The Last Puritans

During the last several weeks, I have been able to read historian Margaret Bendroth’s The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past. Bendroth is the director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston. I have heard her speak at events sponsored by the Conference on Faith and History. She is a careful historian and an eloquent speaker. The Last Puritans is a history of Congregational Churches in the U. S. A. during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I wanted to read it because Laura Ingalls Wilder attended Congregational Churches in Walnut Grove, Minnesota and De Smet, South Dakota. Her parents, Charles and Caroline Ingalls, were also lifelong members of Congregational Churches.

I am a member and a Ruling Elder in a small Presbyterian denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). The OPC is a confessional church, holding to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as doctrinal statements that accurately explain what the Bible says on most questions of faith and life. I also see myself as an Evangelical, sharing characteristics with many other contemporary Christians who believe that the Bible is God’s inspired word, that Jesus Christ is God come to earth to die for the sins of His people, and that Christians’ responsibility in the world is to preach the gospel and lead a life in accordance with God’s word. As a result, I admit that it is difficult for me to understand the approach of most liberal, mainline Protestant churches, including the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A., the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ (UCC). Since 1957, the UCC is one of the successor denominations to the Congregational Church associations described in Bendroth’s book; the UCC is the subject of its last chapter. It seems to me that these churches downplay Biblical doctrines and historic confessions in order to pursue progressive social causes. I see them as rejecting the historic Christian faith. This means that it can be difficult for me to appreciate the decisions made by the leaders and members of those churches in the past, and it can be hard for me to understand the Christianity experienced by people in those churches today. Bendroth’s book is a help in this area.

The Last Puritans describes the leaders and members of American Congregational Churches during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as being extremely interested in their history. Congregationalists trace their roots to the Pilgrims and Puritans who migrated to New England during the early 1600s. However, the way that they remembered their Pilgrim ancestors changed over time. By the 1800s, they mainly remembered the independent, liberty-loving side of the Pilgrims, and their establishment of churches where local autonomy was fiercely defended. Nineteenth Century Congregationalists also told stories about the Pilgrims and Puritans that emphasized their toleration of other Christians. The result was that for many, their vision of their history led to downplaying of doctrinal distinctives, including the Calvinism that animated their Pilgrim and Puritan forebears. At the turn of the twentieth century, Congregationalists also began to historicize their ancestors, viewing them not as kindred spirits but as strikingly different. Twentieth century churchgoers emphasized the spirit of their forebears while rejecting many of their beliefs. This led them to support union with other churches and an embrace of the Social Gospel and Progressivism.

Bendroth concludes that while Congregationalists came to doubt many stories in the Bible were factually true, they decided to remain in the church anyway. “Protestant Liberalism is… about people who learned to live with ambiguities, who chose to believe without demanding certainties.” (194) She gives examples from both church leaders and ordinary church members who exemplify this willingness to let go of the factual nature of the Bible but remain in the church. This would not be the choice that I would make, but I think that I understand a little better why they made it.

Does this understanding of the history of Congregationalism contribute to a better understanding of Laura Ingalls Wilder? Perhaps. Perhaps Wilder’s upbringing in Congregational Churches shaped her understanding of what church should be. Assuming that a Methodist Church in the border south was more Evangelical than a Congregational Church in the upper Midwest, perhaps that is why she never joined the Methodist Church in Mansfield, Missouri, even though she attended there for over sixty years. There also may be some connections between Congregationalists’ memory of the Pilgrims’ love of liberty and Wilder’s devotion to liberty, as well as that of her father and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. I’m going to continue to ruminate on this as I start writing soon.

Thanks for reading.

(Quote is from The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015].)


The Last Puritans

Congregational Library and Archives

The Conference on Faith and History




End of Summer

Thanks very much to everyone who reached out to me (via email, in person, via Facebook) after I announced two weeks ago that I had received a book contract. You all are the best.

Today all first year students will be moving into the dorms here at Trinity Christian College. There have been some students on campus for the last week or two, including fall athletes, student leaders, and some others. It’s been great to see more students around; they bring life back to a college campus. All the new freshman will be here by this evening. Returning resident students and new transfers arrive by the middle of next week to complete the student body. My daughter moves back to Trinity (she’s a sophomore) this Sunday. Regular courses begin next Wednesday. My three sons start school (two in high school and one in homeschool eighth grade) next Thursday morning. All of this means that the summer is just about over.

It’s been a productive summer:

– I finished my book review of Christine Woodside’s Libertarians on the Prairie for Fides et Historia (the journal of the Conference on Faith and History) in April. (I guess this wasn’t really summer, but I hadn’t mentioned it on the blog before.)

– I finalized my book proposal and sent it off to Eerdmans in May.

– I presented a paper at the Midwest History Conference in Grand Rapids in June.

– I spoke at LauraPalooza in July.

– I received a book contract from Eerdmans and signed it in July.

