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I seem to be on a bender today about ecclesiastical architecture, especially the set of modest Episcopal churches built in Dakota Territory during the last decade before statehood. The process of researching this topic has consumed a lot of time since it began in the early 70s and it’s high time I did something about that. Promises have been made (to myself, to Dr Bob, among others), so it has become a matter of “Put up or shut down.”

A couple of entries back, I offered the word “prosopography” and suggested you might look it up. According to Wikipedia, prosopography

is an investigation of the common characteristics of a historical group, whose individual biographies may be largely untraceable, by means of a collective study of their lives, in multiple career-line analysis.

Without having heard the word, it seemed to me that the cluster of Dakota churches would be better understood through the lives of those who had both made and used them. Robert and Wynona Wilkins’s vantage was one-dimensional, dare I say myopic? Uncomfortably incorporating material culture into their denominational study [God Giveth the Increase], but with no explication of what those buildings more completely represented; indeed, with little awareness of how buildings actually happen. It may be that I have waited too long to make this point and offer another perspective on diocesan history, as well as in the field of architectural history itself.

Faith & Form: Victorian culture on the northern Great Plains

The working title of my manuscript may be too expansive. I am, after all, writing primarily about Episcopalians. But what you might be surprised to know is the disproportionate role that Yankee Episcopalians played, not only in the day to day life of northern Dakota, but in the very formation of the two states in 1889 from a territory that hindsight suggests ought to have been split by a north-south line, rather than an east-west one. The interests of Fargo, for example, have far more to do with those of Aberdeen than they do with the Black Hills or the Badlands. For those inclined toward “What if” history, try to imagine how an East Dakota and a West Dakota might have evolved economically, socially, politically.

If the historical event of statehood was a fulcrum, it was Episcopalians who tipped the balance.

devils lake 01

The more material I gathered on these churches (in Fargo, Bismarck, Buffalo, Jamestown, Lisbon, Mayville, Pembina, Lakota and Devils Lake, and others outside the 1897-1889 time frame), the more logically it fell into categories of interest and agenda. The 150+ biographical squibs have settled into four sections (perhaps chapters) tentatively titled

  • “The Landed Gentry”—a small but high profile presence here of Britons who had come from the landed gentry and even the nobility in the Old Country
  • “Bishops and Pawns”—clergy in an hierarchical denominational structure, moving at times like chess pieces
  • “Sticks and Stones”—architects and builders, carpenters, masons, etc., some of whom straddle those categories before the practice of architecture was regulated by the state
  • “Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker”—the diverse laity in each community who served on vestries and building committees but who also had “day jobs” as newspaper editors, estate agents, bankers, lawyers, grocers, farmers, ranchers and, yes, politicians

The narrative that I intend to weave from these groups will, in my view, represent a fuller picture of life in Dakota during a few of its more strategic years.


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