One of the questions I’ve often been asked by visitors to my website pertains to Laura’s religious beliefs. What did Laura believe about God and spirituality? While this question is impossible to answer in one respect, since Laura is no longer with us to ask, we get a pretty good idea of what Laura’s religious beliefs were from her various writings.
The first source is the Little House books themselves. From reading these books, it is evident that the Ingalls girls were given a religious upbringing. In the early years, prior to moving to Walnut Grove, it doesn’t seem that going to church was part of the Ingalls’ lives due to distance, but the family still observed Sunday as a day of rest, and the girls must have received religious instruction from Ma and Pa as they are familiar with Bible stories and have memorized Scripture verses even before attending church or Sunday School.
In both Walnut Grove and De Smet, the Ingalls family attended the Congregational Church, which is a Protestant denomination where each local congregation is independently run. Interestingly, Congregational churches place much authority in the hands of the people of the church, rather than being primarily run by the minister or officers, making each member responsible for governing his own behaviors under God’s ultimate authority. We see this concept of self-responsibility threaded throughout the Little House series.
Pioneer Girl, Laura’s unpublished autobiography, sheds some more light into Laura’s thoughts about God and religion. Laura writes of a boy who joined their church in Walnut Grove and testified every Wednesday night at prayer meeting: “It somehow offended my sense of privacy. It seemed to me that the things between one and God should be between him and God like loving ones mother. One didn’t go around saying ‘I love my mother, she has been so good to me.’ One just loved her and did things that she liked one to do.”
Laura also tells in Pioneer Girl of a time when she had to care for an ill neighbor and was lonely for home. “One night while saying my prayers, as I always did before going to bed, this feeling of homesickness and worry was worse than usual, but 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!'”
From these writings, we learn that Laura followed such spiritual disciplines as prayer, Bible reading, regular church attendance, and Scripture memorization, but also that she experienced God on a deeper personal level, but felt those experiences should remain private.
As adults, Laura and Almanzo were active in the Methodist Episcopal church in Mansfield, there being no Congregational Church there. Almanzo’s family was part of the Methodist church in Spring Valley, and Laura herself had attended the Methodist Sunday School as a child in addition to her own church services, so the Methodist doctrines must have been similar to their own beliefs.
Laura was involved in the Ladies Aid Society at the church, and was an active member of the Interesting Hour club, which was composed of two of the Methodist Sunday School classes. Although the Wilders stopped attending services in their older years, Laura returned to the church after Almanzo’s death. Well-known to Wilder fans is the list of Bible references Laura left behind, indicating that the Bible served as her tool for handling life issues.
So although Laura’s specific religious beliefs may have varied somewhat from the denominations under which she worshipped, it is clear from the evidence we do have that she practiced spiritual disciplines throughout her life and engaged in a personal private relationship with God. And that is the best answer we can give to the question, “What did Laura believe?”