American Protestantism

Classes here at Trinity Christian College are in full swing. But I did get to read a short book this week: American Protestantism by Winthrop Hudson. The book is one of three topical books in the series “The Chicago History of American Civilization,” edited by Daniel Boorstin and published by the University of Chicago Press during the 1950s and 1960s. The other two topical books are American Catholicism and American Judaism. American Protestantism was published in 1961.

Hudson’s book is divided into three parts. The first is devoted to Protestantism in the British American Colonies and during the American Revolution. The second covers “Protestant America” from 1787 to 1914. The last is on “Post-Protestant America,” from 1914 to when the book was published. Hudson’s argument is similar to Mark Noll’s—that society and culture in the United States were dominated by Protestantism during the early nineteenth century, but Protestantism fell from that place of dominance during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The twentieth century has seen greater diversity and pluralism among Christian groups and religious groups overall.

I believe that I learned two important ideas from American Protestantism. The first is a detailed definition of “denominationalism” given in the first chapter. Hudson argues that the many divisions in Protestantism did not develop into sects where each does not believe that any of the others have the truth. Instead, they became denominations, where most believe that while there may be significant differences between different bodies, there are true Christians in other churches. He outlines the principles of denominationalism as follows: 1) people have differences in opinion; 2) they are not matters of indifference; 3) they can lead to fruitful discussions; 4) multiple churches can exist; 5) separation does not necessarily mean schism. (40-43) Hudson traces these impulses especially to the Westminster Assembly of the mid-1600s, which produced the documents that serve as the secondary standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which I am a part of. Throughout his treatment of the idea, Hudson refers to Jeremiah Burroughs, a Puritan and Congregationalist who was a member of the Assembly. Hudson concludes:

When it is remembered that, although Christians may be divided at many points, they are nonetheless united in Christ, it then becomes possible, Burroughes [sic] insisted, for them to work together for the common ends of “godliness.” What is required of the Christian is to “join with all our might in all we know, and with peaceable, quiet, humble spirits seek to know more, and in the meantime carry ourselves humbly and peaceably toward those we differ from, and Christ will not charge us at the Great Day for retarding his cause.” (44)

This is a great argument for humility or modesty in the presence of difference, a virtue that I believe would greatly improve public discourse in the United States today. It also connects in helpful ways to the concept of “confident pluralism” developed by John Inazu, a Law Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who will be speaking here at Trinity today. I do believe that there is a tension in some Protestants’ conception of denominationalism. I have known some Protestants who do believe that they have the only truth. While some would disavow that belief, their actions tend in that direction. But I think this is a human tendency, not just a problem for Protestants or Christians.

The other idea that I got from Hudson is the argument that because Protestantism dominated American culture and society for a while, it became influenced by American culture and society. This helps me understand why some Protestant churches have embraced American values and abandoned traditional Christian doctrines. Some call this cultural Christianity.

How useful might these ideas be for understanding the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder? They are both pretty large ideas, probably too large for a family or a person to exemplify. One way to understand Laura is as fairly wedded to a particular denomination, since she never joined the Methodist church in Mansfield even though attended services there for over sixty years. On the other hand, I’m not completely and totally sure if we have evidence that she actually ever joined the Congregational churches she attended in Minnesota or South Dakota either. One might also argue that the Christianity portrayed in the Little House books might show the influence of American culture and values. On the other hand, at times it is difficult to separate the religious ideas of Laura and those of her daughter Rose Wilder Lane in the book’s depictions of the church. My plan is to keep mulling over questions like these. Lord-willing I’ll be able to make progress on them once I get back to research on the Ingalls and Wilder families.

Thanks for reading.

(Page number references are from Winthrop S. Hudson, American Protestantism [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961].)

Links:

Trinity Christian College

American Protestantism

My blog post on Mark Noll’s A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Westminster Standards

Jeremiah Burroughs

David Brooks on Modesty

John Inazu and Confident Pluralism

Trinity Christian College’s Worldview Series

 

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Book Contract

It’s August.  The summer has gone by quickly.  Last week I was completely off the grid camping with my family in Western New York.  It was a great time.  Now I’m back and the countdown to the start of classes here at Trinity Christian College—three weeks from yesterday—has started.

I am happy to announce that last month I signed a book contract with Eerdmans Publishers.  The book is tentatively titled “On the Pilgrim Way:” The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The book will be a biography of Wilder that pays particular attention to her faith.  It will appear in Eerdmans’s series The Library of Religious Biography.  I am very thankful to David Bratt and Heath Carter for their efforts and encouragement.

I’ve projected ten chapters, and my current plan is to write two of them each summer between now and 2022.  I can get some work done during the school year, but I imagine that most of my writing will be done during the summer.  Eerdmans has graciously given me that much time to complete the manuscript.

Thanks to everyone who has given me encouragement throughout the project so far.  Now the real work begins…

Links from this post:

Trinity Christian College

Eerdmans Publishers

The Library of Religious Biography

Heath Carter’s Twitter Page: #ReligiousBio

Honors Seminar Review

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been teaching an Honors Seminar this semester on the Little House books. In fact, that course is one of the reasons that I have not had as much time as I would have liked to write for this blog. Teaching a class that I had never taught before required an extra amount of my time to prepare for the class, which met every Tuesday and Thursday. On the other hand, it was a real pleasure to read the books with an extremely sharp group of students.

