November 5, 2014

The Papers Are Now Available!

The Religion in the American West Group will be kicking off its first AAR (American Academy of Religion) meeting as an official, permanent program unit with a selection of excellent papers by Rebecca Tatum, Sarah Koenig, Brennan Keegan, and Jason Allen Redden.

The theme for our session, which meets Sunday, November 23, from 9:00 to 11:30am, is “Western Borderlands: Families and Congregations.”

The session’s description is:

In the North American West, there are numerous sites of contact at geopolitical borders as well as at boundaries of race, class, ethnicity, gender, and religion. This session’s papers examine these points of contact and negotiation from two broad vantage points. The first has to do with the birth and care of children and religious understandings of bodies; papers consider the role of Native American wet nurses and New Mexican midwives. The second has to do with the spread of evangelical Christianity in unique Western settings; papers explore missions to indigenous groups in British Columbia and to mining towns in Montana. These papers show that domestic, commercial, and Christian spaces have intersected in the North American West in complex and creative ways.

Following our tradition, the papers are pre-circulated and are available now for you to read carefully. Presenters will give only short introductions to their papers so as to leave ample time for comment and discussion. The official respondent this time around is Professor Colleen McDannell of the University of Utah.

To access the papers, follow these steps:

1.      Join the AAR if you have not done so already. Access to the papers is limited to AAR members.
2.      Go to this website: and scroll done to our session.
3.      Click on the paper titles to read the papers.
4.      Come on Sunday, November 23, with your questions and comments!

We look forward to seeing everyone in San Diego!

October 23, 2014

Book of the Month: Review of David Silverman's Red Brethren: The Brothertown and Stockbridge Indians and the Problem of Race in Early America

Review by Matthew W. Dougherty

David J. Silverman Red Brethren: The Brothertown and Stockbridge Indians and the Problem of Race in Early America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010)

David J. Silverman’s Red Brethren follows two multi-tribal American Indian communities—the Brothertowns and the Stockbridges— whose westward migrations reveal new facets of religion and race in early America. Silverman argues that these communities used Protestant categories and concepts both to make sense of the racial identity assigned to them in early America and to propel themselves from New England to New York to Wisconsin. Like white Americans, they migrated for complex reasons: Federal pressure to sell their land and encroaching white settlement contributed, but so did their desire to form autonomous Christian communities and missionize “heathen” American Indians. Silverman thus contributes to the story of the west by showing that white Americans were not the only ones who migrated because of a belief in their particular divine mission. Although his view of the churches at the hearts of these communities grows fuzzier along the journey west, his tightly-focused narrative retains its power throughout the book.

The shared history of the Brothertowns and Stockbridges began in the 1770s and 1780s when Christian Indians from a number of northeastern tribes settled in two new communities—Brothertown and New Stockbridge—in Oneida territory. The move west was made in the hope that the new towns would be stable bases for cultural survival and missions to their “red brethren” in non-Christian tribes. Silverman argues that the Brothertowns’ and Stockbridges’ belief that they had something basic in common with non-Christian Iroquois indicates that they accepted the racial designation of “Indian,” yet attached their own meanings to it. They believed, for example, that the racial oppression they suffered resulted from of God’s curse for their ancestors’ disobedience of the commandments, and would end when divine justice was satisfied. But their acceptance and modification of the prevailing racial category of “Indian” was not without cost: Stockbridges and Brothertowns who married African-Americans were often excluded from the tribe and claims on tribal land. That internal division grew stronger as the communities moved farther west in the 1820s. Hoping that another move would provide more security from white settlers and another chance at evangelism, the Brothertowns and Stockbridges negotiated a treaty with the Menominee to allow them to settle along the Fox River in Wisconsin. In 1831, however, pressure from the U.S. government and tensions with the Menominee forced them to move yet again, this time to the shore of Lake Winnebago. Fearing that further land cessions would be forced on them unless they made a radical change, the Brothertown voted to abandon tribal status and become U.S. Citizens in 1839. The Stockbridge followed suit in 1843, but “gave back” their citizenship and resumed tribal governance only three years later. Silverman argues that disputes over citizenship in these communities were also disputes about race. Both those opposed to the idea and those in favor of it referred to taking citizenship as “becoming white” and saw it as an abandonment of legal Indian identity, for better or worse. These issues still haunt the Brothertowns, whose petition for federal recognition was denied by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2012 on the basis that their acceptance of citizenship in 1839 had put an end to their tribal identity.
Silverman is fortunate in that the Brothertowns and Stockbridges created an unusually large paper trail. In addition to missionary and government sources, he can draw on the writings of prominent leaders from both communities and on tribal government documents. For the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the copious writings of Brothertown’s founder, Samson Occum, are his main source. After Occum’s death, the paper trail goes on but its character changes: As he follows the story of the Brothertowns and Stockbridges to Wisconsin, Silverman relies more and more frequently on the records of both the tribal and U.S. governments, and has fewer first-person accounts. His choice to focus throughout on the religious and racial self-awareness of community leaders minimizes the shock of the transition, but the loss of Occum as a voluminous, reflective writer and vivid witness does make the latter part of the narrative less immediate and clear-cut.

