Robert P. Swierenga, "The Little White Church: Historiographical Revisions on Religion in Rural America"*
*This article is Swierenga's 1997 presidential address to the Agricultural History Society, which was published in Agricultural History 71 (Fall 1997). It is printed with permission of the Agricultural History Society. Swierenga is Research Professor, A.C. Van Raalte Institute for Historical Studies, Hope College, Holland, Michigan, and Professor of History Emeritus, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio.
In Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, the Lutheran church and Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Catholic church grace the center of the community, overshadowing the other venerable institutions in town--the Chatterbox Cafe, Ralph's Grocery, Sidetrack Tap, and schoolhouse. The proverbial little white church and little red schoolhouse defined rural America. Spires marked the horizon in church villages, and schools with their bell towers dotted country lanes. The preacher and the schoolmaster worked hand in hand. The church instructed adults in their religious obligations, and the school indoctrinated the children.
Schools far outnumbered churches in the countryside, but churches had more staying power. Schools stand abandoned while many churches still thrive, despite the conclusion of the Country Life Commission in 1908 that rural churches were an anachronism that "deserve extinction." Whether outmoded or not, many congregations simply refused to die.
The tolling of the church bell each Sunday morning set the pattern of the week for most believers and nonbelievers alike--six days labor and one day rest. Only in the critical days of planting and harvesting did some farmers take to the fields on Sunday. In a world where leisure was a luxury, Sunday activities provided a welcome break from the week's work. Reserved as a day of rest and relaxation, a "foretaste of Heaven," as believers phrased it, the Christian Sabbath provided time for worship, family visits, community picnics, and music. "No one need talk to me of 'Puritan' Sundays--long and tedious treaded," wrote Katherine Elspeth Oliver. "We 'kept' Sunday. It was full of delightfully 'different' things...--the long drive to 'town,' church and Sunday school and a picnic lunch eaten in the wagon on the way home." Russell Duncan of Wyndmere, North Dakota, recalling his youth, wrote: "I did not want to miss church even though many times we had to walk the 2 1\2 miles to our church." David Wood recounts weekly rounds of prayer meetings, social programs, and business deals between his Baptist church friends in Trempealeau, Wisconsin. These diaries and memoirs, and hundreds like them, offer similar testimonies to the vital place of religious practices and beliefs in the lives of rural folk.
The church was more than a religious meeting place; it was a cultural nest, integrating families, social classes, and nationality groups. It gave members a cultural identity and status and socialized them into the community. "As forces of order," said John Mack Faragher, "churches reinforced the basic cultural assumptions, guiding tender consciences and influencing personal behavior at home and at work. The reach of rural churches was remarkable. They provided charity and aid in times of sickness and disaster, educated children, offered recreation and leisure activities, facilitated marriages, consoled the grieving and buried the dead in the adjacent cemetery, and sought to legislate morality through political action. The church building was sacred space in the center of the community. It belonged to everyone, and the parson as community leader was priest to all, in the sense of reflecting a local educated elite with social standing. Among immigrant groups churches actually built communities by attracting newcomers. Rural life truly was church centered.
Church teachings directly affected the lives of members, giving families the fortitude and inner strength to surmount difficult times. In the farm crisis of the 1980s churches provided leadership in countering the baneful effects of the depression on farm families, although they could have done more to help. The churches stepped into the breech because in many places they were one of the few institutions left intact in the community. Rural churches outlasted the Grange, Old Settler's societies, the Odd Fellow's, Ladies' Aid societies, and other voluntary clubs of all kinds. Indeed, the importance of the rural church has grown over time, rather than diminish in its influence.
Rural women particularly turned to religion for solace and for entre into public life, as Joan Jensen pointed out in a review essay in our journal in 1987. Joanna Stratton in Pioneer Women recounts the memories of Lilla Day Monroe, a leading Kansas lawyer and suffragist in the early twentieth century. How is it, Monroe recalled that
the pioneers preserved their cheerfulness?.... You cannot say that they imbibed it from each other, they were too far apart. You cannot lay it to the simple fact that they were acquiring homes, because, as compared to what they left when they came to Kansas, the huts and dugouts had to be glorified by idealism if they were to be called real houses. No, there seems to be only one source of their cheerfulness, of the sublime courage, of their indomitable determination to conquer and to surmount all difficulties--and that was their simple faith in God.... They took solace of [sic] religion as they breathed the pure air of the prairies....
