When I visited England with my family a few years ago, I thought, No wonder European students know history so much better than Americans—they're surrounded by it every day! I might learn about the Norman Conquest in a world history survey, but British schoolchildren could see physical evidence of it on field trips or in their own backyards. And while I always thought it was cool that C.S. Lewis's wardrobe stood in the Wheaton College library, but I got a better sense of the man when I stood in his favorite pub in Oxford. Places educate.
Though no buildings in the United States pack in as many centuries' worth of history as even non-landmarks across the Atlantic, lots of American structures have valuable stories to tell. But many of these buildings might soon be muted by neglect or destruction. That's why the National Trust for Historic Preservation this week issued its thirteenth annual listing of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
The first thing I noticed on the list was a 150-year-old barn near—get this—Upland, my tiny hometown in Indiana. Of course, I've never even seen the now-famous barn, let alone marveled at its historic significance. But I guess that's kind of the point—if people knew how close they were to valuable pieces of the past, they might actually pay attention to preservation.
Besides that brief nod to beautiful Grant Country, Indiana (where, I'll have you know, "Cool was born," according to the brochures at the James Dean Museum in Fairmount), the Christian History connection to all of this concerns another item on the list: prairie churches in North Dakota.
Prairie churches were often among the first permanent structures in a frontier town—sometimes built by people who hadn't even finished their own houses yet. The buildings served as spiritual centers, but they served civic and educational functions, too. As Ferenc Morton Szasz wrote in CH issue 66: How the West Was Really Won, "Modest though they might have been, these churches and Sunday schools served as bulwarks of social stability. Not only did they provide venues for regular services, their rooms held a variety of social gatherings as well, thus functioning as training grounds for political democracy."
North Dakota was settled largely by European immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The state's population peaked at 680,845 in 1930, then began a slow but steady slide. As communities shrank, churches closed. Today 400 of North Dakota's 2,000 prairie churches are vacant, with more set to be shuttered soon.
The National Trust put North Dakota's prairie churches on this year's list in hopes of saving them from ruin, but its plan for restoring the buildings raises some new concerns. According to the National Trust Web site, prairie churches "have been adaptively reused as community centers, libraries, day care centers and museums. Or they can be preserved for occasional uses such as family and community reunions, summer services, weddings and baptisms." All of these are identified as options that "honor the founders' intentions."
It's true that prairie church buildings originally hosted many more events than Sunday services and prayer meetings, so a community center or day care could be considered a usage that would "honor the founders' intentions." But I have to wonder, why not just use them as churches? Perhaps what these buildings need isn't just money for paint and a new roof, but people to continue the ministries begun in them so many years ago.
* The 11 Most Endangered list appears online at the National Trust for Historical Preservation's website.
* For more on that historic barn in Indiana, see the Chronicle-Tribune's story.
* CH issue 66: How the West Was Really Won is online.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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