December 30, 2010

Religion in the American West at the AHA

For anyone who is going to be in Boston at the AHA/ASCH next weekend, there are quite a few sessions on religion (some of them listed here and here over at Religion and American History). The list also includes this one, featuring several members of our seminar:

Why Study Religion in the American West?
AHA Session 218, Saturday, January 8, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM, Room 311 (Hynes Convention Center)

A Western Theme to American Religious History?, David W. Wills, Amherst College
Taking the West Seriously in American Religious History, Quincy D. Newell, University of Wyoming
Borderlands Religion and the American West, Roberto Lint Sagarena, Middlebury College

November 18, 2010

Iconoclasm, Western Style

by Sara M. Patterson  

Photo by Doug Crowl

About one month ago, Kathleen Folden drove almost one thousand miles from Kalispell, Montana, to Loveland, Colorado (a town that touts itself as having a thriving arts community), in order to walk into the Loveland Museum/ Gallery and destroy a lithograph with her crowbar. The offending lithograph Folden deemed too blasphemous to be, was an image of Jesus, decked out in a light blue bustier, receiving oral sex. Jesus looks pleased. As she tore the lithograph, one witness noted that she mumbled “How could anyone desecrate my Lord.” Since then, her supporters have likened her to the biblical Jael who, committed to her faith, was “hard as nails.”

Folden was not the only person offended by the lithograph that was only one panel of a twelve-panel, accordion-style piece. About three weeks after the exhibit opened to allow visitors to see the work titled The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals by California artist and Stanford University professor Enrique Chagoya, there was a complaint about the Chagoya lithograph that a city councilor tried and failed to place on the council's agenda. After word got around that the museum had this piece on display, protesters demonstrated outside the museum with picket signs. They believed they did not need to actually see the artwork; they knew that “This is not beauty, this is smut.”  (For an photo of the destroyed art work, visit here.  Visit this site for an image of the original.  Be warned. The image is graphic and may offend some readers.) 

One week after his art was ripped to pieces in the Loveland Museum/Gallery, artist Enrique Chagoya accepted a commission from a Loveland church to create a portrait of Jesus Christ, which he will do free of charge. Jonathan Wiggins, the head pastor at Resurrection Christian Fellowship, emailed Chagoya to inquire about his intentions in the original artwork. Chagoya responded with his explanation that the lithograph was a critique of the institutional church rather than Jesus himself. After the email correspondence, Chagoya said that he considered Wiggins his friend. Wiggins accepted Chagoya’s explanation and invited him to create a newer (and tamer) depiction of Jesus.

How does this relate to our discussions of religion in the American West—aside from the obvious answer that this is a western artist, whose artwork was displayed in the west and supported, protested and destroyed by westerners? It seems to me that these incidents are very much tied to what Tisa Wenger identified in her November 3, 2010 blog as the “power of religious imagination to shape local and national identities.” The rhetoric of the Loveland protesters clearly revealed that they perceived Chagoya as a religious outsider, one who could not be tolerated in Loveland, Colorado, a place they believed had Christian values that were not being protected by the local, tax-funded museum. And yet, the choice of the Resurrection Christian Fellowship Church to accept Chagoya’s new artwork—a piece of artwork done for free and with “no disrespect” to Jesus—allowed him to be reaccepted into the community. He was expelled as a “sodomite” and a “sinner” and reaccepted as a repentant believer. The narrative that allowed for his inclusion was deeply embedded in the narratives of evangelical Christianity. "I hope it's just a new beginning,” Chagoya said. His repentance of sorts was an indication that he could be welcomed; he could be a Lovelander, a westerner, because he promised not to sin again. 

News articles related to this incident:

November 17, 2010

Call for Papers!

If you haven't seen this call, check out this panel being put together for the Western History Association:

November 9, 2010

Topic for Discussion: “God in America” Goes West

by Tom Bremer

The recent PBS documentary “God in American: How Religious Liberty Shaped America" has received much attention, both critical and laudatory, from historians of American religions—see, for instance, reviews at Religion Dispatches (and this one); at The Immanent Frame; at Religion in American History (and this one; and yet another); and at the New York Times.  One criticism has been the scant attention to religion in the American west.  How might the American west have been better integrated in the narrative of “God in America,” and how would it have been a different kind of story if the religious history of the west had been more prominent?

