Peter J. Naumann
“Go West, young man and young lady,” has been the assignment given to hundreds of pastors and teachers during the history of the Dakota-Montana District. Following the Lord’s call, they found a big, beautiful country with people needing and wanting to hear the gospel.
Dakota-Montana served as the joint synod’s largest mission field for decades, through the Depression and World War II. That changed with the 1961 fellowship decision and the synod’s sudden need to follow members throughout all 50 states. Still, many past and present pastors, teachers, professors, and synodical officials started their ministries in the district. “They assign them to us so they can learn ministry,” one older member stated.
“Big and beautiful, boom and change” describe the scenery and life in the district, which comprises the states of North and South Dakota, Montana, and the Canadian province of Alberta. There are also a few congregations on the borders of Minnesota and Wyoming. Dakota-Montana contains the majestic beauty of the Northern and Canadian Rockies. Of course, who hasn’t heard of the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore? It seems fitting that this series on the 12 districts ends in Big Sky country.
The district covers the seemingly endless expanse of the northern plains, which contain several desert badlands locations. Arable land is covered as far as one can see with amber waves of grain, sunflowers, and also corn and soybeans. Pastureland is paradise for cattle and honeybees. The former remind a person of Psalm 50:10: “the cattle on a thousand hills.” A marker on the 100th meridian, just east of the Missouri River, says that in the 1800s insurance companies and banks would not loan money any further west because beyond that point was only the Great American Desert. Current residents just smile and keep on working. (Rainfall is measured, however, in hundredths of an inch not in tenths of an inch.)
The district spans 1,233 miles from Yankton, South Dakota, in the southeast to Saint Albert, Alberta, Canada, in the northwest, and 954 miles from Missoula, Montana, on the Idaho border to Moorhead, Minnesota, in the east. Out here it is hard to relate to urban sprawl or overpopulation. The Canadian cities of Calgary and Edmonton are the only cities in the district with a metropolitan population of over one million.
The “boom times” included the waves of European immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s, encouraged by congressional homestead acts. Hardy Reisepraedigern (traveling preachers) followed these determined people to gather them into congregations. Of one such missionary, a son said, “Dad had a hand in starting 43 congregations.” There have also been population spikes brought on by the gold rushes, the railroads crossing the plains, vast supplies of coal, and now the oil and natural gas boom, especially in western North Dakota and northern Alberta.
Change has come in several forms. The railroads helped span and populate the plains. Railheads sprouted towns every ten miles, and towns sprouted churches. Now interstate highways carry people and commerce, attracting jobs and people to different towns. Farms and ranches have changed too. Modern machinery causes today’s family farm not to be sized by acres but by quarters and sections.
Two things of course have not changed: the natural spiritual condition of people and the Lord’s burning desire to reach and save as many as possible. Responding to our Savior’s direction to “go into all the world,” the church, missionaries, and schools have followed the population and pioneers west. And they have not bypassed the local population, as Native American names such as Pourier, Cadotte, Catch the Bear, Trevan, Never-Misses-a-Shot, Handboy, Traversie, Dancing Fox, River, and Hawk witness. Asked why he accepted a call to the far-flung, sparsely populated Dakotas, one veteran pastor replied, “They all have souls too.” Fifty-four pastors and fifty teachers address that need daily with the good news.
Formerly part of the Minnesota Synod, three years after the death of its president and the full amalgamation of the joint synod, the Dakota-Montana District was
formed in 1920. It is currently composed of 73 congregations with 10,103 members. It supports five elementary schools and one high school, Great Plains in Watertown, South Dakota. Though an area Lutheran high school and not supported by the synod, Great Plains is an able and growing successor to Northwestern Lutheran Academy. That former synod preparatory school in Mobridge, South Dakota, thrived for 50 years until 1979 when it merged with Martin Luther Academy, New Ulm, Minn. The new school, Martin Luther Preparatory School, was relocated to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.
The states and province comprising the district have enjoyed low unemployment rates for decades. That is especially true now with the oil boom. Thousands of young people and families are heeding Horace Greeley’s advice. The many new, young families have caused a great demand for child care. District congregations have responded by establishing nine early childhood ministries, with more in the planning stages.
If you are planning a vacation or looking for new job or home in beautiful surroundings, come and take a look at our district. It has much to offer. Some locals refer to it as “real America.” Be that as it may, the Dakota-Montana District is thankful for the gospel and eager to proclaim real wisdom, wealth, forgiveness, and salvation through Jesus Christ.
Peter Naumann served as president of the Dakota-Montana District from 1994–2014. He currently serves the dual parish of Zion, Mobridge, South Dakota, and Saint Jacobi, Glenham, South Dakota.
This is the final article in a 12-part series on the WELS districts.
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Author: Peter J. Naumann
Volume 101, Number 12
Issue: December 2014
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