The Spirituality of Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Pioneer Girl, Laura’s unpublished autobiography, sheds some more light into Laura’s thoughts about God and religion.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?”

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10 comments on “The Spirituality of Laura Ingalls Wilder
  1. Linda says:

    I remember reading about the Rose years. Then it got harder to understand.

  2. Melanie Beasley says:

    Didn’t Mary and Laura learn all the Psalms? ALL of them? That floors me every time.

  3. Carrie says:

    From the description of Sundays in the first book it seems that the Ingalls, at least Pa’s family are Seventh Day Adventist. Particularly the idea that Sabbath began sundown Saturday night to sundown Sunday.

    • Seventh Day Adventists actually observe Saturday as the Sabbath instead of Sunday, though, so it doesn’t seem Pa’s family was Seventh Day Adventist. The idea of beginning at sundown the night before has its roots in Judaism, where every day begins at sundown rather than at midnight or sunup. The Jewish calendar still runs this way today, therefore the celebration of Jewish holidays actually begins at sundown the evening prior to what we would consider the day of the festival.

  4. naomi says:

    Yeah, definitely nothing to suggest that the family were Seventh Day Adventists. Aside from the fact that they kept a Sunday Sabbath, the church didn’t even come into being until after Charles Ingalls was born, and didn’t spread much beyond its original congregation until shortly before Laura was born.

  5. Carrie (Oz) says:

    Interesting discussion. I spent a good proportion of last year working in the South Pacific (yes, I know – start the violins). One thing I noticed in one of the countries, was their strict observance of the Sabbath, which started on Saturday night. This was irrespective of religious denomination, which included Wesley, Latter Day Saints and Uniting.

  6. Janessa says:

    I love Laura’s books, they are so good. They really have good detail and I love the pictures

  7. Melanie S. says:

    The Sabbath used to be what we now refer to as Saturday, but was officially changed by the Church a few centuries after Christ, as one of the many methods of creating a distinction between Christians, Jews, and various Pagan religions. But, as mentioned above, the observation of the Sabbath beginning the evening prior has its roots in Judaism, and makes a lot of sense, Jesus himself was a Jew.

    The Ingalls family were absolutely Congregationalists, which, as a Protestant denomination, was in large part an evolution of the earlier Calvinist tradition. The first many generations of Ingalls who settled within Massachusetts and migrated throughout New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and Canada (prior to Laura’s great-grandfather Samuel’s settling in Western New York State) were largely, but not exclusively, of the 17th century Puritan/Calvinist tradition which spawned the Congregationalists of the 18th and 19th centuries. These early generations of Ingalls were very much like their neighbors in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and much of Connecticut, where the Puritan/Calvinist/Congregationalist tradition was dominant for the first 250 years or so after initial colonization of New England. Methodist tradition makes its appearance in New Hampshire in the early 1800s, as did that of Baptists, but Congregationalists (now often referred to as United Church of Christ, or “UCC”) still have a strong presence in this region…albeit in competition with Roman Catholics, Jews, and the Greek Orthodox. These days, it is difficult to name a religious denomination, tradition, or spiritual path which doesn’t have some recognizeable representation in Metro Boston, but when Laura’s ancestors were still here, Congregationalists were arguably the most prominent Christian denomination.