Religion in (and beyond) Lake Wobegon

Jonathan Den Hartog

It is good to see some reports start to roll in from the American Society of Church History's Spring Meeting this past month in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Thanks to Barton Price for the In God's House review!

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The Kensington Rune Stone
This post draws from my involvement in the conference, where I had the privilege of chairing a really phenomenal panel, entitled "Religion in Lake Wobegon: Reviving the Study of a Lost Region."  The panel was thematically connected and produced great conversation. RiAH's Paul Putz led off with tracing the significance of the Midwest for vaulting the African-American woman evangelist Lena Mason to national prominence. Then, David Krueger told the fascinating story about how the Kensington Rune Stone--a stone purporting that Viking explorers traveled to Minnesota before Columbus--served not only ethnic and community purposes, but religious ones. The "Viking Martyrs" became potential Minnesota heroes at a time of cultural upheaval and Cold War uncertainty. David Zwart followed with a presentation on how church commemorations throughout the Midwest both created corporate memory and signaled beliefs about the wider world. The highlight of David's talk was undoubtedly his invocation of histories from both Pella and Sully, Iowa. Michael Lansing of Augsburg College offered an extremely insightful commentary, not only on the papers, but of the challenges of the New Midwestern History generally.

Both David and Michael have forthcoming books--be sure to put them on your reading list!

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Second Reformed Church, Pella, Iowa
The conclusion from our panel was the need to add complexity to our religious stories of the Midwest. That is, we need to go beyond the simple stories told by Garrison Keillor about Lake Wobegon. In going beyond Lake Wobegon, we could draw on other panels from the ASCH meeting, where Matthew Miller described Eastern Christianity in contemporary Minnesota, or Betty Bergland described Norwegian Lutheran outreach to Indians, or Mark Granquist described relations with African immigrants in Minnesota, or Bill Douglas regaled his hearers with stories of the Protestant minister, Catholic priest, and Jewish Rabbi who barnstormed Iowa during the Great Depression to promote more inter-religious toleration.

From my understanding, this desire to "Go Beyond Lake Wobegon" also featured prominently at the Midwestern History Association meeting last week. Perhaps subsequent correspondents can give insight there.

In helping us think beyond Lake Wobegon, I include my opening comments, which point to religious diversity in Lake Wobegon, or, if not Lake Wobegon, at least Anoka, Minnesota:

I started with a familiar line: “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown...”

(That didn't generate the waves of applause I was hoping for, but perhaps it was too early in the morning, or the fact that we weren't meeting at the Fitzgerald Theater.)

Now, in addition to simply seeing if that could get some audience participation, let me begin by saying Lake Wobegon IS my hometown, or just about.

Garrison Keillor grew up in Anoka, Minnesota, which is literally just a few miles from my house, down Highway 14 and across the town-line. Since Keillor built his evocation of Midwestern life on his memories of Anoka, I think I can claim that Lake Wobegon is pretty close to my current hometown.
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As this panel’s catchy title suggests, we’re turning our attention to Midwestern History. This is very appropriate for a conference held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We’re acting as part of a larger attempt to reclaim a “lost region’s” history. That is, this panel has grown up specifically to further understand the Midwest. For those paying attention, there is a stirring for a “New Midwestern History” to remedy the lack of sufficient attention to a major American regional experience. There are solid historical considerations of the South, the West, New England, and the Pacific, but minimal exposure for the Midwest. This movement has gained more traction in the past year with Jon Lauck’s book The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History and the founding of the Midwestern Historical Association.

But this panel is interested, not only in the Midwest generally, but in religious experiences in particular. Again, consideration of religious experiences in the Midwest is normally vague: Anglo, perhaps European ethnic, Protestant and Roman Catholic.  In this regard, I think about the church stories told by Garrison Keillor, dating back to his Lake Wobegon Days (1985). In Keillor’s telling, there were only three major groups--the Lutherans who receive a lot of attention, the Catholics, and the “Sanctified Brethren,” (the Plymouth Brethren of Keillor’s youth).

And yet, by digging deeper, we can see a lot of diversity beyond that stereotype. A quick search of Anoka, Minnesota’s church life today demonstrates this flowering of religious options. There are still Lutheran churches--7, to be exact, although you can select from ELCA, Free Lutheran, and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod options. There is also a large Roman Catholic parish, St. Stephens. Going beyond this, things get a lot more complicated. St. Stephen’s hosts a vibrant Latino Catholic congregation that shares its space, albeit at different times. And then, the Protestant options proliferate. There are 6 Baptist churches, for instance. There are 8 non-denominational churches (Gracelife Church, anyone?) including 3 that have “community church” in their names. There is a United Methodist and a Wesleyan Congregation. There are several Holiness or Pentecostal Churches, including an Assemblies of God. There is an Evangelical Covenant Church (Anoka Covenant), which snagged the great URL  There is both an Episcopal (Trinity Episcopal) and a Seventh Day Adventist option. Clearly, the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon don’t lack for church options.

But there are even more religious opportunities. There is a Latter-Day Saints Ward. There’s a Jehovah’s Witnesses outpost. There’s a Baha’i gathering. There’s even a well-known Buddhist temple. The Wat Anoka Dhammaram Buddhist Meditation Center in Anoka has now been going strong for over a decade.

Put together, this suggests many more options and experiences than would be expected at first blush. The Midwest has religious stories that need to be told and that illuminate Midwestern history, religious history, and even American history.


Unknown said…
Thanks so much for doing this, Jonathan. This is a great reflection. Hopefully others will join us in this ongoing conversation about the region.

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