Each family sought that solace in their own way. The Murphys of Shawnee, Kansas, concluded every day with a religious ritual, beginning with their first night in the territory in 1859. As daughter Lydia recalled:
That night the family Bible rested in the center of the room. We gathered around the table, seated on boxes and improvised chairs while the usual evening family prayers were held after the reading of a chapter of the Scriptures. During the fifty years of his Kansas citizenship, this morning and evening scripture reading and prayer were not once omitted in my father's house.
Such religious practices, Stratton concluded, stabilized families and "fostered against the prairie distances, a firm sense of community.... The very sharing of these common beliefs was a strong social catalyst on the frontier."
Churches sometimes hindered community integration by bringing conflict even as they invoked harmony. In Susan Gray's Yankee West, the Presbyterians and Congregationalists in frontier Kalamazoo, Michigan fought for hegemony, first against each other and then against Methodists and Baptists. Gray concluded that evangelical Protestantism in the antebellum period was "both a centrifugal and centripetal force--splintering community churches yet blurring the doctrinal differences among them." The Norwegian Lutherans of Trempealeau County, Wisconsin, in June Pederson's Between Memory and Reality, similarly worked to safeguard their members from inroads by Baptists, Methodists, and Seventh Day Adventists, while they sorted themselves out into competing synods over points of theology and other associational criteria.
In the immigrant communities that were so prominent in the American Midwest, the church was the major unifying force, drawing the newcomers together in a protective cocoon and providing a feeling of security. The church was the "community of feeling." Churches, said Pederson, were the "strongest institution" in the community; they "acted as centers of family and community rituals and sociability." Deborah Fink in Open Country, Iowa, likewise stated that the church was the "center for the retention of European cultural identity." Not to be a part of it meant to cut oneself off from family and community. In Carol Coburn's Life at Four Corners, a German Lutheran community in Block, Kansas, the church and school "functioned as the hub around which the entire community lived and worked." The church trained "young and old in how to think and how to live." Ronald Jager recalled that "families, churches, and denominations were the relevant units of social accounting" in his Dutch immigrant community of six hundred families in Michigan's cutover lands.
That rural folk and modern scholars alike repeatedly speak of the centering influence of the rural church suggests that churches likely had an impact on the farm as well as on the farm family. In the 1950s Lee Benson first taught us that voting, at least in the nineteenth century, was an expression of the deepest values and beliefs of the electorate concerning what constituted the good society. With this insight about the meaning of voting, the ethnocultural historians swept the field of political history with their behavioral studies of religiously-based voting patterns.
If religion explained voting patterns, can it also explain farming behavior? One can substitute for the question "What is voting?" the question "what is farming?" Farming is a business enterprise, of course, but it is also a way of life, a "calling," an expression of ultimate commitments. As the farm family carries on its daily tasks, the members put flesh on their deepest beliefs and values. Farming, in this sense, is an act of faith, and to farm is to practice one's religion as much as it is to gather for Sunday worship. Decisions about cropping, fertilization, animal husbandry, and land inheritance, all reflect, consciously or unconsciously, the beliefs or "worldview" farmers hold dear.
Although political historians now accept religion as a key variable in voting studies, agricultural historians, rural geographers, and rural sociologists have largely ignored religious factors. This is remarkable because the Weberian school of social science taught that religion is a primary force shaping behavior which drives all institutional change. A perusal of the pages of our journal, which aims to embrace all aspects of rural life, reveals a general neglect of religion. In the annual indexes from 1927 to the present, I found only one entry under "church" and none under "religion." We agricultural historians have ignored the steeples in favor of the grain elevators. Michael Winter, director of the Centre for Rural Studies at the Royal Agricultural College in Gloucestershire, rightfully concluded in a 1991 review article that "those whose interests are rural, or rather agricultural, rarely consider religion to have anything important to contribute to their understanding."
