The Free Methodist Equivalant of Little House on the Prarie: The Freelands’

Sod Home in North Dakota

Out in the vast, rugged Dakota Territory a pioneer family settled on their claim. No, I’m not talking about Laura Ingalls’ Wilder, but the Freeland family of South Dakota. They settled in the Dakota Territory a few years after the Ingalls’ family (around the mid 1880s whereas the Ingalls were 1879/1880).

When we think of nineteenth century missionaries we often think of individuals who sailed on ships to unexplored areas of Asia and Africa and expected to face almost certain death for their faith. What we don’t think about are home missionaries – like the Freelands in South Dakota. Those individuals don’t leave their country but engage in missional living in their local community. While missional living has become an evangelical buzzword, Free Methodists were practicing this style of living long before it became the “in” thing. Put simply, missional living is being willing to financially put others before yourself; to devote your time to helping others before meeting your own needs for entertainment and relaxation; and welcoming the needy into your home and church with open arms.

J.F. Freeland and Mariet Hardy Freeland followed their son James Kendall to the Dakota Territory in the 1880s. James Kendall had been appointed in 1884 by B.T. Roberts to start missionary work in South Dakota. Then in 1885 Roberts went out to see the progress of Kendall’s labors and realized the need for more Free Methodists in the territory was great. He urged Kendall’s parents to follow their son’s lead and join him. However, both the Freelands’ were engaged in ministry on the East Coast. Yet, as Mariet notes in her biography, God called and they said “Here I am.” The Genesee Conference (NY) gave them $50 for home missionary work in the Dakota Territory, and the couple set out, settling near Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

J.K. Freeland and Mariet Hardy Freeland (1908)

The Freelands’ experiences as homesteaders was similar to what the Ingalls family faced- harsh winters, small claim shanties or dugouts, and a lot of isolation. They had nothing but their faith to see them through. Yet, they were optimistic. The 1880s Free Methodist is filled with pleas from them and other Free Methodists in the Dakotas to move out and join in their work. In a report J.F. Freeland sent in for the February 25, 1885 Free Methodist he summarizes their calling and the need this way:

Considerable attention has been given of late to ‘foreign missions.’ I am not opposed to foreign missions; on the contrary, am glad they are receiving their merited attention. But the home side of this question lies very near my heart. I trust those to whom the foreign side is dear will pardon a statement of the other side even at this time. We who engage in the home fields can appreciate the quite heroic spirit of self-sacrifice manifested, when one gives himself to an African or Indian mission. Some of us know what it is to give ourselves…We think Dakota is a promising field for home mission work. Perhaps you say, ‘Why, you have a conference in Dakota!’ That’s not a mission field! You can help yourselves! (That’s what we’re doing.)…As a denomination we have to work in new fields at a disadvantage, compared to other Christian bodies…If the gospel is to be kept abreast on the westward tide of emigration and settlement it must be carried by those who go to the front, and they must mainly be sustained by eastern aid or personal exertion. We have in South Dakota as generous people as American can boast. Yet people just starting in a new country need every dollar, especially if they did not bring money with them, as many do not. You who went to the New York woods fifty years ago understand what that means. Today according to wide observers, South Dakota is enduring hard times better than most of the states, and has a brighter prospect for the coming year. It is but a matter of time till we shall have wealth sufficient to buy the entire Empire state with its landed millions. Our natural resources warrant this statement… but now Dakota is largely a mission field.

Freeland goes on in the article to remind readers that as a Free Methodist Conference the Dakota Conference must pay into the general denominational funds, just as the older, established east coast conferences were expected to contribute to the denomination. Freeland isn’t begrudging the payments; just stating the hardship it put on a struggling mission field.

What stands out as I study the Freelands’ work in the Dakotas is how applicable this is to today. Are we living sacrificially, missionally or putting our own desires and priorities above God’s? Granted, none of us will probably be called to live in a claim shanty and endure below freezing temperatures in the winter, but if we were asked we should follow. What we are asked to do? Giving our time, money and priorities to God seems simple in comparison.

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