Plains Folk

Foundations of Faith


Sometimes, when I want to impress a college class I’m teaching, I hold up the book I currently am reading—in this case, a 629-page tome entitled Fairness and Freedom. The students are impressed—or maybe I am misreading, and they are merely perplexed. This is a heavyweight book by a heavyweight author, David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis University.

At the heart of Fischer’s huge book is a pretty simple idea: that big things, like countries and the stuff they believe in, can be traced back to modest but definite origins. I got interested in the book because Fischer writes about New Zealand, a country I travel to often, and the United States. Kiwis, New Zealanders, value fairness above all else, Fischer argues. Americans, they enshrine liberty above all. Americans fought for liberty when the British Empire was in a tyrannous phase. Kiwis cultivated fairness in the shelter of a more reasonable British colonial system.

We all are our own historians, after all. We tell certain stories about our origins to explain why we are who we are. Around here, growing up on a farm, that’s a good story to have. People make good assumptions about you on the basis of that story.

So, let’s consider North Dakota in the way Fischer considers New Zealand and America. If he’s right, then the events by which North Dakota came into being, the circumstances of its birth, determined what the state would be like forever.

In a generic way, North Dakota is a state of pioneer farmers; our foundational story is one up from the sod. From the Ploughman statue in Ellendale to the Wheat Monument of Williston, from Sodbuster Days in Fort Ransom to Old Settlers Days in Alexander, we revere our pioneer farming heritage.

There is a whole ’nother layer to this story, however, because as I said in an earlier essay, ours is not only a landscape of production, it is also a landscape of faith. That fact of consequence hit me like the flash that struck Saul when Suzzanne and I spent a day tracking down all seven of the wayside crosses of Warsaw, North Dakota—simple shrines erected and maintained alongside country roads by pious Polish pioneers in the Red River Valley.

She and I, too, played our parts this winter in bringing out a modest little book, published by Preservation North Dakota, entitled simply Prairie Churches. People page through this handsome book and they get all gooey. Vertical steeples punctuating level horizons, that’s us, they think.

Almost every one of those steeples, too, punctuates a language other than English. Our founders were not generic farmers; they were religious, immigrant farmers. About a third of them were Norwegians, about a third of them were Germans of one kind or another, and where lesser groups landed, they still settled in concentrations sufficient to keep their culture. North Dakota retains the strongest immigrant ethnic heritage of any state of the plains.

Today—and I’ve talked about this before, too—for the first time in the better part of a century, we have large numbers of newcomers in North Dakota, and some of us complain that our foundational culture is being swamped. The truth is, our old religious immigrant farming culture has persisted through generations unchallenged by economic development or social change. If, however, it is the good and resilient culture we say it is, then we need not fear its demise. We only need to take care of it, even while we navigate the waves of change washing across the northern plains.



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