Agricultural historians and geographers have made nativity rather than religion the dependent variable. The progression of research studies since the 1960s by Allan Bogue, Terry Jordan, Robert Ostergren, and more recently Sonya Salamon, among others, measured the determinants of cropping and livestock patterns between native-born and immigrant farmers. Early studies generally concluded that farmers, whether immigrant or native-born, readily adapted to the environment and only minor or very subtle differences set groups apart. More recent work has focused on cultural islands and the results, not surprisingly, have highlighted the contrasts between entrepreneurial Yankees and communal European peasants. Yankees ran large grain farms as a business and were mobile geographically and economically; peasants practiced diversified agriculture on smaller holdings and emphasized continuity. Keeping the farm in the family and preserving the community were more important than short-term profit maximization. Europeans valued local control, cooperation, sustainability, and communal life; Yankees were capitalists who commodified resources and prized self-interest.
These studies are seminal because they provide the first solid data on ethnocultural patterns in farming. But the research has several limitations. Most studies used nationality cohorts without accounting for local and regional differences in Europe, where life styles and even languages varied within a small geographic area. Only Ostergren and John Gjerde compared farming traditions before and after migrating, in order to take into account local cultures. They had access, however, to the voluminous parish records of Scandinavia which are not available elsewhere in Europe.
Secondly, the pioneering work slighted the importance of religious group differences, because the federal censuses never reported religion or denominational affiliation. Thousands of church-centered, ethnic colonies in rural America were culture islands that preserved native languages and traditions for several generations. These cohesive enclaves differed greatly from settlements composed of a mixture of mainline "church" groups, even if all were Protestant.
Agricultural historians must find ways to include religious values as a basis for explaining the contrasts among some of these cultural islands, and between them and the so-called mainstream. Religious ideology may have shaped farm behavior and the construction of rurality. Salamon hinted at that line of research by acknowledging that religion undergirded ethnic culture and that culture matters in the "making of economic and social trends." Yet her anthropological orientation and socioeconomic assumptions limited her vision. She left the door ajar but unopened.
Historical geographers have opened that door and discovered that religious values affect behavior on the farm more than does ethnicity or other socioeconomic variables. James Lemon, John Rice, and Aidan McQuillan, broke the ethnic mold in the 1970s and first introduced religion as a variable. Lemon's Poor Man's Country showed that the sectarian "plain folk" of southeastern Pennsylvania--the Mennonites, Friends, "Dunkers," and Moravians--resided in tighter clusters, farmed more intensively, owned the most valuable land, and were less transient than their neighbors of other denominational roots--Lutherans, Reformed, Anglican, and Presbyterians. In this relatively homogeneous agricultural region, significant differences in farming behavior derived from religious rather than ethnic origins.
In a study of Kandiyohi County, Minnesota, Rice found that Norwegian, Swedish, Irish, and native-born farmers were similar in their cropping patterns, livestock holdings, persistence rates, and economic status. But one community of conservative Swedish Lutherans, transplanted en masse from the village of Gagnef in Dalarna province, stood out as unique. They were the most stable and economically prosperous, and advanced from the poorest of the Swedish settlements to the wealthiest. Thus, the experience of the church-centered Gagnef group differed markedly from the neighboring immigrant settlements, even those of other Scandinavians.
McQuillan specifically considered the role of religious values in the cultural adaption process among Swedish Lutheran, German Mennonite, and French-Canadian Catholic immigrant farmers in the more arid region of central Kansas. The Swedes "turned to the Almighty" to surmount the many hardships of the first years. "Their deep pietistic faith helped them to persevere in Kansas.... The rough labor that was required to convert prairie sod into bountiful farmland could be turned to spiritual advantage if it was accepted as a means of self-discipline to check one's emotions." Swedish pastors rode tight herd on the moral behavior of parishioners, reining in drunkenness, unchastity, cursing, and card playing, and insisting that Sunday was a day for worship not pleasure. Despite their piety, the individualistic Swedes acculturated most rapidly.
The equally pious but communal Mennonites maintained their identity the longest. Among them "religious values permeated every aspect of their daily life, emphasizing the importance of frugal consumption, hard work, perseverance, and a cheerful acceptance of stinging environmental setbacks as the will of God." Thus, they withstood drought, fires, and grasshoppers better than others because of their strong faith-based community. They also obtained the best farmland, farmed it intensively, built the largest territorial base, and were the greatest innovators in farming. McQuillan concluded that the communal group, the Mennonites, coped more successfully with the physiographic challenges of prairie agriculture than did the individualistic Swedes and French-Canadians.