The title of the course was “The Little House Books in the Twenty-First Century.” Trinity’s Honors program requires that honors students take at least one of these seminars during their college career. The courses are intentionally interdisciplinary; mine was especially investigating the books as both history and as literature. This semester, eight students took the course. Majors represented included Accounting, Art, Biology, Education, History, Nursing, and Math. Students came from Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Washington, and Wisconsin. It was a true cross section of Trinity’s Honors program, except for the fact that all of them were young women. This fact is probably not surprising to anyone.

After a brief introduction to the study of history and literature, the class read one of the Little House books every week. During class time, we discussed what we had read. When we were done with all eight books and The First Four Years, we read Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life. At the start of the semester, students chose a theme that they were interested in tracing through the books. They journaled about those themes, and reported to the class regularly on what they had observed. At the end of the semester, they wrote research papers that made arguments about how the Little House books and Wilder’s other writings engage those themes.

Last week, the students handed in their final papers and presented their research. The director of Trinity’s Honors Program came to hear the presentations. I couldn’t have been prouder of how the students carried themselves and the conclusions they came to. Here are the topics of the research papers:

– Cultural difference – Argued that the description of non-white cultures (Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants) in the Little House books exhibited characteristics of late-nineteenth century understandings of cultures different than the majority.

– Economics – Argued that while Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane opposed government intervention in the economy, the Little House books themselves described situations that many have used to call for increased government involvement in business.

– Education – Argued that the depiction of education in the Little House books connects hard work and success.

– Family and Survival – Argued that the family was vital to survival on the frontier of the American West, using the analytical categories from an article by sociologist Mary Douglas.

– Family Roles – Argued that the Little House books presented the ideal family as one where all members fulfilled their traditional roles.

– Individualism and Community – Argued that Wilder’s experiences with the communities depicted in the Little House books prepared her for community involvement later in life.

– Love – Argued that all four types of love described in The Four Loves by author C. S. Lewis are represented in the Little House books: family love, friendship, romantic love, and love for God.

– Nature and the Environment – Argued that the environment in the Little House books is depicted either as a setting, focusing on the natural beauty of the Midwest and West, or as an actor, focusing on the unpredictability and destructive force of the natural world.

I have been trying to find out whether it would be possible to publish these essays in some way in order to attract more young people to read the Little House books. Stay tuned.

Finally, at the end of the semester, while the students were working on writing and revising their research papers, we used class time to watch some episodes from the Little House on the Prairie television show. We watched “A Harvest of Friends,” “Country Girls,” and “Town Party-Country Party.” All were from the first season and aired in 1974. I had never watched the TV show before, and I found it somewhat difficult going at times. The pacing is much slower than television today, and the spirit of the show is very different from the Little House books, even when it is portraying events related in the books. It is clearly the vision of Michael Landon and the show’s other directors and producers, not the vision of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I did discover that if I used my computer’s playback software to run the DVD at 1.1x speed, it made the show more watchable for twenty-first century viewers.

During the semester, I also shared what I’ve discovered about Wilder’s faith with the class – that was the theme I was tracing through the works we read. Students were receptive to my observations and kind in their criticisms. They also read and gave me comments on my book proposal (more about this in my next post).

All in all, I greatly appreciated the work that all of the students put into the course. I will miss it very much.

Thanks for reading.

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.

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.

Honors Seminar

Happy 2017. Thanks for coming back to read this after I’ve taken so much time off. I guess it has been exactly a month.

This spring is a complicated semester for my work here at Trinity Christian College. I’m juggling duties as a faculty member, chair of the History Department, and an Academic Dean. But this semester I am also blessed to be teaching an Honors Seminar titled “The Little House Books in the Twenty-First Century.” I have eight students and they are some of the best students at Trinity.

During the first part of the course, we’ll be reading one of the Little House books each week. During class, we will discuss the books and how they might speak to Americans today. Themes that students have chosen to study include the books’ depiction of family roles, nature and the environment, cultural interaction, love, individualism and community, survival, education, and economics. The plan is for everyone to keep their eyes open for all of the themes, but for one student to pay particular attention to each. I’m going to anchor discussions on Wilder’s faith.

Yesterday we discussed Little House in the Big Woods. There are two students in the class who had never read the Little House books before this week. There are several students who have read all of them and are big fans. And there are several students who have read some but not all of the books. So it’s a great group for thinking about how the books come across to different readers at different times.

When I asked what students thought Big Woods said about God and Christianity, their answer was “not much.” Then one student noted that while the book doesn’t say much about God and Christianity, it does show the influence of Christian religious ideas. She explained that she meant that while the chapter on Sundays and the saying of evening prayers are the only explicit mentions of God in the book, there is an underlying morality that is connected to Christian values. I think that she’s probably right.

Next week we’re on to Farmer Boy. Because of my workload, I expect that I will only be able to post every other week. We’ll see how it goes. Thanks again for reading.

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.