Silverman’s narrative relies on the category of “Christian Indians” to designate the various Native groups that define themselves at least partly through Christianity in his story. That category fails him, however, in the final chapters of the book. So long as he focuses on New England, the dominance of independent, “New Light” Congregational churches in Christian Native communities ensures that the category “Christian Indian” designates a related set of approaches to religion and community life. As Silverman and other scholars such as Joanna Brooks, Rachel Wheeler, and Linford Fisher have shown, Native-led Congregational churches in New England were in contact with one another, circulated ideas and people, and had distinctive approaches to preserving Native traditions through Christian practice. After the Brothertowns and Stockbridges moved to Wisconsin, however, Baptist and Methodist churches began appearing in their communities, presumably undermining any sense of a unified Christian Indian identity. Silverman’s portrays the development of these separate churches as another sad sign of factionalism (200-202), but doesn’t address how changes in church fellowship and theology might have affected what it meant to be a Christian Indian. For example, did membership in the strongly hierarchical Methodist church constrain Native autonomy more than membership churches governed at the level of the congregation? Did the racial theory of the “curse of God” survive in congregations that moved away from the Reformed theology and Providential view of history underwriting it?  

The fact that we can now ask these questions these about independent Native churches in the west, however, is entirely thanks to Silverman’s groundbreaking work. With careful scholarship and a strong ear for narrative, he has brought to life a story that not only casts light on two remarkable groups whose history challenges many widely-held ideas about American Indian identity, but also persistently and clearly exposes the fault-lines in racial thinking in early America. The re-casting of our stories from the west has brought home the importance of empire, land, and migration as themes in American religious history. Silverman’s book provides a new way of thinking about these themes with a clear, affecting narrative suitable for advanced undergraduates as well as graduate students.

August 14, 2014

“Religion and Empire” Revisited

by John-Charles Duffy

Several months ago, I blogged here about an introductory American religions course I was preparing around the theme “religion and empire.” I’ve completed the syllabus (view it here). While I’m dissatisfied with it in many ways (this is a first run), I am pleased by how the “religion and empire” theme has helped to integrate the American west more firmly into my course’s grand narrative of religion in the United States.

Some West-related highlights:

* “The west” preoccupied Anglo-Americans from the colonial period on, but of course “the west” with which they were preoccupied kept shifting farther west. My students will learn to speak of a “trans-Appalachian” west (Sept. 25) and a “trans-Mississippi” west (Oct. 16).

* In past iterations of this American religions course, I’ve used Samuel Morse’s Imminent Dangers to exemplify antebellum anti-Catholic nativism. This semester I’m using Lyman Beecher’s A Plea for the West (Sept. 23).

* As in past semesters, I spotlight Protestant bids for cultural dominance. In the past, Prohibition has been a central example; also, Protestant reformers’ campaign against Mormon polygamy. The Mormons are still in this semester’s syllabus, but Prohibition got the axe. Instead, I’m spotlighting Protestantism’s role in the subordination of Hawaiians, Mexicans, Native Alaskans, Asian immigrants, and Filipinos (Oct. 2, 14, 23, 30).

* The “new immigration” (1880s-1920s) enters my empire-themed narrative as a look at U.S. religious minorities’ relations with empires abroad. An autobiography of a Jewish emigrant from the Russian Empire is balanced, geographically, by the autobiography of a Japanese Buddhist missionary whose husband was interned during World War II (Nov. 4).

* Our readings on the post-WWII anti-colonialist struggles of Mexican Americans and Native Americans tend to be situated in the trans-Mississippi west (Nov. 11, 13).

