Pioneer Girl Perspectives

At the end of last week, I was able to read the new book of essays from the South Dakota State Historical Society Press, Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book was edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal, who organized the Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy conference in Sioux Falls at the end of April. I bought the book at that conference. (All hyperlinks will be at the bottom of this post, with an explanation.)

The book is divided into four sections:

“Working Writers” – This section begins by reprinting the speech Wilder gave at the Detroit Book Fair in 1937. Then Wilder biographer Nancy Fraser links Rose Wilder Lane to the yellow journalism of the early twentieth century to explain Lane’s use of the “Bloody Benders” story in her attempts to get a publisher for Pioneer Girl. Finally, Lane biographer Amy Mattson Lauters reviews the many different types of prose that Rose published.

Beginnings and Misdirections” – Wilder expert William Anderson gives a brief history of the Pioneer Girl manuscript between Wilder’s death in 1957 and its publication in 2014. Literary scholar Michael Patrick Hearn engages how Pioneer Girl and the Little House books were written and compares them to other works of literature. Finally, Noel Silverman, counsel for the Little House Heritage Trust, in an interview with Koupal, provides what he believes are the reasons for the Little House books’ enduring popularity.

Wilder’s Place and time – Historian and Wilder biographer John E. Miller describes the Midwestern context of Wilder’s life and work, comparing it to works by Harvey Dunn, Willa Cather, and Frederick Jackson Turner. Then historian Paula Nelson places Wilder’s views on family, women’s roles, farming, and woman suffrage into historical context.

Enduring Tales and Childhood Myths – Wilder biographer Sallie Ketcham examines the different ways that Little House in the Big Woods displays the characteristics of a fairy tale. Historian Elizabeth Jameson considers how Wilder’s troubled and poverty-ridden childhood, as described in Pioneer Girl, was transformed into the happy childhood of the Little House books. Finally, literature scholar Ann Romines considers possible reasons there are no old people and why nobody dies in the Little House books.

Overall, it’s an excellent book. It’s slightly larger than a normal hardback, and the dust jacket is beautiful. It includes many illustrations from the original Helen Sewell editions of the Little House books, as well as historical photos of Wilder, Lane, and others. Many of the essays fill in gaps of Wilder scholarship or just bring together what we already know in helpful ways.

Like all books of essays, however, some chapters are more insightful than others. All of the authors of the book spoke at the 150-Year Legacy conference, and my blog post on the conference mentions what I found most memorable. After reading their work, I believe that Fraser, Anderson, and the historians (Miller, Nelson, and Armitage) have the strongest essays. Silverman’s observations are also quite helpful.

Two sections of the book provide food for thought for my project on the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. First from Miller’s essay:

Wilder kept a list of favorite Bible verses close at hand and sometimes devoted all or part of her Missouri Ruralist column to the need for people to get and treat each other benevolently in a Christian fashion. Although her particular religious beliefs and doctrinal positions cannot be known, we can speculate that her high degree of religiosity placed her in conformity with the conservative religious and political views of the majority of her neighbors. Springfield, the largest city in southwestern Missouri and located just fifty miles west of Mansfield, was a hotbed of old-time religion. Among other things, it became a center of gospel and country music, served as worldwide headquarters for Assemblies of God churches, and housed the regional offices of several other denominations. (p. 155)

So Miller says that her exact beliefs cannot be known. It’s sometimes difficult to be working on a project that Wilder scholars say can’t be done. I guess that I may not be able to pinpoint particular doctrinal positions, but I believe that the available evidence points in some particular directions. I agree that Wilder’s faith was probably influenced by her living in Southwestern Missouri for most of her adult life.

