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 Christian History issue 66, "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.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
The list of "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places" is available at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's site.
Christian History's issue 66, "How the West Was Really Won," examines prairie churches, frontier missions, travelling preachers, and other intersections between the Old West and Christianity. (The issue can also be purchased at the ChristianityToday.com store.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous Christian History Corners include:
The Communion Test | How a "Humble Inquiry" into the nature of the church cost Jonathan Edwards his job. (June 22, 2001)
Visiting the Other Side | The Israelites spent time on both sides of the Jordan. Now tourists can, too. (June 8, 2001)
Beyond Pearl Harbor | How God caught up with the man who led Japan's surprise attack. (June 1, 2001)
Rivers of Life | In Africa, survival depends on open waterways. Missionary explorer David Livingstone believed that salvation did, too. (May 25, 2001)
Intro to the Inklings | C.S. Lewis's intellect was stimulated at one of the most fascinating extracurricular clubs ever. (May 18, 2001)
How Not to Read Dante | You probably missed the point of The Divine Comedy in high school. (May 11, 2001)
If My People Will Pray | The U.S. National Day of Prayer Turns 50, but its origins are much older. (May 4, 2001)
Mutiny and Redemption | The rarely told story of new life after the destruction of the H.M.S. Bounty. (Apr. 27, 2001)
Book Notes | New and noteworthy releases on church history that deserve recognition. (Apr. 20, 2001)
A Primer on Paul | The History Channel uses Holy Saturday not to discuss Jesus, but the apostle who spread his message. (Apr. 12, 2001)
Image Is Everything | The Taliban's destruction of Buddhist statues is only the latest controversy over the Second Commandment. (Apr. 6, 2001)
Christian Education for All | The first Sunday schools provide a positive example of government partnerships with faith-based organizations.(Mar. 23, 2001)