* My discussion of religion in the Cold War includes a special focus on the Vietnam War, which in turn includes a Vietnamese Buddhist nun’s account of her trans-Pacific migration to the U.S. as a refugee (Nov. 18).

June 16, 2014

Better Know an Archive: UCSB’s American Religions Collection

by Dusty Hoesly

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). It is one of the oldest such departments at a secular university in the United States, established one year after the Supreme Court’s Abington v. Schempp decision allowed teaching about religion (but not proselytizing) in public schools, and it has been a leader in the field ever since. Well-known faculty specializing in American religions have included Robert Michaelsen, Thomas O’Dea, Phillip Hammond, Ines Talamantez, Catherine Albanese, Wade Clark Roof, Charles Long, Rudy Busto, Ann Taves, and Kathleen M. Moore.

UCSB also maintains one of the finest collections in the world of archival and documentary materials on new religious movements and “alternative” religions. The cornerstone of the library’s Department of Special Collections is the American Religions Collection (ARC), mainly comprised of materials assembled by J. Gordon Melton for his Encyclopedia of American Religions, first published in 1978 and now in its 8th edition. The ARC contains thousands of books and serials, and almost 1,000 linear feet of manuscripts relating to 20th century sects and newer religions, such as Hare Krishnas, the Unification Church, Scientology, the Church of God, New Age groups, Asian religions in the U.S., and mail-order religions. Melton’s manuscript files, containing correspondence, newsletters, flyers, articles, clippings, and ephemera relating to hundreds of such groups, make up the bulk of the collection. Like his Encyclopedia, materials are organized by “families” of religious traditions.

In addition to the ARC manuscript files, some of the other holdings within the ARC include:
·         Bromley Papers: legal case files compiled by scholar David Bromley relating to est, ISKCON, Unification Church, and The Way International, among others.
·         Burnell Collection: materials by Los Angeles-area New Thought leaders George and Mary Burnell.
·         Chicagoland Psychic Archives (1964-1985): materials relating to practitioners of paranormal phenomena in the Chicago area, such as psychics, astrologers, mediums, ghosthunters, and devotees of the occult, UFOs, and parapsychology.
·         Clifton Collection: files about pagan, witchcraft, and occult subjects.
·         Cult Awareness Network (CAN) Collection: files on hundreds of religious groups, as well as internal administrative files of the former cult watchdog group.
·         Hadden Papers: files collected by scholar Jeffrey K. Hadden about evangelical groups and leaders such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Jim Bakker.
·         Russell Chandler Collection: files from the 1960s-1980s collected when Chandler was a religion writer for the Los Angeles Times.
·         Santa Barbara Parapsychology Collection: materials related to parapsychology groups in central coastal and southern California.
Other sub-collections include materials about Ramtha, Estreletta, Worldwide Church of God, World Prophetic Ministry, Children of God, Old Catholics, Krishnamurti, ISKCON, Unification Church, Soka Gakkai International, Goddians, Christian Science, Unity School of Christianity, Swedenborgianism, Foundation for Christian Living, Brotherhood of the White Temple, Process Church of the Final Judgment, and Christian anti-Communism.

If you are looking for a complete run of FATE magazine or a complete set of Jack Chick books, the ARC has them both. Metaphysical serials include Hypnosis Quarterly, Health Alternatives Newsletter, Parapsychology Bulletin, Pagan Dawn, Eck News, and Astrologers’ Almanac, to name just a few. Aside from non-traditional religions and spiritualities, there are periodicals and other materials on a range of Christian sectarian groups, including Pentecostalism, Adventism, and various stripes of Evangelicalism, as well as Asian, African, and Native American religions, plus many more.

Beyond the ARC, the Special Collections department contains other resources useful for studying religion in the American West. For example, the Humanistic Psychology Archives encompasses manuscripts about “spiritual psychology” and related topics, and the J. F. Rowny Press Records collection contains materials from the Santa Barbara-based J. F. Rowny Press, which published metaphysical works. The Ricardo Cruz Catolicos por la Raza Papers (1967-1993) includes correspondence, legal documents, transcripts, and ephemera of Cruz, a Chicano rights attorney and founder of the controversial Católicos por la Raza, which demonstrated against the Catholic Church for its neglect of the Latino community.