Paula Nelson’s essay makes several observations about Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles, about her church life, and about Wilder’s childhood experience with God:

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life philosophy shines through her columns, no matter the specific topic, and her ideals sprang from her deep Christian faith, learned at her mother’s knee and practiced as a Congregationalist in her earlier life. She and Almanzo became Methodists in Mansfield, where there was no Congregational church, but she recalled a religious experience from her youth in her autobiography. The Ingalls family was in dire straits during their second stay in Minnesota, and the young Wilder was intensely worried. Her bedtime prayers were more fervent than usual, she said, when “gradually I had a feeling of a hovering, encompassing Presence of a Power, comforting and sustaining and thought in surprise ‘That is what men call God!’” Congregationalists required a testimony of religious awakening for full membership in the church in the nineteenth century, and this experience may have been hers. (p. 184)

Wilder’s religious experience in Pioneer Girl is central to any understanding of her faith. I appreciate Nelson’s suggestion that this testimony could have been used to gain full membership in the Congregational church in Missouri or Dakota. I need to track down if there are church records that place when she became a member. Unfortunately, the climax of the story is misquoted here: it’s actually “This is what men call God.” (Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, p. 137, emphasis mine) It’s also important to note that the Wilders attended the Methodist Church in Mansfield but never became members.

Thanks again for sharing the journey with me. Comments are welcome.

(Page numbers are from Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, Nancy Tystad Koupal, ed. [Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2017].)

Links:

Laura Ingalls Wilder: a 150-Year Legacy Conference Site

My blog entry on the conference

Nancy Fraser’s forthcoming biography of Wilder: Prairie Fires

(Members of my family have been reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It has challenged me to consider whether having the hyperlinks in the text of my blog entries encourages people to read poorly. So I thought I’d see what things looked like if I put all the links at the bottom of the page.)

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy

Well, it’s May. It’s somewhat embarrassing that I haven’t posted anything since the middle of March. I could give some excuses. I could describe how in the last two months I’ve traveled to Pennsylvania (twice), Wisconsin, and South Dakota. But instead, I will try to make up for my lack of action by posting to the blog several times this week and next. (It’s finals week here at Trinity Christian College, so I have high hopes.) This post will report on the conference I attended in South Dakota at the end of last week. Lord-willing I will next put up a final report on the Honors Seminar I taught this term, and then an update on where the project is.

Last Friday and Saturday, the South Dakota State Historical Society (SDSHS) hosted the Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy conference in Sioux Falls. It was an incredibly good event. I think that there were over 200 people in attendance. The SDSHS Press published Wilder’s previously unpublished memoir Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography several years ago. It was a beautiful book, and as I mentioned in my blog entry on the book, it became a surprise best-seller.  The Press has followed up that volume with a book of essays released this year titled Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder. The conference speakers had all written an essay in that book. Nancy Tystad Koupal, the director of the Press and editor of the book presided over the conference. Pioneer Girl Perspectives will not be available to the public until the end of May, but it was for sale at the conference. I sold two copies of my last book, Almost Pioneers, so I was able to buy a copy.

As far as the presentations went, there were several that were especially insightful. One was by Caroline Fraser, who edited the two-volume Library of America edition of the Little House books and who has a new biography of Wilder coming out in November: Prairie Fires: The Life and Times of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Fraser placed Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane’s career in context of Yellow Journalism during the early 20th century, where “fake news” was used to attract readers. Fraser uses that context to explain why Lane included the story of the “bloody Benders” in some of the manuscripts of Pioneer Girl, and why Wilder mentioned them in her Detroit Book Fair Speech. Bill Anderson’s talk about what happened to the Pioneer Girl manuscripts between 1957 and the 1970s had some great stories and filled in many gaps in my knowledge of the manuscripts. And Sallie Ketcham described some ways that the Little House books, and especially Little House in the Big Woods, have characteristics of fairy tales.

Several historians presented, and they were excellent. Paula Nelson mined Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles to describe Wilder’s relationship to her time, especially Wilder’s ideas about women’s suffrage. Wilder’s pioneering was physical and geographical; she was not a pathbreaking feminist. Her ideas were shaped by the nineteenth century, and she believed in family, church, authority, self-control, and tradition. John Miller uncovered ways that Wilder was a Midwestern girl. Finally, Elizabeth Jameson outlined some of the reasons why the Little House books may be excellent literature, but they’re not representative of childhood on the late nineteenth century frontier. Wilder’s actual experiences, as outlined in Pioneer Girl, were in many ways not happy. She worked for wages to support the family, often had to live away from home, and was nearly sexually assaulted. But Wilder transformed her experiences into the happy childhood presented in the Little House books, and that may mislead people as they think about families in the past. I believe that it is important to have novels like the Little House books that put forth ideals of love and support for families to emulate. But I do understand Jameson’s critique. I would also feel better if Wilder and Lane had not told many people that the books described exactly what happened.