Royden Loewen and June Pederson built on the foundation of the geographers to relate religious values to rurality. In a fine-grained analysis of Mennonite communities in Manitoba and Nebraska, Royden, a descendent of the Manitoba clan, compared three generations over eighty years. Their conservative lifestyle, he found, was rooted in religious tenets carried over from ancestral Anabaptist practices of nonresistance, simplicity, separation from the world, and strict church discipline. The church congregation, Loewen explained, "ordered the public sphere ... [and] encouraged a deep piety, articulated life's meaning, defined community, undergirded social hierarchies, and specified the social boundaries." While Mennonites did not withdraw from the world, religious beliefs tempered their involvement in the marketplace and, reciprocally, the market shaped their ideology.
Pederson's Norwegian Lutherans of Trempealeau County offer another example of conservative communal values; they brought from the homeland a work ethic that went well beyond the traditional peasant view of "a man's got to work." Their tough strain of Lutheranism, which had been refined in the spiritual "awakenings" in Norway, made work "a sacred calling--a means of worshiping God," which for at least three generations governed their understanding of farming. Work, Pederson explained, "defined life's purpose, measured character, and was the essence of one's identity." The Norwegians also had a shared tradition of the communal organization of work and they carried this into their economic life in Wisconsin.
This research shows that for some culture islands, community-wide ideological patterns keyed to religious values affected farming practices, capitalization and commercialization of farm enterprises, risk-reduction strategies, and land inheritance customs. Particular communities shared common lifestyles, ranging from communitarian, like the Mennonites and Mormons at one extreme, to individualistic, like the Yankees and German Reformed at the other extreme.
The common ideology or worldview, what farmers think and believe, is derived in turn from their shared religious traditions. Clark Roof and Robert Wuthnow have argued that such worldviews, forged by interactions among family and friends, are usually taken for granted within communities, which makes them all the more powerful, because they do not require frequent articulation.
Given the strength of the shared beliefs, it is likely that they affected agricultural behavior. The more individualistic the orientation, the more capitalistic and commercial the agriculture. Conversely, the more communitarian the worldview, the more likely a farming community will practice sustainable agriculture. In societies grounded in cooperative action, according to the "community of goods" principle, individuals are constrained by the formal rules of the community but also by the informal discipline of social control. In communal colonies, particularly, religious beliefs permeate every aspect of daily life, from work routines and uses of farm machinery to modes of travel. Farming is valued above all other work because of the creation mandate to Adam to till the ground and keep it. Even the lager style, inward facing of buildings in Hutterite communities is patterned after the order and harmony that God imparted to the universe.
Most of the ethnic historians and geographers to some degree have recognized the religious basis of the various farming communities they studied, and they repeatedly noted the piety of communal groups. But was it social values or religious beliefs, or both, that explained the behavioral differences? If religion and its cultural trappings, and not ethnicity per se, determined farming behavior among these various groups, then scholars face the task of explaining the mechanism of that behavior. Thus far, none have developed a comprehensive theoretical framework to explain the behaviors they observed.
Field research by geographers and sociologists is beginning to explore the religious dimension of agriculture and land use. An early example is Anne Van den Ban's 1960 article in Rural Sociology, based on data drawn from a cluster-sample of the Wisconsin Farm and Home Development Study. Van den Ban compared readiness to adopt new farm practices in a Dutch Reformed township (Alto in Fond du Lac County) and a Norwegian and German Lutheran township (Deerfield in Dane County), and found that the Reformed were slower to innovate than the Lutherans. After ruling out individual socioeconomic characteristics such as education, farm size, or net worth, the author considered direct religious influences that might be at work.
Both Calvinists and Lutherans believe that God created and sustains the earth and assigned Adam and his descendants as caretakers of it, but Calvinist preachers emphasized more that God would hold farmers accountable to Him on the Judgement Day for their stewardship. This may have made the Calvinists more risk-averse, Van den Ban reasoned, because the stakes are too high to make mistakes in trying new methods. "The decision to adopt a new farm practice is therefore more 'sacred' [for the Calvinist] than for the Lutheran farmer. If it goes wrong he will not only lose money, but he also bears the responsibility for the decision toward the Sovereign of the earth." Lutheran farmers, by contrast, Van den Ban observed, "see no clear connection between their religion and their way of farming." Calvinists took their farming seriously, but to assert that they were motivated negatively by fear of divine punishment is unfounded. Van den Ban admitted as much; he concluded that cultural factors, particularly the isolation and strong social control of the community, rather than religious beliefs, militated against experimentation. This very limited case study raised religious beliefs to the forefront, but the author backed away from a serious study of Calvinist and Lutheran theologies that might explain the contrasting farm behaviors.