Best of all, the library staff is always helpful and courteous, making research in the Special Collections a joy. Curator and archivist David Gartrell, in particular, can locate anything you are looking for quickly, typically offering relevant suggestions about other files which may aid in your research. In my experience, he will even sit with you and comb through manuscripts or serials looking for that one piece you are searching for. One time, he spent twenty minutes with me flipping through the classified ads in the back pages of FATE magazine for a particular advertisement.

In this brief and rather arbitrary look at the ARC and the UCSB Special Collections department’s holdings, I have focused more on the “alternative” and “new” religious movements which gained steam in the 1960s rather than “traditional” or “establishment” religions. I do this primarily because it reflects much of J. Gordon Melton’s collection as well as his scholarship, both of which are the core of the ARC. However, California should not only be seen as a place for “weird” religions, immigrant religions, and religious innovation. It is also a place of mainstream religions, nativism, and religious conservatism. Happily, the ARC contains materials on all of the above and more besides. Next time you’re visiting the American Riviera, stop by, introduce yourself, and surf through UCSB’s Special Collections and especially the American Religions Collection. Scholarly—or other—enlightenment awaits.

June 6, 2014

The West as a de-centering strategy for American religious history

by Thomas S. Bremer

The particular research methods and theoretical perspectives employed in the study of religions in the American west suggest the kinds of questions we ask and the insights we might gain from our scholarly inquiries. But we can also think about the west itself as a particular methodological strategy and theoretical perspective. Used this way, the west introduces a destabilizing element into resilient historiographical paradigms of Christian triumphalism that have burdened the more general field of American religious history. This is an approach I found useful in my recent work writing a textbook on the religious history of America.
The text I have written covers nearly six centuries of religion in America, presented chronologically, while questioning students’ assumptions about both “religion” and “America.” The goal, and the authorial challenge, was to present a “de-centered” narrative that allows students to consider the various ways that people on the North American continent have regarded themselves as religious and as American. One key intention of this textbook is to guide students through the various issues at stake in how people have imagined “religion” and have regarded “America” in ways that have produced normative views of both.

The challenge in avoiding paradigms that imagine religion in decidedly Protestant terms and that present America as the focus of a Christian tale of triumphal destiny is to resist allowing the historical reality of Protestant dominance to overwhelm the narrative by relying exclusively on Christian categories and perspectives for telling the story. The tale I want to present to students needs de-centering strategies that allow for a critical distance on the narration of American religious history. One useful tactic for achieving this is to bring attention early and often to the American west. This approach highlights the multidirectional nature of contact, conquest, and settlement of the continent while mitigating the teleological tendencies of a story that moves inevitably westward toward a conclusion at the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean. In short, my attempt to produce a different sort of story relies to some extent on utilizing the American west as a deliberate strategy for resituating the historical narrative.

The story of the English in America can be an instructive example of how a western orientation can shift the emphasis of the historical narrative. In fact, English claims in North America did not begin in Virginia; before Jamestown, even before Roanoke, the English laid claim to California when Francis Drake spent a month there in 1579. He was attempting to preempt the claims of the Spaniards, the great Catholic nemesis of the Protestant Englishman. Drake’s activities along the Pacific coast of North America draw attention to how English interests were situated in the international politics of religious conflicts; this suggests a different, more expansive context for English colonization. From this standpoint, the internal theological differences within the Church of England that brought Puritan settlers to New England become a secondary, less consequential justification for a Protestant presence in America.

On the other hand, undue emphasis on the west can distort the historical narrative. Yes, the English claimed California before they sent colonists to Virginia, but it remained an empty claim, impossible to enforce and impractical to develop. In contrast, English Protestants who settled in Virginia, New England, and the other colonies established an enduring presence; just as importantly, they introduced religious narratives of providential exceptionalism that have served well the consequent course of nation building in America, with all of its questionable implications and often disastrous consequences.

That traditional tale, with its origins in the Calvinist proclivities of early Puritan colonists, became the conventional historiographical narrative of American religious history, one that has proven remarkably durable. It utilizes the figure of the west most often as the frontier of Christiandom, marking a boundary to be crossed and subjugated. But a different story that reconfigures the role of the western half of North America offers alternative narrative opportunities. The west can serve as an effective strategy for de-centering the tale of American religious history, not as the privileged space for a counter-narrative, but as another point of departure for gaining multiple perspectives on a religious history that cannot be reduced to any particular group or place.