In addition to presentations, there were also panels of authors who discussed major controversies concerning Pioneer Girl and the Little House books. These included the roles of Wilder and Lane in their composition, and the political ideas presented in them. The panelists agreed that Lane acted as an editor and an agent for the books, but not as a ghostwriter. There was disagreement over whether Lane should be called a collaborator. Fraser and Miller argued that she was a collaborator, Koupal and Michael Patrick Hearn (a children’s literature scholar) asserted that she was not. The consensus about political ideas is that while there are some libertarian ideas in the Little House books (watch for a blog post about Christine Woodside’s Libertarians on the Prairie in a week or two), some arguments about the books’ political nature are overblown.

The conference was also great for networking. I was fortunate to meet Jameson (I had read two books she edited on women in the west when I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa), Fraser, and Koupal for the first time. I also really enjoyed catching up with friends who attended, including Anderson, Miller, Nelson (she and I both had Malcolm Rohrbough as our dissertation advisor at Iowa), and Michelle McClellan, who teaches at the University of Michigan and is working on a book about the Little House historical sites. I also saw Sarah Uthoff from Trundlebed Tales, who live tweeted the conference (see her day 1 and day 2 compilations), and Sandra Hume from Little House Travel and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association (organizers of LauraPalooza – more on this in later blog entries). I also spoke briefly with Jon Lauck, who started the Midwestern History Association several years ago. It was also neat to talk to some women who just love the Little House books, especially Kasey and Alice, who bought the copies of Almost Pioneers.

All in all, this conference has given me new energy for getting back to work on the Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. So Lord-willing there will be more material on the blog in the near future. Thanks for reading.

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.)

“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.

“I Remember Laura”

Last week, when I would normally have tried to read a Laura Ingalls Wilder book and write a blog entry, I was working on the draft of my article “The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I actually succeeded in writing an additional seven pages (I now have twenty-one pages written.) I’m hoping to finish the article next week so that I can circulate it to some of my colleagues here at Trinity Christian College. We have a reading group of scholars from several disciplines—history, English, music history, theology—who read each other’s work and share comments and suggestions.

This week, I was able to work through I Remember Laura”: Laura Ingalls Wilder, a book edited by Stephen W. Hines and published in 1994. The book’s dust jacket has this additional subtitle (though the title page does not): “America’s favorite storyteller as remembered by her family, friends, and neighbors.” The book is a collection of a number of different types of materials, including some of Wilder’s columns from the Missouri Ruralist, some articles in other publications about Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, and some first-hand reminiscences gathered by Hines from people who knew Wilder at the end of her life.

I used the verb “work through” at the beginning of the previous paragraph because there is much material here that is also published in other books. Almost three entire chapters are Missouri Ruralist pieces that I had already read. Other chapters republish articles from a variety of sources that are available elsewhere. There is also much material here that does not bear on Wilder’s faith. For instance, one chapter reproduces recipes from people who knew Wilder.

The unique material the book provides is in Hines’s interviews with people from Mansfield, Missouri who knew Laura, Almanzo, and Rose. Most knew them during the 1940s and 1950s, when the Wilders were in their eighties. In addition, the interviewees were quite advanced in years when Hines met with them during the early 1990s. Still, there is some new information here.

As far as material that bears on Wilder’s faith, there are several new revelations and several that connect to other bits of information I turned up previously. One thing I did not know was that her parents had given her a family Bible when she got married to Almanzo. She gave that Bible to Nava Austin, a friend, before she died:

She gave me her family Bible, the one her mother and father gave her when she and Almanzo were married. The family Bible had clippings and obituaries in it, including one for their boy. I thought Rose was the only child they ever had because Mrs. Wilder herself never mentioned anything about a son.

It was a huge Bible, and there were obituaries for both her mother and father. I’d never seen a Bible like it before, and she had pictures tucked away in it. If I am not mistaken, there was a paper clipping of when she and Almanzo got married. (117-119)

This Bible was never mentioned in either of the books that describe her wedding: Pioneer Girl or These Happy Golden Years. It is also not mentioned in The First Four Years.

