for the last 20 or so years that has uncovered the foundation of the first church in the settlement, a number of graves, and thousands of artifacts. Fascinating.

Many thanks to Trinity for paying for many of our travel expenses.

Thanks for reading.

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“This is What Men Call God”

Greetings. I’ve been working on my paper for the Conference on Faith and History (CFH) Biennial Meeting next week. It is titled “‘This is What Men Call God:’ The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I sent it off to the respondent for our panel last week. I thought I’d give an overview of the paper this week and then report about what happened after the CFH Meeting.

The paper opens with a brief description of the problems confronting someone trying to consider Wilder’s faith: conflicting evidence and the role of Rose Wilder Lane. The conflict is mainly that there is evidence that she believed in Christianity, but 1) there are negative depictions of the church and Christianity in the Little House books and 2) Wilder never formally became a member of a church. Then there is the question of what in the Little House books was written by Wilder and what was contributed by Lane.

I then describe what I found when I looked at the manuscripts of the early Little House books. Basically, it appears that Wilder wrote a pretty straightforward and conventional description of the church and Christianity. Rose took what Wilder wrote and made it more direct, engaging, and memorable, but she also complicated the simple descriptions Wilder wrote. For more, see my blog entry on the Manuscripts.

Finally, I consider several things that I believe that we can say about Wilder’s faith from all of the works Wilder wrote. First, she seems to have been a believer in God, His word, and His work in the world. Both Pioneer Girl and By the Shores of Silver Lake describe an experience with God. The title of the paper comes from the Pioneer Girl account. Her Missouri Ruralist articles give much evidence of her Biblical worldview. However, her Christianity emphasized moral action in the world and love for one’s neighbor. She very rarely mentioned sin and salvation, and almost never mentioned Jesus Christ. Second, there is good evidence that she participated in the most important Christian practices: Bible reading, prayer, and Sunday worship. Finally, she was active in the Congregationalist Church as a child and young adult in Minnesota and Dakota. She attended the Methodist Church in Missouri for most of her adult life. But there is no evidence that she ever formally became a member of any church.

I’m hoping that those who come to the session will help me with several questions. First, what historical contexts should I be trying to fit this in? Congregationalism? Women’s history? Rural religion? Second, who should I think about in terms of audience. Academics have not been all that interested in Wilder, but there seems to be a large number of people in the general public who read and love Wilder and her works, and they buy books.

We’ll see what people think. Thanks for reading.