Rural sociologist Ingolf Vogeler similarly found in a study of Wisconsin farm land transfers in the years 1950 to 1975 that ethnicity and religion were highly correlated, especially in intra-family transfers, and religion was a stronger variable than ethnicity. In Trempealeau County, where Polish Catholics dominated, three-quarters of the land transfers passed within the family, as did nearly one-half of the farms in the Norwegian Lutheran-dominated county of Pierce. That Catholics sold farms to their "own kind" more than did Lutherans is a tantalizing finding, but Vogeler made no attempt to explore possible theological explanations for the contrasting behaviors.
A more ambitious attempt to include religion as a variable in analyzing sustainable farming practices is that of Barbara Dilly in her 1994 dissertation at the University of California, Irvine, but she too failed to work out the theological underpinnings of the behavior. Dilly's mentor, Joseph Jorgensen, director of the Program in Comparative Culture and a student of American Indian religion, had argued in 1984 that religion determines land use because "land is cultural." Following Jorgensen's lead, Dilly examined the role of religious doctrines and values in farming behavior, choosing as her subjects the Old Order Amish, Mennonite Brethren, and Evangelical Lutheran communities in northeast Iowa near Prairie City. All these groups practice diversified grain/livestock farming using methods that nurture the soil, treat animals humanely, minimize waste, and produce wholesome foods.
The explanation for the alternative agriculture, Dilly claims, is that farmers in these German Protestant subcultures hold to a "sacred ecology of the soil and the soul... [that] incorporates soil, plant, and animal life" in a symbiotic relationship between the land and the community. Religious ideology is the lens, she states, that informs their conceptions of technology, economics, politics, and education. They are motivated by a "Christian ideology of stewardship that places a spiritual value on land, labor, and capital." In their various ways each ties economic security to the "productive capacity of the soil,... and seeks profit in terms of individual peace of mind, [and] intimate affinal and kinship relations."
To test her theory that "religion is a dynamic force...in agricultural sustainability," Dilly interviewed 75 families on 51 farms and assembled current data on the scale of their farm operations, acreages owned and rented, crops, tillage methods, livestock operations, and wage labor patterns. She analyzed the data by constructing Guttman/ Lingoes three-dimensional similarity matrixes among the variables of ethnicity, age, education, and livestock mixes.
Despite their common Christianity, the German-American groups in Dilly's study differ in the rate of adoption of new techniques. The Old Order Amish, as extreme separatists, resist technological changes that erode their way of life, while the Mennonite Brethren, who assimilated quickly, embraced scientific advances even as they try to resist its corrosive effects on family and church life. The very ethnic Evangelical Lutherans, as "stubborn old Germans," reluctantly adopt technology and seek to insulate themselves from rapid social change. Other differences show up in land ownership and inheritance practices. Amish families hold land in joint tenancy, Brethren prefer family corporations, and Lutherans create formal father and son holdings. Amish parents help all their children get on the land, but the Brethren and Lutherans designate one child to keep the farm intact in the next generation.
In farming and livestock practices, the Amish retain a traditional multiple-crop rotation and have fewer hogs, dairy, and feeder cattle. Brethren generally rotate between corn and soybeans, are more willing to contour plow and retain pasture that Lutherans plow under. Brethren raise large numbers of cattle, hogs, and dairy. Lutherans follow a tight corn and soybean rotation with livestock specialization, but do no dairying. Only Brethren use hired help; but Lutherans and Brethren exchange work within family and among immediate neighbors while the Amish exchange within the whole church community. Amish and Lutherans are most averse to risk.
These findings raise many intriguing questions: why do Lutheran farmers cultivate to the fence rows and Brethren retain pasture land? Or why are Brethren more willing to take risks than Amish or Lutherans? The broader question is why these groups, which are defined by a common religion and nationality, and who live in the same area, behave so differently on the land?
From the outset Dilly insists that religion is a better predictor of farm behavior than ethnic background, and she specifically rejects Salamon's opposing view that ethnicity explains more than religion.