“I Remember Laura” also includes an account from Carleton Knight, the pastor of the Methodist Church in Mansfield from the mid-1940s to the early 1950s. He and his wife visited the Wilders at their home a number of times. Almanzo often was working in his workshop or somewhere outside on the farm. Laura would take graham crackers and put powdered sugar icing on them to serve to her guests. Otherwise, the pastor didn’t remember much about their meetings.  However,

One thing I do remember so much is that when she came to church, even in the summer, she nearly always wore a red velvet dress, a dark maroon red, with a lace collar. Her black shoes had a big old silver buckle on them. That was her Sunday outfit. Her hair was beautiful and white and done up in a knot on the back of her head.

By that time she wasn’t terribly active. I never heard anyone say that she taught Sunday school, though she might have done before we came.” (225)

The one bit of information about Wilder’s faith that connects to another book is provided by Iola Jones. Jones spoke of taking Wilder to the Methodist Church for worship services after Almanzo’s death:

Mrs. Wilder had a good sense of humor and lots of wisdom, really; and she put it across in such an interesting way. She had been quite active in her church. In fact, she went to church with me quite a lot, which was a pickup in her activity because before that she hadn’t been going. You see, I don’t think she ever drove, so I think Almanzo’s death kept her in.

She did talk about spiritual things, and we went together to the Methodist Church where she had always gone. I can remember her telling me one time that she had memorized a book of the Bible, but I don’t remember which one. She just didn’t talk about herself a lot.  (136)

 The idea that Wilder had told someone that she had memorized a book of the Bible is striking. This connects to a letter to a Suzanna that I noted in my blog entry on William Anderson’s book, The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder: “The whole book of Psalms is a favorite of mine and I can repeat all. Can you?” (Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson [New York: HarperCollins, 2016], 342). Can it be that she told multiple people that she had memorized all 150 Psalms? Fascinating.

It’s late Friday afternoon and I must post this. Thanks for reading.

(All page numbers are from Stephen W. Hines, ed., “I Remember Laura:” Laura Ingalls Wilder [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994].)

Saving Graces

Hmmm.  It’s been over a month since I’ve posted.  My apologies.  Classes are back in session here at Trinity Christian College, where I teach.  I’ve had many meetings, and I served as a faculty mentor to a group of nineteen incoming freshmen.  But yesterday, I was able to read Saving Graces: The Inspirational Writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Nashville: Brodman and Holman, 1997).

Saving Graces is a short book (164 pages) that reproduces forty-eight of Wilder’s articles and columns from the Missouri Ruralist.  It was edited by Stephen Hines, who also edited the complete collection of the Ruralist material, Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farm Journalist.  In the time that I had to dedicate to the task, I was able to find all but ten of the articles from Saving Graces in Farm Journalist.  For Saving Graces, Hines gave a different title to each article.  He also added an italicized Bible passage, right in the middle of each.  The titles and passages connect the content of the articles to Christian virtues, topics, and themes.  The book also reproduces ten of Wilder’s best loved hymns with music.

One might wonder why, when I was embarking on a project about Wilder’s faith, I didn’t begin with this book, rather than reading twenty some other volumes first.  Well, I came to the project with my own questions about the Little House books, and I wanted to read them before anything else.  Then I worked my way around to Wilder’s other writings, including the Missouri Ruralist articles.  When I got to reading them, I wanted to make my own decisions about which of those articles were helpful in understanding Wilder’s faith.  So I read Farm Journalist.

The articles in Saving Graces are on a variety of topics, including nature, success, childrearing, work, Thanksgiving, and service to others.  Once I had read the book, I looked through my notes from Farm Journalist to see if I had noted that the articles Hines had chosen gave information about Laura’s faith.  It turns out that I had only identified about half of the articles Hines does.

Hines has a brief introduction titled “The Christian Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.”  There he references interviews with neighbors of the Wilders, Laura’s lifelong church attendance, and her conversion experience related in Pioneer Girl.  (See Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill [Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society, 2014], p. 137.) Unfortunately, as he describes the context of that experience, he sets it in Burr Oak, Iowa, when in actuality she was living in Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

Perhaps a key to the difference between Hines’s and my idea of what gives evidence of Wilder’s Christianity lies in the book’s subtitle:  The Inspirational Writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  There is certainly a difference between something that mentions the church, Christianity, or Christian ideas (what I was looking for) and what might be termed inspirational.  As a result, there are a number of articles reproduced in Saving Graces that display Wilder’s wisdom, insight, and traditional values.  But I don’t think that they are particularly Christian.  They do sound more Christian when juxtaposed with the Bible verses added by Hines.

