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Denominational History

God Giveth the Increase, Robert and Wynona Wilkins’ denominational history of North Dakota, was published in 1959. It’s typical of many similar studies of the Episcopal church on the Great Plains; volumes of comparable size and perspective were written for South Dakota and Kansas about the same time. Fascinated by the split fieldstone churches that I had seen at places like Casselton, Buffalo, and Lisbon, the Wilkinses’ study was a first step toward understanding the newly-formed missionary diocese of northern Dakota and its powerful corporate image.

Now, here’s the rub. Mid-century academic historians like UND’s Robert Wilkins understood the power of ideas and of the people who acted upon them. They were much less comfortable with material culture (a speculation I’ve expressed here earlier) and God Giveth the Increase makes the point: statistical data are given a human face–specific bishops, clergy and laity–and buildings are used to demonstrate the denomination’s physical presence; prominent doctors, lawyers and bankers are invoked, but the name of an architect never appears in print. Do you think I’m being overly sensitive?

Casselton01

St. Stephen’s Episopcal Church, Casselton, ND (1885-1887) by George Hancock, architect. These HABS drawings were prepared by students of NDSU Professor Steve Martens’ seminar in historic preservation.

Early in my own naive investigation of Dakota’s early church architecture, I had the audacity to contact Professor Wilkins, whose response was distant; today you might call it patronizing. I’ll get over it. I do, however, want to acknowledge the window he opened for me into patterns of parish operation and governance. In Dakota, the diocese depended on the labors of yeoman clergy, Episcopal priests as virtual circuit riders in a place without infrastructure. Bishops were often absent in New York or Chicago, trolling for cash, which left many decisions to parish leaders.

I have worked with this Dakota material long enough to draw some cautious parallels with rural Iowa a decade or two earlier. And my imagined history of Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter grows from thirty years of this background research.

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