November 3, 2010

Religion in the American West Seminar Meeting

by Tisa Wenger

It was great to see so many people at our seminar session in Atlanta! We had four very interesting papers to discuss:

1.    Travis Ross, “California Imagined: The Pacific Expositor and the Religious Imagination”
2.    Jonathan Olson, “Not Merely Asiatic but Pagan: Religion, Chinese Exclusion, and the American West”
3.    Barry Alan Joyce, “Creating an Axis Mundi in the American Southwest: Religion, Science, and the Sacred at Chaco Culture National Historic Park”
4.    Brett Hendrickson, “Mexican-American Religious Healing and the American Spiritual Marketplace”

For anyone who wasn’t at the session and would like to read the papers, they are available to seminar members through the website’s members-only page (link in the blog sidebar). I gave a longer-than-it-should-have-been response to the session, which I thought I’d share in condensed form here on the blog. Reflecting on common themes that ran through some or all of these papers led us to a broader discussion about what key themes might distinguish “religion in the American west” and what contributions our work can offer the broader fields of U.S. western history, religious history, and religious studies more generally.

One common theme was the power of religious imagination to shape local and national identities. The first two papers focused on nineteenth-century Protestant public discourse. Ross gave us a close reading of a California Presbyterian newspaper to show how its writers developed a particular vision of Californian identity as they spoke to national debates around slavery, denominational vs. ecumenical efforts, and religious liberty. Olson showed us the power of religious discourse, and religious “othering,” to shape national political debates—in this case, how Protestant politicians in California deployed religious rhetoric to justify exclusionary legislation aimed at Asian immigrants at the end of the century.

The second set of papers examined tensions and points of convergence in more contemporary or perhaps “postmodern” contexts of religious hybridity and diversity. Joyce’s paper provided a finely layered discussion of competing religious narratives and practices laying claim to Casa Rinconada at Chaco Canyon, where National Park Service personnel attempt to negotiate compromises that honor strikingly different understandings of this space put forth by Pueblo Indians, Navajos, and New Age practitioners. Should New Age uses of the space be prohibited when they are offensive to American Indian traditions, or does the principle of religious freedom give them the right to use this public space? What happens when Navajo sacred histories, and Navajo understandings of how the space should be used, are deeply offensive to the Pueblo Indians who trace their ancestry to those that built this ancient city? Joyce asks, “Who decides under the bureaucratic, institutional umbrella of First Amendment rights which narrative becomes part of the cultural canon and which is denied admittance?”

Finally, Hendrickson’s paper, a study of curanderas who work across racial/cultural boundaries in the southwest borderlands, showed us the power of religious imagination and practices of healing to cross borders. Here, Mexican-American curanderas reshape and perhaps re-indigenize their practices in order to appeal to multiple audiences and especially New Age Anglos who, in Hendrickson’s analysis, are predisposed through an ongoing American metaphysical tradition to these hybridized healing modalities. Here, without minimizing the ongoing power disparities that shape these exchanges, Henrickson shows us how the power of religious imagination may be invoked to provide healing across all sorts of boundaries.

My conclusion proposed several broad rubrics (none of them original to me) for thinking about religion in the American west.

·      Exploring the distinctive forms of racial and religious pluralism that are characteristic in this region
·      The particular salience and visibility of Native American traditions
·      The significance of LAND and PLACE for understanding religious practices, experience, and traditions in the west.
·      Mapping RELIGIOUS GEOGRAPHIES: region, regional identities and traditions as crucial to the study of religion. We can draw here on the work of cultural geographers and others who have done significant work to illuminate the cultural significance of place and geography.
·      GLOBALIZATION as a crucial emphasis in current scholarship across the humanities. How can we place our analysis of regional religious geographies in the context of globalized patterns of trade, communication, immigration, and religion?

·      The role of religious imagination in constructing regional identities
·      The place of the west in national and global religious imaginations

Please share your thoughts in response these comments, and your suggestions for additional rubrics and themes.

October 22, 2010

Atlanta, 2010

This year's meeting of the Religion in the American West seminar will center around four papers exploring constructions of identity, especially in the Southwest and California.  The papers under discussion examine the role of religion in constructing and complicating regional and national identities, sacred sites, and religious rituals. In addition to discussing the critical issues that each paper raises, the seminar discussion will also focus on ways that the four papers taken together highlight the distinct contributions the American West makes to understanding American religion. Seminar attendees are asked to read the four papers in advance; they are available for seminar members through the “Members Only” page of our website (  Enrolled seminar members should have received an email with instructions about accessing this page; those interested in attending who are not yet enrolled should contact for more information accessing the papers via the website.
The Seminar Meeting will take place during the 4:00-6:30pm session on Saturday Oct. 30. Here is the list of presenters and their topics:
Travis Ross, University of Nevada, Reno
Sectionalism in California’s Religious Periodicals: Place in Religious Rhetoric
Jonathan William Olson, Florida State University
“Not Merely Asiatic but Pagan”: Religion, Chinese Exclusion, and the American West
Barry Joyce, University of Delaware
Creating an Axis Mundi in the American Southwest: Religion, Science, and the Sacred at the Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Brett Hendrickson, Arizona State University
Mexican-American Religious Healing and the American Spiritual Marketplace
Following the discussion will be a business meeting, in which we will chart our direction for the remaining two seminar meetings.
We hope to see in you in Atlanta!