– Last week I completed a book review of Pioneer Girl Perspectives for The Annals of Iowa.

– This morning I wrote three and a half pages of a possible introduction to the book.

I hope to keep reading for the book project once school starts at least once a week. I got a list of books to read from Mark Noll, one of the editors of the Eerdmans series I’m writing for, about American religious history. I also hope to do more thinking and writing. I will try to keep up the blog as much as I can.

Thanks for following. Best wishes to all who has someone in their home who returns to school during the next several weeks.


Trinity Christian College

Fides et Historia and the Conference on Faith and History

My Libertarians on the Prairie blog post

My LauraPalooza post

My book contract post

My Pioneer Girl Perspectives post

The Annals of Iowa

State of the Project

It’s time to take stock of where my project on the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder has led me so far and where it is heading.

In January of 2016, I began this blog. The plan was to investigate Wilder’s faith and write an article for a history journal about it. I also had the idea that the article could be the core of one chapter in a book on how Wilder’s work engages topics of interest to readers in the twenty-first century. Many readers of this blog walked with me as I read through the Little House books, the best biographies of Wilder, and other books in the spring and summer of 2016. Last fall, I presented a paper on Wilder’s faith to the Conference on Faith and History. It was there that several individuals suggested that consider writing a book-length biography of Wilder with particular attention to her faith.

The idea of writing a spiritual biography of Wilder was confirmed by students when I taught an Honors Seminar on the Little House books during the spring 2017 semester. There also seemed to be enthusiasm for the project when I gave an invited lecture at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in February. And it received general support from many old friends and Wilder scholars I saw at the Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy conference in Sioux Falls at the end of last month. So writing this book is currently my intention.

Last week, I sent a book proposal to Eerdmans Publishers in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The book would be part of their series titled The Library of Religious Biography. I projected that there will be ten chapters. If I can write two chapters each summer, the manuscript will be complete in five years. Both the series editor and an in-house editor at Eerdmans are receptive to the idea. So we will see what happens next.

This summer, I will be speaking on Wilder’s faith two times. At the beginning of June, I will be on a panel at the Third Annual Midwestern History Conference in Grand Rapids. The panel is titled “The Uses of Public Memory in the Rural American Midwest.” My paper title is “Little House and Little Church: Memory and the Church in the Published Works of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” My paper will suggest that the Midwestern upbringing of both Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane influenced the depiction of the church in Wilder’s works. However, because Wilder and Lane had strikingly different experiences in the church—and therefore strikingly different memories of the church—those differences also influenced how the church is described, especially in the Little House books.

In July I will be speaking at LauraPalooza. This year the conference is titled LauraPalooza 2017: Little Houses, Mighty Legacy: 150 Years of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I am on their agenda first thing on Friday morning. The conference is sponsored by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association and held in Springfield, Missouri. Many of the attendees at this conference will be people who just love Wilder and the Little House books, not academics. Probably a large percentage of them will be women. My talk is just titled “‘On the Pilgrim Way’: The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” The title is taken from Chapter 23 of By the Shores of Silver Lake, which describes the first prayer meeting and worship service in DeSmet, SD, in 1880. I am hoping to roll out some of my observations about Wilder’s faith for this broader audience. It is also my hope to stop at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri, on my way to the conference.

Meanwhile, this summer I hope to continue to read and post about what I read. Thanks for being part of my work.

The End of 2016

It’s almost Christmas, and my family and I will be traveling starting on Friday, Lord-willing. So this, my end-of-the-year post, is going up today.

This blog launched on Monday, January 4, 2016. In that post, I expressed my desire to write an article on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s faith and my plan to read the Little House books and post about them. Since then, I’ve written and posted twenty-nine additional entries.  I read the eight Little House books, twelve additional volumes of material by her, three biographies, and several other books. I got a grant to look at material by Wilder and Lane at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. I blogged about early manuscripts of the Little House books and correspondence I read there. I presented an article to a group of faculty here at Trinity Christian College and a paper to the Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. I was encouraged to propose a book-length biography of Wilder giving particular attention to her faith by representatives from two different publishers. As a result of my reading and interactions with others, I believe that my understanding of Wilder’s faith is much deeper than it was a year ago.

What’s next? I will be teaching an Honors Seminar here at Trinity titled “The Little House Books in the Twenty-First Century” during the spring semester. We will be reading and discussing the Little House books together as well as some other materials (I haven’t finalized the syllabus yet). I hope to write the book proposal as I teach the class.  It will be good to talk about it with students; as they write their research papers, I’ll be writing my proposal. I’ve also been asked to give a lecture on Wilder’s faith at Calvin College next February. There is a good chance that I will be able to present a paper at the Midwestern History Conference, sponsored by the Midwestern History Association, next June. Finally, I will be writing a book review of the latest book on Laura and Rose, Libertarians on the Prairie by Christine Woodside, for the journal Fides et Historia. So I have been blessed with many opportunities to engage Wilder and her faith.

