Judith M. Dinsmore
Last summer, Bethel OPC in rural Carson, North Dakota, packed up their pew Bibles and moved. But not just down the street, nor even to a neighboring town. No, Bethel moved sixty miles away to the city of Mandan. There, they are settling into a big brick edifice with maple wood floors and plentiful Sunday school rooms.
Built in 1920—only two years younger than Bethel’s building in Carson—the Mandan building was in decline when Bethel first viewed it. As soon as the sale went through, the members spent hours stripping carpet, cleaning furniture, and painting walls. In August, they held their inaugural morning worship service in the new sanctuary.
It was the first Sunday morning in years that the doors of the Carson building were shut for any reason other than snow or wind. Having housed services for ninety-nine years, that building has been the site of faithful worship for as long as member Cynthia Swimley, 59, can remember. She attended with her family as a child, and, after moving back to the area in 2008, once again became a part of the church.
“It’s hard,” Swimley summed up. “When you think about all the people who have come in and out of those doors, it just hurts.”
For many years the only OP congregation in North Dakota, Bethel has been both haven and outpost. The Carson building sits by an open field on the edge of town, and, if the windows are open in spring, you can hear meadowlarks in the shelterbelt out back.
Even as the towns around it shifted, Bethel’s doors in Carson stayed open. Even as members and pastors came and went, and children grew up and moved away, the Word continued to anchor the church. As the congregation now moves to the city, the older members encourage the rest to remember how they began.
Riding the wave of settlers at the turn of the century, the Presbyterians planted small churches throughout the state by means of evangelists who would travel miles by stage and team to baptize, teach, marry, and bury the homesteaders. Many of these settlers were foreign-born, lured to the area by the promise of free land, and living in sod houses once they finally arrived.
The Sunday schools the evangelists led in Grant County, North Dakota, resulted in four congregations by 1920. Although for some years served by two ministers, the churches struggled to support even those salaries. In a rural farming community, finances depended on crops, and crops depended on the sun, wind, rain, and insects. In a bad year, everyone hurt. Settlers would move on. The communities were bustling, but transient.
This was the field that Samuel Allen inherited in 1932. A football star on a Philadelphia factory team, Allen dedicated his life to the ministry while face-down in mud on the French front in World War I. When he came home, he attended Princeton and followed his mentor J. Gresham Machen to Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. After graduating, Allen served in remote Montana. Compared to that, Carson, which sat right on the Northern Pacific Railroad, seemed positively urbane. The manse sported not only ceiling lights, but an electric stove and a refrigerator.
Allen rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Wanting to connect the churches, he held weekend revivals with services on Friday night, on Saturday, and again on Sunday. The churches would make food and spend all weekend together. For summer Bible school, kids would pile three-deep in his Ford and sing their hearts out all the way to church, led by Allen’s booming voice. When the OPC (then called the PCA) was formed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in June 1936, Allen tirelessly visited each family in his four congregations to explain what was happening and to urge them to join it.
The vote to leave was unanimous in the churches of Leith and Carson, with two dissenting votes in Lark. (Raleigh declined, and soon after folded.) The document the three churches signed testifies to how well they grasped the issues at hand from sixteen hundred miles away. It begins, “We do herewith renounce the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. because of its sinful and grievous departure from Protestant principles, Reformed Doctrine, and Biblical Christianity.”
The churches signed the document in August, right after the worst heat wave in state history. In fact, 1936 holds the record for the both the lowest temperature (-60° on February 15) and the highest temperature (121° on July 6) ever recorded in North Dakota. The heat wave exacerbated the region’s drought, killing crops and leaving livestock with little to eat. With commodity prices low due to the Depression, ranchers were selling cattle to the government at $2 a head to be slaughtered for canned meat.
The small churches in rural Grant County risked much that summer by cutting themselves off from the coffers of the mainline church and aligning with a scrappy denomination from out east.
The PCUSA quickly took legal action and claimed the buildings of Carson and Lark. Leith, the largest of the three, scraped together the money to pay off the mortgage on theirs—only to have it snatched, now mortgage-free, by the presbytery. Leith appealed, paid for it in full a second time, and kept it.
After being booted out of their property, Carson was meeting in a fire hall. Lark fared better, having accepted the invitation of a small Christian Reformed Church congregation to share their building. In 1939, the Vandenburgs, a Dutch immigrant family, transferred their membership from that CRC to the Lark OPC. When the CRC dissolved soon afterward, Lark officially purchased the structure.
Originally measuring just 28 by 40 feet, it would eventually hold the congregations of all three OP churches. In the forties, it had no insulation, one outhouse, and a hitching post for the horses. The only heat was a coal stove next to the pulpit, which, during the winter, would have to be lit on Saturday to warm the building enough for worship.
“If there were blizzards, we just wouldn’t meet,” longtime Bethel member JoAnn Vandenburg remembers.
In 1953, the congregation purchased land up the hill from Lark. When JoAnn came home from the hospital with her second baby, she saw the church building on wheels being pulled to its new home. The members dug a basement for it and built an entrance, a balcony, and a Sunday school room.