Dilly's thesis is based on the Augustinian idea of the two kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man, which have existed side by side since the dawn of human history in perpetual tension. Some Christians are very aware of this antithesis and try to live within the kingdom of the godly, while others plant their feet in both realms and attempt to synthesize them.
Dilly aligns the three communal groups in her study along a continuum from dualists to synthesists. The Amish as radical dualists value separation from the world and its materialism. They "connect all that they do" to their religious ethos. The Brethren, at the other extreme, synthesize the two kingdoms. This allows them, and to a lesser extent the Lutherans--who maintain a tension between synthesis and dualism, to live comfortably in both worlds by minimizing the antithesis between believers and non-believers. Logically, therefore, the Amish place the highest value on community solidarity and preservation of traditions, followed by Brethren and Lutherans. Conversely, the Brethren are most open to technological modernization, Lutherans are less so, and the Amish lag far behind.
The role of religion in Dilly's two-kingdom construct is that of a brake rather than a steering wheel. The theology of dualism slams the brakes on progress, while the "worn out" brakes of synthesis allow one quite easily to slid into modernity. Her dualism-synthesis scale may explain Amish behavior, but it is not as helpful for understanding Lutherans and Brethren, let alone Calvinists or other Protestant groups. The main problem with Dilly's study is that in her interviews she collected data on farm practices but not on religious values; she then inferred how religious beliefs of the group as a whole might have impacted on their farm behavior. Even though the religious teachings of these groups are well documented, Dilly may have assumed too much.
Another innovative study of the intersection of religion and agriculture is that of Janel Curry-Roper, a rural geographer at Calvin College, who is currently engaged in a research project to measure directly the place of religious values in farming behavior. The research is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, and the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Change at the University of Iowa.
Curry-Roper theorizes that "distinct worldviews exist that are grounded in common, theologically identifiable religious belief systems and [are] associated, in turn, with specific cultural traditions." Such discernable differences ought to be evident on the land, she assumed, just as William Cronin, in his study of early New England, found relationships between communal orientation, property rights, and perceptions of the environment. Curry-Roper constructed a community scale that ranked groups according to their conceptualization of society from individualistic to communal, based on answers to the questions: "How do I think of myself? Do I think of myself as an autonomous, independent person, or do I see myself principally as part of a network of human relationships?"
The scale had five points: on one end, (1) individualistic and utilitarian, and (2) individualistic and non-utilitarian; at the other end, (4) communal and non-utilitarian, and (5) communal and utilitarian. In the middle (3) stood groups that were neither individualistic nor communal. Curry-Roper hypothesized that where each community lies on the scale is a predictor of other value decisions concerning the relationship between people and the natural environment; the priority of individual, communal, or environmental "rights" in farming practices; and even the fundamental question of whether farming is, in essence, a business or a way of life. Conventional agriculture involves specialization, technology, world markets, and competition. Alternative agriculture emphasizes diversification, domestic markets, a skeptical use of science and technology, and cooperation among farmers and with their consumers.
Curry-Roper carried out field research across Iowa in seven farming communities among eight small, homogeneous social groups, ranging in character from individualistic to communal, including Mennonite, Reformed, Lutheran, German and Irish Catholic, Swedish Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, Anglo and Norwegian Quaker, and Anglo Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints. Sampling four German communities with differing religious perspectives allowed her to control for ethnicity.
Curry-Roper developed a questionnaire and held group discussions to determine the resident's attitudes about religion, farming, land use, government, and other socio-cultural issues. Like Dilly, she took into account the historical traditions and theological orientations of each village, which derived from their unique ethnic and religious character. Rather than attempt to measure church attendance or religiosity, she asked respondents their opinions about problems facing society and solutions, believing that the opinions reflect community views more than individual views. She also asked how religious beliefs affect their lives in general and their farm practices in particular, and especially how farmers perceive their relationship to nature.
The villages diverge in their thinking about land use, animal husbandry, and farm inheritance. The German Reformed group most clearly typified the individualistic-utilitarian type (1); they stressed personal property rights and capitalistic agricultural goals even at the expense of some environmental degradation. English and Norwegian Quakers, and Irish and German Catholics, were also individualistic but non-utilitarian (2). Quakers de-emphasized property rights and accepted the social redistribution of wealth in the interests of greater social harmony. Catholics likewise accepted limitations on property rights in the interests of Christian stewardship. Both groups valued associational efforts but were not communal.