I hope that everyone who reads this has a truly blessed Christmas and that the new year opens for you with optimism, peace, and trust in the child born in Bethlehem, who is also the King of all creation.

Will be back in 2017.

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.

“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.

A Little House Traveler

It’s been a while again since I’ve posted. I’ve been working on several things. Two weeks ago, I finished a draft of my article, now titled: “‘This is what Men Call God:’ The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I then emailed it to nine of my colleagues from the English, History, Music, Philosophy, and Theology Departments here at Trinity Christian College. Last week, some of those colleagues and I met for our monthly Historical Scholars Workshop. We discussed my article; they asked some really good questions and gave me some really good suggestions for the project going forward.

Since then, I’ve been working on a draft of my conference paper for the Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History to be held at Regent University. The session I will be presenting in is titled “‘On the Pilgrim Way:’ Writing Religious Biographies of Women.” (The quote in the title is from Chapter 23 of By the Shores of Silver Lake.) The other presenters are Kristen Kobes Du Mez from the History Department at Calvin College and Karen Swallow Prior from the English Department at Liberty University. The respondent for the session will be Timothy Larsen from the Biblical and Theological Studies Department at Wheaton College. I will only get 15-20 minutes for my presentation, so I have to pare my article back from 28 pages to about ten. I’ve already gotten it down to 15. More cuts to come.

However, yesterday I also got the chance to look through the last published volume of primary source materials written by Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Journeys Across America, published by HarperCollins in 2006. Like many recent publications of Wilder materials, much of it is material that has already been published. In fact, the first four-fifths of the book reproduce two books that I have already written about on this blog, On the Way Home and West From Home. There are some more photographs in this volume, it is hardcover, and the type is larger, but otherwise it appears that the text is exactly the same as the originals.

That leaves the last 70 pages of the 350 page work. The editors of the volume (who are not identified) call this part of the book “The Road Back: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Record of the Journey Back to DeSmet, South Dakota, 1931.” It reproduces notes that Wilder wrote to herself on a trip that she and Almanzo took from Mansfield, Missouri to DeSmet, South Dakota in 1931. They function as a diary, with daily entries describing how far they traveled, what they did, and how much they spent. Apparently Wilder wrote on loose sheets, and some of them were sent to her daughter for safe keeping while they were on the road. It may be that Wilder wanted to use them for future publications, or it may just be that she had written so much by this time (including fifteen years of Missouri Ruralist articles and columns and Pioneer Girl) that she found writing a valuable way of recording and making sense of what she saw.

I understand why the publishers decided to put these three sets of Wilder’s writings together. On the Way Home, a diary of the trip the Wilders took from DeSmet to Mansfield in 1894, describes their travels in a covered wagon. West From Home, letters Laura wrote to Almanzo from her trip to San Francisco to visit Rose, describe her travels by train. This third trip was taken in their Buick, which they named Isabelle, with their dog Nero. Once they reached South Dakota, they stayed with her sister Grace and her husband Nate Dow in Manchester, South Dakota, and visited DeSmet several times. Laura and Almanzo then drove to the Black Hills to see her sister Carrie and her husband David Swanzey. While there, they visited Mount Rushmore and the badlands. They then drove home, taking a different route. Wilder’s ability to describe a scene minutely and eloquently is often on display here. She saw much evidence of the depression, including idle factories, abandoned farms, and frustrated townspeople. It was a hot, dry summer, and many times she describes billowing clouds of dust.

It would have been helpful if the publisher had provided some kind of map for these travels for the benefit of readers. Also, the introduction to this portion of the book, by Abigail MacBride, says that this was the first time that Laura had visited DeSmet since leaving in 1894. (288-289) However this is not true; Laura had traveled to DeSmet by train in the summer of 1902 to see her father before he died of heart disease. (John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend [Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), 111.)

The new material in this volume adds little to our understanding of Wilder’s faith. It does not mention God, Christianity, or the church. I did use my perpetual calendar to look up what Laura and Almanzo did on Sundays during the trip. It appears that they did not keep the pattern they had kept in 1894 of not traveling on Sundays. On Sunday, June 7, they traveled 277 miles from Shady Side, Missouri to Eureka, Kansas. (292-293) On Sunday, June 14, they were staying with the Dows and they visited their parents old house in DeSmet and Nate’s farm. (310) They drove to Mount Rushmore with the Swanzeys on Sunday, June 21. (321-323) Finally, on June 28, they were on the way back to Mansfield and they drove 233 miles. (341-342) I wrote in my entry on West From Home, “One gets the impression… that Wilder was most interested in church life when she was settled in a community and she knew the people. She was not as interested in attending worship when out of her normal surroundings.” It seems that the information about this additional trip confirms that observation.

Thanks for reading.

(Page number references are from A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Journeys Across America [New York: HarperCollins, 2006].)