That building was a second home to Cynthia Swimley, also a Vandenburg by birth. “Church was my safe place,” Swimley remembered. “We were such a family.” It was a family that kept kids busy. During a war in Africa, she remembers helping to tear up sheets for bandages. When the missionary collection came around, the kids put in their coins. On quilting day, they would sit underneath the quilting rack and, as the needles came down, whip them around and push them up through to the women above. There were choir rehearsals and presbytery camps to Denver and beyond.
The abundant life in the Lark OPC was what drew Darwyn and Audrey Diehl to the church. They began attending in the seventies. “It was such a busy church; it was such an active church,” Audrey said. “There was something that just radiated from it. I can remember so many people saying to me, ‘Oh—we’d love to go to your church.’” After an evening service in Lark, she remembers, just about the whole congregation would head over to the Vandenburgs’ and keep up the fellowshipping.
There continued to be one pastor for three locations. He would begin Sunday with an early morning service in Lark, travel nine miles up Highway 21 to hold a service in Carson, and then drive the remaining seven miles to Leith for one final service. The evening services would rotate among the churches.
But meanwhile, the thriving communities of the first half of the century were faltering as ranches grew, towns shrunk, and children moved away for better jobs. Even in 1950, funds were scant—the pastor’s salary that year was a mere $3000. Since then, North Dakota’s population has shifted from being primarily rural to primarily urban, emptying or aging almost any town not situated on a highway. In 1973, the Leith OPC began meeting with Bethel. About a decade later, Lark made the same decision. This time, however, the building came with.
“Carson asked Lark to come in, and Lark said that the best way to do it was to move the building,” Audrey remembered. “So they did.” A moving company raised it off its foundation, built a timber crib underneath, put some axles under the timber crib, hooked everything up to a big diesel truck, and hauled it into Carson. The power lines had to be cut or lifted along the way so that the church could squeeze through.
Darwyn Diehl and Richard Vandenburg finished the basement and built another addition to fit it for the needs of the combined congregation. Richard, a rancher and one of ten children of the CRC family from Lark, was not your ordinary handyman. He dropped out of high school during his freshman year, but, after his conversion, started reading Calvin’s Institutes and was a studious Christian for the rest of his life. He even filled the pulpit at Bethel, always using the King James Version, which, as he would say, “I cut my teeth on.”
Richard also sewed cushions for the metal chairs and built by hand an elevator to transport the elderly from basement to ground floor. It lasted for over thirty years, making its trips several times on Sunday and again for midweek study. “It was a good one,” chuckled Darwyn.
Finally, in 2009, the elevator had to be replaced. That same year, Bethel, without a pastor and with a small number of members, was deliberating what course to take.
Bruce Prentice had an affinity for the West after pastoring for a time, like Sam Allen, in Montana. The opening at Bethel caught his eye. When he and his wife, Roberta, first visited Carson on a hot, dry, windy summer day in 2012, they learned that the session hoped to start a work in Bismarck.
“No one knew what it would look like,” Prentice said, “But we knew there was no church of like faith or practice in Bismarck, the capital of the state.” (Bismarck and Mandan are two cities but, separated only by the Missouri river, one urban area.) When Bethel issued him a call, the Prentices purchased a home not in Carson, but in Bismarck.
They began a bible study in their home, and, in February 2015, the group began holding evening worship services at a hospitable Lutheran church in downtown Bismarck. At this point, the combined membership of Bethel was twenty-three.
Prentice found himself trekking in the itinerant footsteps of Presbyterian ministers of old. Each Sunday, he’d travel from Bismarck to preach the morning service in Carson, enjoy a hearty potluck, lead an afternoon study, drive the seventy-some minutes back to Bismarck, and lead and preach an evening service there.
“We were thinking of eventually two churches sixty miles apart: one in Carson and one in Bismarck. But for the time being, we kept the same name, Bethel,” Prentice said. It was a good thing they did. Last year, with the purchase and restoration of the new building, morning services began in Mandan, and all services were discontinued in Carson.
Bethel’s membership in May 2018 almost triples that of three years ago.
Prentice seeks to put credit where credit’s due. “There would be no work in Bismarck-Mandan if Carson hadn’t put up the manpower and the money,” he said. “I’m speaking humanly—God provided all of that, of course. But the folks in Carson put in their treasure.”
It’s Bethel’s legacy, he said: reaching out and seeking to continue the work. Adapting, like the prairie grass bends to the wind.
The conditions that challenged saints in 1918 are still keeping them busy in 2018. Cold weather and blowing snow make travel difficult, especially as some now drive from Carson to Mandan for worship and events.
But the move means that there is a mission field waiting for Bethel. “We need to have a vision for our community,” Prentice said.
On Sunday, the building is busy as Bethel shares the space with one church that meets before them and another that meets afterward. The kitchen still isn’t up to Bethel’s legendary cooking, although they’ve begun fellowship dinners again. There’s much to get used to.
Gradually, however, the building in Mandan is becoming home—to new and old attendees, to the young and the not-so-young.
“It was very, very difficult closing the doors in Carson,” Audrey Diehl concluded. “It’s hard when you’ve gone so long, had wonderful pastors, and had such great history. But in Carson, we were just a few adults. Now we have children again. We have Sunday schools.”
“By God’s grace,” Prentice said, “the church is taking root.”
The author is managing editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, May 2018.