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. 

May 30, 2014

Tucson’s Shrine to “El Tiradito”


by Brett Hendrickson

On both sides of the international border with Mexico, devotions to so-called folk saints flourish. Some of the major figures include Jesús Malverde, the Niño Fidencio, and—of late (pun intended)—Santa Muerte. Often unorthodox, these figures once operated on the institutional edges of Catholicism, but nowadays, they often extend their power and care over devotees with multiple religious backgrounds and histories. Unlikely ever to gain official canonization, borderlands folk saints nevertheless remain the focus of a great deal of material religious activity. 

It is no mystery why they are so popular. In his book on several of these figures, folklorist and historian James S. Griffith writes:

...these ánimas or folk saints, whatever they should be called, produce results. Many people pray to them or go to séances in which they are channeled because they have “come through” for friends or relatives....[Folk saints] seem to supply hope if not help to many who stand in most need of those commodities (152).

One of the less well-known of these folk saints is El Tiradito, “the little one who was thrown away” in Tucson, Arizona. His current shrine has been operational since the 1920s, but the devotion to him is older than that. Accounts vary as to El Tiradito’s origin, but many mention a man who was killed fighting over a woman he loved.

Last fall, when I attended the Western History Association in Tucson, I made my way to the shrine to explore this living example of folk devotion and negotiation between heaven and earth.

A historical plaque introduces the site and names it “the wishing shrine.”


The shrine itself resembles an open-air adobe side chapel, replete with candle stands and other evidence of use:




The back wall of El Tiradito functions like Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall in that petitioners insert their prayers and desires on little pieces of paper into crevices.


Another visitor had left something for a specific individual, hoping that “a message in a bottle” might do the trick.



Perhaps the most fascinating part of my visit to El Tiradito had to do with one unique group of objects. Near the base of the candles, someone had a left a metal sculpture of a cat’s face. At first I thought this must be the whimsical offering of an artistic cat lover. But then I noticed a red velvet bag near the metal cat. Nudging it open with my foot, I was startled by the mummified remains of a cat. I can only speculate that after someone’s beloved pet died, it was left for El Tiradito as a final act of devotion to both the saint and the kitty.



Like Griffith, I would suggest that special petitions can happen at the shrines of folk saints because the saints themselves in their lives knew the messy passions of love, grief, and longing. As long as these passions persist, places like El Tiradito shrine will thrive as sites of transaction and catharsis. 

April 7, 2014

Bringing Social Gospel Back

Today's post comes to us from Paul Putz, a PhD student at Baylor University. (You can find him on Twitter by tweeting @p_emory or on academia.edu through his page here.)  Paul's post is part of a series of posts at Religion in the American West. We're inviting scholars to write about their research as it intersects with or is shaped by religion in the American West. For more details or to suggest a post, please contact us at: relamwest[at]gmail[dot]com. 

by Paul Putz

The social gospel is back. It never really went away of course, but the notoriously nebulous historical subject is set to be prominent once again in scholarly discussion of American religious history. One reason for this is Heath Carter, a professor at Valparaiso who has a book under contract with Oxford that argues for a “social Christianity” from below, a working-class gospel that developed in Chicago (and other industrial cities) in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and influenced what later became known as the social gospel.

But Carter is not the only one thinking about the subject. At the American Society of Church History’s spring 2014 meeting, Ralph E. Luker, Amanda Porterfield, Wendy Deichmann, Chris Evans, and Rima Lunin Schultz joined Carter to discuss the social gospel; their comments will be published in a forthcoming issue of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture. Others, including Janine Giordano Drake, also have projects related to the topic currently underway.

Reading Carter’s work on the social gospel has caused me to consider how a view from the American West would change our understanding of the social gospel. At the Religion in American History blog, I recently discussed the intersection of the social gospel with the American West, including ground that has already been trod and five possible themes (three of which were inspired by Ferenc Morton Szacz’s work) for future research:

1) Continuity between the social gospel and the clergy’s role in helping to develop postbellum western “instant cities.”

2) Multiculturalism, or moving beyond the black/white racial binary.  Joshua Paddison’s American Heathens, although not about the social gospel, is an excellent example of how a western setting changes how we view race and religion.

3) Ecumenical social work. Did the diverse religious landscape in the West help to foster a more ecumenical spirit?

4) The West was more conducive to women's suffrage than any other region in the U.S. Perhaps the increased political freedom afforded to women in the West shaped the forms that the social gospel took, or led to increased female leadership in social gospel activity.

5) Populism. It was, after all, a former Populist from Nebraska named George Howard Gibson who helped to popularize the term “social gospel” in the first place.

Of course, as a religious “movement” (if we can give it that much coherence), the social gospel has generally been closely associated with the urban Northeast – this despite the fact that early leaders like George Herron and Charles Sheldon operated in the Midwest. But its current historiographical northeastern orientation makes an American West lens all the more important. Work by scholars like Darren Dochuk (From Bible Belt to Sunbelt) and Matthew Avery Sutton (Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America) are good examples of the usefulness of looking at a well-known religious subject from a western setting. Both challenged the dominant grand narrative of American evangelicalism, which for years depicted conservative evangelicals (or fundamentalists) retreating to the cultural margins in the time in between the Scopes Trial and World War II. Using California as a primary setting in their stories, Sutton and Dochuk demonstrated in their own ways that 1930s conservative evangelicalism was much more vibrant than historians focused on the East have imagined.  

There are challenges with any attempt to view the emergence of the social gospel from an American West perspective, not least of which is the problem of defining the very terms “social gospel” and “American West.” But even though a homogenous American West social gospel surely did not exist, the multiple regions and cultures that make up the West can provide new questions and new answers to our understanding of the early twentieth century social gospel. I know of at least one other person who would agree with me (and she’s kind of a big deal at this blog).


On a related and self-interested note, if you are currently working on a project dealing with the social gospel, or if you know of anyone who is, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to email me at paul [underscore] putz [at] baylor [dot] edu.