I appreciate what Hines was trying to do with the book, and it will encourage readers to consider Wilder’s ideas about life, relationships, and what really matters.  But since there is not really any new material in Saving Graces that I had not already read, I don’t think that my understanding of Wilder’s faith was changed much by it.

Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder

Last week I re-read John Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend. It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost twenty years since it was published in 1998. It was groundbreaking then; it is still the most scholarly biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder on the market. It has held up very well. I had forgotten how insightful Miller’s analysis is. He read all that was available about Wilder at the time, and the book shows that he had a very good understanding of the contours of Wilder’s life and personality.

I should say at this point that Miller is a good friend of mine. I first corresponded with him via email in the mid-1990s when I was getting my M. A. in History at Duquesne University. I was working on a seminar paper on Laura’s articles for the Missouri Ruralist, which had just been published in book form for the first time. He was teaching at South Dakota State University at the time, and his answers to my questions were incredibly helpful. Later, when I was getting my Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, he graciously agreed to read a copy of my dissertation prospectus and to get together at a conference we were both presenting at to talk about it. I saw him most recently at the first LauraPalooza conference in 2010. LauraPalooza was a fascinating experience. A third of the program was an academic conference where papers were presented by some of the foremost scholars on Wilder. Another third of the program consisted of presentations by k-12 teachers about how they use the books in their schools. The last third was activities for Little House enthusiasts and their families. Miller was treated like royalty.

Overall, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder not only provided the world with a solid biography that paid attention to questions that academic historians ask, including questions about context, culture, causation, and continuity and change (I tell my history students they’re the “big-C” questions). Miller’s book also contributed to the literature on Wilder in several other particular ways. First, it was the first book to use Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles and columns to fill in gaps in what we know about her life between the 1890s and 1930s. Miller also used the Ruralist pieces to explain Wilder’s personality and her development as a writer. Second, it responded to William Holtz’s The Ghost in the Little House, a biography of Rose Wilder Lane, which had been published by the same publisher in the same series—the Missouri Biography Series—five years earlier. Holtz had asserted that Wilder remained an amateurish writer and that most everything that people love about the Little House books can be traced to the work of Lane; in effect Lane was the ghostwriter for the books. By contrast, Miller argued that Wilder’s writing improved over time, both during the ten years that she wrote for the Ruralist and when she composed the Little House books. The Little House books were the result of a collaboration between mother and daughter where each contributed what the other lacked. A close examination of the relationship between Wilder and Lane is the book’s third contribution. Miller describes it clearly, concisely, and in some detail. One of my favorite passages comes from the last chapter of the book:

The two were alike in so many ways: intelligent, self-disciplined, perfectionist, critical of other people’s foibles and shortcomings, capable of bursts of energy, and highly ambitious to achieve something significant. Each was an individualist, and each opposed governmental intrusions. Each one saw herself as being set apart from the ordinary run of people, and each let no one else do her thinking for her. Rose, the precocious child, demonstrated a brilliance of intellect not evident in her mother. But Laura proved her competence over and over as a housewife, farm manager, loan officer, and author. In her own special way, she was as remarkable a person as Rose. Yet, their differences outweighed their similarities. One was devout, the other a skeptic. One was traditional, the other avant-garde. One was ruled by convention, the other ridiculed it. One enjoyed rural ways, the other escaped to the city as soon as she could. One settled down and lived with a man for two-thirds of a century, the other found it impossible to accommodate herself to any other person for any length of time. One was content, the other restless. One found meaning and satisfaction in simple ways and simple people, the other remained at heart an elitist. (253)

Miller’s description of Wilder as “devout” in this passage gives an indication of how he depicts Wilder’s faith. It was Miller’s account of Wilder’s faith, and the fact that I’m not sure that it always matches depictions of Christianity in the Little House books, that first inspired me to undertake this project. However, Miller does trace the influence of Christianity throughout Wilder’s life. The book describes the New England Congregationalist background of her mother’s family. It reveals that there was a church in Pepin when the Ingalls family lived in the Big Woods, but it was Methodist, not Congregationalist. (19, 29) Miller provides some background information from other sources about both Rev. Alden and Rev. Brown. (33, 62) He describes Laura’s childhood church attendance and her sense of privacy about personal beliefs. (42) He notes that as adults in Mansfield, Missouri, the Wilders attended the Methodist church, but never became members. (102)

