Presentations and Meditations

Well, it’s March. It’s incredible how fast time is moving this semester.

On Wednesday of last week I spoke at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The talk was sponsored by the History Department and the Mellema Program in Western American Studies. It was a great time. Over fifty people turned out to hear me speak—at least I took fifty handouts and they were all gone. My presentation gave a report of what I’ve come to understand so far about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s faith: 1) that the descriptions of God, Christianity, and the church in the Little House books were shaped by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, and 2) that Wilder’s faith was deep and genuine, but it emphasized God the Father and His laws more than Jesus Christ and salvation. These conclusions will be familiar to those who have been reading this blog for any length of time.

The question and answer period was especially rich. The audience had students, faculty members, and members of the community, including a mother with two young children. I took questions from all three groups. It was a fascinating experience. At one point, I had to try to explain to a faculty member why so many Americans for the last eighty years have been drawn to the Little House books. (Briefly: engaging descriptions, emotionally gripping prose, and a vision of human flourishing that provides an attractive alternative to modern life for many.) I also at times had to explain to some members of the community that not everything in the books represents exactly how things happened. I’m still working on how to characterize the complex collaboration of Laura and Rose.

Many thanks to Will Katerberg for inviting me and Jenna Hunt for taking care of so many of the details for the talk. If you’re interested, the audio recording may be made available, and I’ll put up a link when it is.

While I was in Grand Rapids, I also met with David Bratt, an editor for the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, which is headquartered there. David would like me to write a proposal for a book-length biography of Wilder with particular attention to her faith. Eerdmans has a series titled the Library of Religious Biography, and the series editors are also very interested in seeing a proposal. Eerdmans publishes books for academics and readers in the church, so they may be a good fit; it is my hope that any book I do write will not only speak to college faculty and students but also to a broader audience of people who are interested in the books. My plan is to write the proposal by the end of this semester.

In addition, on Monday of this week, I spoke at a Faculty Coffee sponsored by the Faculty Development Committee here at Trinity Christian College. It was an abbreviated version of the Calvin talk, because I only had forty-five minutes rather than ninety to speak and take questions. I was very happy that one of the students from my Honors Seminar course came, as well as many faculty and staff.

My conversation with David, my lecture at Calvin, and my talk here at Trinity have led me again to think about audience and reception. As I talk with more people about the project, I’m realizing that my research points in two directions. First, it seems that Laura Ingalls Wilder was a committed Christian, and that at least some of the straightforward and positive descriptions of God, Christianity, and the church in her handwritten original manuscripts were changed by her daughter into the more mixed or even negative depictions that appear in the published Little House books. One might imagine that this would be welcomed by many of those who love the books, especially those who are serious Christians themselves. However, I also think that my research suggests that Wilder was not what we might call a born-again or evangelical Christian. Her descriptions of God, Christianity, and church emphasize God’s power, His laws, and personal morality. Wilder’s writings hardly mention Christ, the gospel, or salvation. I think that this runs against what some readers believe about her. I think that the television series may play a role in this. Although I have never watched an episode (I guess that I need to watch at least some soon), it is my understanding from others that Christianity was pretty central to the series.

I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to navigate this, except to say, as I said in response to a question on Monday morning, that one thing that historians often have to do is to try to get behind how a historical figure is remembered to the historical person himself or herself. I don’t want to do it just for the purpose of cutting down Laura in people’s estimation or telling people that what they believe is wrong. But I do think that loving one’s neighbor who lives in the past includes being honest about who they were, what they believed, and how they lived.

I’m still thoroughly enjoying the Honors Seminar on the Little House books. This week we finished Little Town on the Prairie. Perhaps I can do a post next week (next week is spring break, so I’ll have some more time) where I reflect a little on what has been going on in that class.

Thanks for reading.


60 Years

Laura Ingalls Wilder died on February 10, 1957, three days after her 90th birthday, sixty years ago today.

She had lived during the administrations of 17 different presidents, had survived two world wars, and had seen the emergence of the United States as a world power. She rode in a covered wagon in the 1870s and flew in an airplane in the 1950s. She is buried in Mansfield, Missouri.

[Wow, I had the wrong year when I first posted this. Thanks to Connie for setting me straight.]

Updates / Prairie II

I’ve been working on several parts of the Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder project for the last several weeks. My plan was to get as much as possible done before the due date of the first paper in my Western Civilization course here at Trinity Christian College. It was handed in today. So I will be grading for the next week, and then that class will be taking the first exam, so I’ll be grading for another week…

I did get confirmation this week that I will be speaking at the Midwestern History Conference, sponsored by the Midwestern History Association, in June. The panel is on “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.” Many thanks to panel organizer and presenter Nancy Berlage from Texas State University and presenter David Brodnax, Sr., my colleague here at Trinity. Thanks also to Commenter Jon Lauck, and Chair David Zwart.

I was able to finish my lecture for the Calvin College History Department Colloquium that I will be speaking at later this month. Many thanks to Will Katerberg and the Mellema Program in Western American Studies for inviting me. The lecture is titled “‘This is What Men Call God:’ The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I also finished a presentation for a Faculty Coffee here at Trinity, which will be the week after I speak at Calvin.

This week I also traded emails with John Miller about Wilder manuscripts, and he told me about a conference in April in honor of the 150th anniversary of Wilder’s birth. It’s called “Laura Ingalls Wilder: a 150 Year Legacy,” it’s being put on by the South Dakota State Historical Society (SDHS) in Sioux Falls. The SDHS is releasing a new book of essays on Wilder, and the conference will have all of the big names in Wilder studies. I’m trying to figure out if I can go. It’s during my last week of classes.

Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying my Honors Seminar on the Little House books immensely. So far we’ve read and discussed Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, and Little House on the Prairie. The students are pointing out things to me that I hadn’t noticed. For instance, they noted that during the account of the family’s getting malaria (“Fever and Ague”) in Prairie, baby Carrie isn’t mentioned at all. (Carrie is actually mentioned twice in the chapter, but it is before and after the family is sick.) Who took care of the baby while everyone was stricken? This sent me to Pioneer Girl. In that memoir, the story of malaria is given before the story of Ma giving birth to baby Carrie. But because of the order in which the children’s books were published, Carrie was already in Big Woods, so she had to be in Prairie. We also discussed other challenges involved in running two timelines in our heads – the timeline of the Little House books and the timeline of Wilder’s actual life…

I also found an additional mention of Christianity in Little House on the Prairie that I hadn’t written about last year. In chapter 17, when Pa is gone to town, Ma sits up late in the rocking chair by the fire with Pa’s pistol in her lap and sings “There is a happy land / Far, far away, / Where saints in glory stand, / Bright, bright as day. / Oh, to hear the angels sing, / Glory to the Lord, our king.” (359) I probably should have noticed this when I worked through The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook, but I didn’t.

Thanks for listening.

(The page number reference is from Volume 1 of the two volume set of the Little House books published by the Library of America in 2012.)

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.

Her Heart Can See

I mentioned in my last blog post that I’ve been in contact with two publishers about the possibility of writing a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder with particular attention to her Christianity. So I went to Trinity’s library and checked out several religious biographies to see what they’re like. I was able to read one of them last week: Edith Blumhofer’s Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby. Blumhofer is a history professor and director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College.

Some readers may know that Fanny Crosby was an almost superhumanly prolific Christian hymnwriter during the late 1800s and early 1900s. She wrote for multiple publishers who printed her songs under her own name and dozens of pseudonyms. As a result, an exact number cannot be given, but it is probable that she wrote as many as nine thousand hymns and gospel songs. Apparently she was able to think of rhymes on the fly, and she composed multiple poems and songs every day. She was blind and dictated the songs to others who wrote them down. Crosby was also a popular speaker at churches, Sunday schools, YMCAs, and rescue missions in the greater New York City area. While most of her hymns have fallen into obscurity, some are still sung today, especially “Blessed Assurance,” “Rescue the Perishing,” and “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.”

Since I’ve never written a book-length biography, I’m especially interested in how historians organize biographies, what questions they’re asking, and how they address a broader audience. Blumhofer’s book gave me answers to all three questions:

Organization: The first three chapters, which describe Crosby’s family history, childhood, and early adulthood, are chronological. Crosby was born in 1820 in a small town about 60 miles away from New York City. She lost her sight in infancy, and at age 15 she went to the New York Institution for the Blind in Manhattan. After she finished their course of study, she became a teacher there. At age 38, she married Alexander van Alstine and moved to Long Island.

The next eight chapters are thematic and address Crosby’s main period of activity, from 1858 to around 1900. One chapter recreates the world of New York City evangelical Protestantism that Crosby operated in. Others present the background of nineteenth century Christian music, especially “gospel songs.” Others give the biographies of Crosby’s collaborators: her music teacher, her publishers, her composers, and her friends. Still others describe Sunday schools during the nineteenth century and her talks in different venues. Finally, one chapter analyzes some of her most famous songs to draw a picture of how she experienced her faith and how she depicted it in her poetry.

The last chapter of the book covers the final fifteen years of her life, and the afterword considers her legacy. The book also has “A Note on the Sources,” which describes the sources used to write the book, an appendix giving Crosby’s family tree, and an appendix listing 150 of her pseudonyms.

Questions: Early in the Introduction, Blumhofer notes that there have been a variety of previous biographies of Crosby. Apparently most of them are inspirational, telling her story in order to feed Christian faith and devotion. Blumhofer also notes that, unfortunately, many of them are inaccurate. Her aim is to tell a more truthful story of how Crosby experienced life in nineteenth century New York as a blind, Christian, female hymnwriter. How did she come to be who she became? What networks supported her? How was she shaped by and how did she shape nineteenth century evangelicalism? How should one understand Crosby’s relationship to her historial context?

To answer these questions, Blumhofer spends a lot of time describing the historical developments, institutions, and individuals that made it possible for a Christian woman to do what Crosby did during the nineteenth century. First, music was increasingly seen as an important way to educate children and to Americanize immigrants. Second, Protestant evangelicalism came to define elite New York society. Third, Sunday schools became ubiquitous in Protestant churches. Fourth, new printing technologies revolutionized the publishing business. Finally, Crosby cultivated associations with important Christian figures like Phoebe Palmer, Dwight L. Moody, Ira Sankey, and William H. Doane. In all of these ways, Blumhofer presents Crosby’s life as being interwoven with nineteenth century evangelical Protestantism.

Broader Audience: I think that the major way that this book reaches out to a broader audience is by not having footnotes or endnotes and not engaging many other historians’ works directly. Her “Note on the Sources” is great, and I have some ideas of what that would look like for Wilder if I do a book for Eerdmans. However, as one might infer from my description of Blumhofer’s questions and ways of answering them, many of them are the types of questions that academic historians ask. I’m not sure how successful this story of Crosby’s might be in attracting the attention of Christians who are more interested in an inspirational story about the blind woman who wrote so many hymns.

At any rate, these are all things that I’ll have to continue to consider if I’m going to write a book on the Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Thanks for reading.

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.