Spreading American Values and the Gospel: North Dakota Baptists, 1881 to the Great War

By Price, Chris | Baptist History and Heritage, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Spreading American Values and the Gospel: North Dakota Baptists, 1881 to the Great War


Price, Chris, Baptist History and Heritage


The men arrived in the meeting room one by one. The Advisory Committee of the First Baptist Church in Grand Forks, North Dakota, met frequently to discuss matters of important business related to the church. However, this meeting on February 17, 1918, would have a unique agenda.

Just over a year earlier, the church had called Rev. Harvey J. Moore as pastor. Within months the biggest event of the early twentieth century would see the United States undertake military action in Europe. A strong patriot, Moore could not sit by and do nothing while his fellow Americans were involved in his generation's greatest conflict. As the leaders of the church met, the minister informed them of his unusual request. He requested leave to become a chaplain in the army. The leadership committee promptly took a vote regarding this request. After the vote, the board announced that it would unanimously recommend that Moore be given between ten weeks and three months leave to follow his desire and undertake work as an army chaplain. (1) In the nation's biggest challenge since the Civil War, the members of the Grand Forks church showed their solidarity with the American nation.

This interesting incident was not an isolated one. As political scientist Eldon Eisenach has noted, during the Progressive Era (2) many Americans viewed their national history as "the overt expression of the unfolding of a covenantal and prefigured destiny" and that terms such as '"to democratize,' 'to Christianize,' 'to Americanize,' 'to nationalize,' and 'to internationalize' were largely interchangeable." (3)

North Dakota Baptists, at both the local and state level, exhibited attitudes and actions that fell in line with their belief in American exceptionalism and the nation's almost messianic destiny, even on occasions when these beliefs went against the grain regarding denominational and local attitudes. North Dakota Baptists also made their view of American exceptionalism evident through their nativist attitudes and a wholehearted support for World War I, in spite of general ambivalence on the part of many North Dakota residents in relation to American entry into the war.

Two important threads are evident in the early history of the North Dakota Baptists: an emphasis on evangelism and a strong desire to see the Protestant American values of liberty and democracy spread. A clear line between these two threads could at times be difficult to distinguish in the decades straddling the turn of the twentieth century.

Early Baptist Work in North Dakota

Early growth in the Baptist work in North Dakota was largely the result of the efforts of one man. In 1881 the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) appointed G. W. Huntley to be a missionary along the line of the Northern Pacific Railroad. His territory was initially to include the area along the railroad line that stretched from Brainerd, Minnesota, to Miles City, Montana. By July 1881, the ABHMS directed Huntley to focus his efforts on Northern Dakota Territory because of the rapid increase in immigration to this region. Along with other early immigrants to the region, Huntley braved severe climatic conditions and the "privations" associated with new settlement. His efforts were quite successful between 1881 and 1892, when he retired for health reasons. Over the course of his ministry, Huntley personally oversaw the organization of about forty churches and numerous Sunday schools. He then grouped the churches into associations and also helped in the organization of the North Dakota Baptist State Convention (NDBSC). (4)

Early Baptist activity in North Dakota focused not only on English speakers. Some of the earliest immigrants to North Dakota were Baptists of European extraction. Among the most numerous, as they were among other denominations such as the Lutherans, were the Scandinavians. The number of Scandinavian churches grew to such a degree that they left their home in the Red River Valley Association and formed ethnic associations. …

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