Three groups on the communal end of the scale were German Mennonites, Dutch Reformed, and Anglo Reorganized Church of Latter-Day Saints; all expressed sustainable farming attitudes. But the Mennonites, in contrast to the Calvinists and Saints, held a utilitarian view of nature (5); preservation of the earth has little place in their theology, whereas Calvinists and Saints emphasized stewardship of resources and the duty to bring all activities of life under Biblical norms (4).
The Lutheran Augustana Synod Swedes and Missouri Synod Germans did not fit into either the individualistic or communal positions (3). Among the Germans the men were communal and the women individualistic. Both Lutheran groups accepted the teaching of stewardship, but considered nature primarily to be for human use. They both viewed farming as a business; the Germans being more capitalistic than the Swedes. Curry-Roper again suggests that the cause may lie in Lutheran theology, which emphasized the personal and individual element of faith. This blend of religious piety and worldly activity stemmed from Martin Luther's teaching that "work itself, rather than 'the fruits of labor,' will set you free."
Most interesting is the contrast between German and Dutch Reformed farmers, who share the same Calvinist theology but have different ethnic histories. Curry-Roper compared the Ost Frisian Germans of Wellsburg in northcentral Iowa (Grundy County) to the Dutch of Hull in northwest Iowa (Sioux County). The Germans she found to be extremely individualistic while the Dutch are more communal. Germans draw social boundaries around each farm unit and rarely cooperate beyond familial lines. The average farm size in 1980 was third from the top in Iowa (305 acres) and increasing, while their population decline was the highest. "Their individualistic, farm-unit-oriented worldview has not encouraged the type of social embeddedness that . . . is necessary to counter the pressures in these directions," Curry-Roper concluded.
The Dutch placed communal needs above individual benefits, even though they are as strongly committed to property rights as the Germans. From the outset they wanted a homogenous ethnoreligious enclave and they built the institutional structure of churches, Christian day schools, and Christian agricultural societies to support it. This communalism reflects the centuries old Dutch character of working together against the elements (water) and common enemies (Spain, France, Germany, England). The Dutch learned early the lesson "Een voor allen, allen een." Not surprisingly, Dutch farm sizes in Hull did not rise much in the crisis of the 1980s; they are the smallest in the state (185 acres) and their population decline in the 1980s was the lowest.
The late Stanley Wiersma, a colleague of mine at Calvin College many years ago who grew up Sioux County--the largest Dutch Protestant farm settlement in America, tried to capture the Dutch sense of "ought" in a prose poem about planting corn, entitled "Calvinist Farming." In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek style, Wiersma described the apprehension of these immigrant farmers about the new-fangled practice of contour plowing. By fitting the curvilinear pattern precisely to the topography according to scientific principles, contouring produced the highest possible yields, while simultaneously being conservationist in the sense of minimizing agricultural run-off and soil erosion. But contour plowing required the heavy use of chemicals to control weeds and, more important, it seemed to defy order on the land.
Listen to Wiersma's story:
Our Calvinist fathers wore neckties with their bib-overalls and straw hats, a touch of glory with their humility. They rode their horse-drawn corn planters like chariots, planting the corn in straight rows, each hill of three stalks three feet from each hill around it, up and over the rises.... Each field was a checkerboard even to the diagonals. No Calvinist followed the land's contours.
Contour farmers in surrounding counties improvised their rows against the slope of the land. There was no right way. Before our fathers planted a field, they knew where each hill of corn would be. Be ye perfect, God said, and the trouble with contour farmers was that, no matter how hard they worked at getting a perfect contour, they could never know for sure it was perfect--and they didn't even care. At best they were Arminian, or Lutheran, or Catholic, or at worst secular....
Contour farmers didn't control weeds because they couldn't cross-cultivate. Weed control was laid on farmers by God's curse. Contour farmers tried to escape God's curse.... And they wasted land, for planting around the rises, they left more place between the rows than if they'd checked it.... It was all indecent and untidy.
We youngsters pointed out that the tops of our rises were turning clay-brown, that bushels of black dirt washed into creeks and ditches every time it rained, and that in the non-Calvinistic counties the tops of the rises were black. We were told we were arguing by results, not by principles. Why, God could replenish the black dirt overnight. The tops of the rises were God's business.