For Miller, Laura’s religion, her Christianity, her faith in God, were all central to her world and life view. Her faith was one of her most important inner convictions. Furthermore, he views her morality as being mainly derived from the Bible. For example, here is part of Miller’s summary of the overall message of Wilder’s columns in the Ruralist:

Many things drew Laura’s ire, among them selfishness, overreliance on experts, the tendency to find fault with others, negative—as opposed to friendly—gossip, swearing, relativistic ideas, and the failure to follow Christian precepts. If a single lesson stood out, it was the necessity of love, a message she derived no doubt both from the warm and loving family environment that she had grown up in and from her own experiences as an adult. The commitment to love was strengthened by her religious beliefs. While seldom mentioned explicitly in her columns, biblical teachings lay at the core of her thinking. (131)

Miller doesn’t directly address the many places I’ve identified in this blog where the church or particular Christians are not depicted positively in the Little House books. The positive depictions of Christianity in Pioneer Girl, Wilder’s lifelong church attendance, and her overall morality are enough evidence for him. As he wrote in an email to me several months ago, “I think even though she may not have talked much about God and religion in the Little House books, that religious thoughts were always a presence — in the background.”

This idea that her faith was key to her personality also comes out in an earlier passage when Miller describes some of the conflicts between Wilder and her daughter:

We can assume that Laura always considered that what she did was best for Rose and that she was doing it for Rose’s own best interest, and not her own. But the mother’s idea about what constituted her daughter’s best interest did not always coincide with Rose’s. Add to that a large degree of certitude and self-righteousness on Laura’s part, heavily reinforced by religious belief, and we arrive at a situation in which the mother’s stifling presence could frequently seem overwhelming to the daughter and make her want to get out from under her mother’s strict rules and regulations. (105)

Here Miller admits that Wilder’s core convictions about morality, shaped by Christianity, could tend towards self-righteousness.

Re-reading Miller’s book has solidified several things that have been coming together in my mind as I’ve been thinking about Wilder’s faith during the last several months. First, I think that the question I need to answer is not whether Wilder was a Christian but what type of Christian Wilder was. Second, the evidence I’ve considered so far (the Little House books and Pioneer Girl) suggests that her Christian beliefs center on moral actions. One might say that for her, a Christian is someone who does the right thing. She saw the Bible as the standard of what is right and wrong. The Bible calls everyone to worship God and learn about His word. The Bible calls everyone to treat others as they would be treated. Christians are to love God and love their neighbors. This is a version of Christianity that has been very popular in American history. I’m guessing that it was taught in the Congregational church at the time. I will need to figure out what exactly to call it.

The Christianity that I believe in—Evangelical Christianity, or just the gospel—does not preach moral actions as the most important thing in life. In fact, it proclaims that in his or her own strength, no one can do anything good. Everyone is a sinner. No one does what is right. We cannot save ourselves. It is God who saves sinners. He did so by sending His only Son, Jesus Christ. Christ is the only one who has ever lived a sinless life. Then, Christ died to pay for the sins of those who trust in Him. Anyone who believes in Christ will have his or her sins forgiven by God. God will apply Christ’s righteousness to them, and their sins will be paid for by Christ’s sacrifice. Morals are important, but the good news of salvation is more important. Christians obey God’s commands out of gratitude for this salvation.

The difference between these two versions of Christianity—Christianity as the doing of good deeds and Christianity as the message of God’s salvation in Christ—can help to explain why Jesus Christ is not mentioned in any of the Little House books, or in Pioneer Girl, or in any of the Ruralist columns.

I think that this is a step towards a better understanding of Wilder’s faith.

I also think that I need to re-read Laura’s articles and columns in the Ruralist. I have photocopies from when I was doing research for my dissertation, but I’ve also just ordered a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist. I believe it is the most complete published edition of the Ruralist material.

As always, I’d be glad to hear comments.

All page number references from John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1998)