Grandma’s Religion

St John Big Piney

Grandma had this thing she’d say when someone asked about her religion. She was a very proper lady, which in her day meant it wasn’t polite to talk about politics or religion. This was her own particular way of saying “none of your business”.

She would say, “My father was a Mormon. My mother was a Baptist. I went to an Episcopal girls’ school, then married a Lutheran in a Methodist church. What religion do you think I should be?

I smile when I think about this, because it brings Grandma into my mind exactly as she was, right down to the gotcha in that question at the end. Unless your own manners were as polished, you might miss the irony there. (If you’re going to cross the line by asking such a question, maybe you want to go further and start telling me your opinion about my religion.)

I know what her children think. They think she was a Methodist. Her obituary says she was a Methodist.

But she wasn’t, I don’t think. I spent many hours with her, listening to her stories and asking questions. I’d swear she thought of herself as an Episcopalian. Kind of. Sort of. At least, that’s what she would be if she ever joined a church. Which is not something she would do, because that would just be silly.

Grandma thought of religion as a social label. It’s a group you join because you want to socialize with those people. Nothing to do with anything you believe because then it would be science not religion. She spent her time on things like Psychology Today. She wasn’t baptized. Didn’t think it was important. Her mother used to give them Bible lessons on Sundays. Of course. You need to know those things in order to be culturally literate. As an adult she and Grandpa contributed to the local churches but didn’t belong to any of them. They sent the kids to Bible school in the summers but not to Sunday school. The kids, they thought, would grow up and choose their own religion.

This is the story as I heard it but I wonder just a little in places. Was she really not baptized? One of these days I’m going to check. Her parents were founding members of St. John’s Episcopal in Big Piney. Say about 1914, when Grandma was about 13. And this was just before Grandma went off to an Episcopal girls’ school in Denver. It’s a bit hard to believe Grandma and her brothers didn’t get snookered into being baptized.

(The story is larger than this, but I’ll have tell it in detail another time. This is also about the time the different ex-Mormon ranching families in the area were choosing up sides in the newer churches. Great grandpa Luce’s ex-wife Dorothy (Tarter) Luce became a Catholic. Thereafter she’s often mentioned in connection with Catholicism and Salt Lake City, while Great grandpa is mentioned in connection with the Episcopalians and Denver. Someone should tell that story.)

I have other quibbles, as well. Grandma’s story says her father was a Mormon and her mother was a Baptist. That’s not inaccurate but it’s a simplification.

Grandma’s father was a disaffected former Mormon (or PostMo, as we say now). We have several stories about his reasons but the bottom line is that the church demanded sacrifices from his parents then failed to protect them when the going got rough. (Bad, bad Mormons. We will never forgive.)

And Grandma’s mother does seem to have been a Baptist as a child in Illinois, but Grandma’s Grandma Wilson was already a Methodist by the time Grandma was born. Or maybe just a tiny bit later.

Is this where we got the idea Grandma was a Methodist? I don’t think so. I think it comes from Grandma attending the Methodist church occasionally when she was working at the hospital in Rock Springs. But that was because it was convenient to nurses’ quarters. And she did get married in a Methodist church but that was just the way it fell out when they were looking for someone to marry them that day.

And finally, my last quibble is about Grandpa being a Lutheran. Grandpa was an atheist. Everyone seems to have a story about how much he believed in reading and thinking analytically, and how that did not involve invisible friends in the sky.

But going behind that story, was Grandpa raised Lutheran? No, I don’t think so. His family was Swedish, and Swedes back then were nominally Lutheran, but Grandpa’s parents were actually Mission Covenant. Pacifists. Very liberal, but also very fundamentalist. The Mission Covenant church was tied then and now to the Salvation Army. And in fact, Grandpa’s mother was the foster daughter and sister of people who were prominent in the Salvation Army in Europe. Grandpa was baptized at the Stotler Mission Church in Burlingame (Kansas).

So that’s it. I wanted to preserve Grandma’s saying about her religion because I think her descendants might enjoy hearing it. And I also wanted to push beneath the surface as well, because there is always more to the story, and I want future generations to know that as well.

More Information

  • Marie A. Olson, “Swedish Settlement at Stotler” in Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, Vol. 4, No. 2 (May 1935), pp. 155-63. Marie Olson was Grandpa Swanstrom’s 2nd cousin. Her father E. E. Olson was Grandpa’s godfather, and her father’s half-brother Peter Persson was the minister who baptized Grandpa.

Revised April 30, 2019.

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