Our business was to farm on Biblical principles. Like, let everything be done decently and in good order; that is keep weeds down, plant every square inch, do not waste crops, and be tidy. Contour farmers were unkingly because they were untidy. They could not be prophetic, could not explain from the Bible how to farm. Being neither kings nor prophets, they could not be proper priests; their humility lacks definition. They prayed for crops privately. Our whole county prayed for crops the second Wednesday of every March.
Here Wiersma abruptly changed the direction of the story. God's cosmic planter has thirty year's worth of people since then, all checked and on the diagonal if we could see as God sees. All third-generation Calvinists now plant corn on the contour. They have heard the word from the State College of Agriculture.... [Now] there's no easy way to tell the difference between Calvinists and non-Calvinists.... When different ideas of God produced different methods of farming, God mattered more....
Wiersma obviously longed for the old distinctives after modern methods came into vogue. But he put his finger on an important point--"Our business was to farm on Biblical principles."
Other Calvinist writers recognize the salience of religion in shaping the behavior of their farming people. Ronald Jager, a product of Missaukee County, Michigan, explained that the immigrant farmers on these cutover flatlands brought a "little piece of the Netherlands, church and all, and they simply parked it among the stumps and went to work, their rural pieties being structured by the Old Country and the Old Testament, not at all by the pastoral rhetoric of the American gentry".
James Schaap, who grew up in a Dutch enclave in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, and teaches in Sioux County, Iowa, recalls spending all day on hands and knees helping his father-in-law weed an 85-acre soybean field. Then, at the evening meal the man prayed: "'Bless that all we do, we do to thy honor.'" Even weeding a bean field? asks Schaap incredulously. "It seemed to me that was stretching Calvinism a bit too far.... How on earth was I to believe that this milkweed stain on my hands was somehow related to the kingdom?... Maybe when my father-in-law looks up and down the cleaned rows of soybeans," Schaap opines, "he sees the beauty of God's creation well managed--subdued, in fact.... He has accomplished his calling as well as he can.... Maybe that's what he means. I'm not sure I know exactly, because I'm not a farmer."
Skeptics might rightfully demand more evidence for the religious basis of farming behavior than limited field interviews and novelists anecdotes. If "theology rode the tractor seat," it must be shown by solid evidence from farm records. Dilly compared data on cropping, livestock, and land use in religious communities, but she failed to ask questions about beliefs and so could not link worldview directly with farming practices. Curry-Roper raised the right questions about moral attitudes and farming, but her small number of interviewees (less than one hundred among eight groups) was too few to make a statistically valid data base to compare cropping and livestock patterns. And the studies of isolated ethnoreligious groups must be expanded to include the larger numbers of Baptists, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, and other farm populations.
If one concedes the primacy of theological beliefs in farming, the task remains to develop an explanatory theory that is widely applicable. Curry-Roper's individualist-communal continuum needs to be scaled two-dimensionally with the religious orientations of farmers. Van den Ban and Dilly both showed that farmers in various religious groups held differing attitudes toward land and animals. The Calvinist God, said Van den Ban, demanded more accountability of a farmer's stewardship on the Judgement Day than did the Lutheran God. Dilly referred to a "sacred ecology of the soil and the soul," filtered through the lens of a "Christian ideology of stewardship."
Curry-Roper theorized that different religiously-grounded worldviews set apart those who farmed as a business from those who farmed as a way of life. In another context, she suggested that church teachings on the doctrine of eschatology or the "last things," that is, the future of human history and the natural world, led to a general orientation toward life and work that could influence behavior. Those who believe they are partners with Christ in ushering in his earthly kingdom should take better care of the land than those who believe Satan controls the earth and Christ will utterly destroy both him and the earth with fire in the near future. Put another way, Calvinists preferred to sing the hymn "This is my father's world," rather than the spiritual, "This world is not my home, I'm just a'passing through."
Whether the creation mandate, two-kingdom dualism, millennial escatology, or any other religious typology can help us understand farming decisions is still an open question, but it deserves more serious study. Ethnic studies since the 1960s have strongly suggested that religion mattered on the farm as in the voting booth. Agricultural specialists would do well to include the long-neglected religious variable in their research. Religious worldviews must enter the scholarly discourse with at least the interpretive priority given recently to race, class, and gender.