August 31, 2010

In Memoriam, David Weber

by Tisa Wenger

This has become a summer of loss—of the passing of giants in the history of the American west. As many of you reading this blog will already have heard, David Weber, who defined the field of southwest borderlands history, died at his home in New Mexico on August 20 after a long battle with multiple myeloma.

I first encountered Weber’s work in a graduate seminar on Religion in the Colonial Atlantic World. Although his primary interests were not in religion, his book The Spanish Frontier in North America (1992) included a wonderful chapter on the role of missionaries in the northern frontiers of colonial New Spain. More important, the groundbreaking quality of his work—its incisive treatment of a subject largely ignored by previous generations of historians—swept away a whole host of misconceptions and helped us all see why the borderlands mattered as an integral part of U.S. history. His work helped inauguarate the now thriving field of borderlands studies, and helped a new generation of American historians understand our work in the larger context of the western hemisphere.

A few years after that seminar, I was privileged to learn to know David when I held a postdoctoral research fellowship at Southern Methodist University’s Clements Center for Southwest Studies, which he founded and directed. Coming to SMU as a relative outsider to the worlds of western history and the southwest borderlands, I was deeply grateful for David’s welcoming kindness. He was a generous mentor to me, during and well beyond that fellowship year—as he has been to many others—and we will all miss him.

David was the author of more than seventy articles, and wrote or edited twenty-seven books. He was past president of the Western History Association, and the only American historian elected to membership in both the Mexican Academy of History and the Society of American Historians. In May 2003, he was knighted by order of the King of Spain, receiving the Encomienda de la Orden de Isabel La Católica; and in February 2005 he was named to membership in the Orden Mexicana del Águila Azteca (the Order of the Aztec Eagle), the highest award the Mexican government bestows on foreign nationals.

David is survived by his wife, Carol Bryant Weber of Dallas, a son and daughter-in-law, a daughter, three grandchildren, and three siblings. Memorial services will be held in Dallas, with details forthcoming on the SMU website at Rest in peace, David Weber.

July 30, 2010

Over the summer, we have explored a variety of conceptual frameworks for thinking about the American West.  In an eloquent post, Quincy suggested the body as a fruitful lens.  In another post, Tisa reflected on the centrality of religious freedom to western residents.  Brett pointed us to the absence of religion in literature.  As I remarked in the inaugural post, the multiplicity of tropes and metaphors for understanding the American West merely reflects the complexity of religious life in America.   However, thus far we have not explored one trope that seeps through the region's history:  violence.  To that end, I asked Todd Kersetter, author of God's Country, Uncle Sam's Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West to reflect on the way that his text offers critical reflection on the centrality of violence in the religious history of the American West.  Thanks, Todd, and congratulations on the arrival of your daughter, Leah!

God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land:  Faith and Conflict in the American West originated as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Nebraska where my studies focused on the American West.  The Branch Davidian conflict broke out while I was writing a research paper on the Lakota Ghost Dance and the 1890 tragedy at Wounded Knee.  The two incidents contained a number of parallels that struck me as remarkable, but the question that drove my research was, “How could these dramatic episodes of violence involving religious groups unfold in the West, a region so often associated with opportunity, individualism, and freedom?”  Furthermore, I wanted to assess what role religion played in these conflicts and in the West’s history.  I began developing a comparative project and, at the urging of my mentor, John Wunder, added a case study of Mormon-U.S. relations in the 19th century.  I tried to uncover how religion drove Mormons, Ghost Dancers, and Branch Davidians and also how religion influenced responses to the groups by mainstream U.S. society and government.  I think the book’s contributions come in two areas.  First, it brings the discussion of each religious group into larger discussions about religion, region and conquest, and nation.  Second, it tries to draw out the significance of religion in the lives of all people involved in these conflicts, which gets at the often overlooked significance of religion in the West and in the United States.

July 16, 2010

Call for Recommended Reading

by James Bennett

Ok fellow scholars of Religion in the American West (RAWers?), here’s our chance to help shape the way that people understand our budding field of study. Quincy and I, as co-chairs of the AAR Religion in the American West Seminar, recently received this call. Rather than shouldering the burden of representing the field ourselves, we’d like to get your feedback on what titles we should submit:

Religious Studies News Online asks each Program Unit Chair to recommend two to five books which you consider influential, pivotal, seminal, or otherwise important publications in your field — publications that someone within the broad field of religion and theology might be interested in, even if the topic is outside of their area of specialization or concentration. This information will be included in a recommended list of reading under each Program Unit in a new section in the online Religious Studies News website.
So what should it be? What titles would you characterize as influential, pivotal, seminal, or otherwise important publications for the study of religion in the American West?
We look forward to your responses.

July 6, 2010

Archive Envy

by James Bennett

My summer consists mostly of being a stay-at-home dad this year. It is unquestionably time well spent, but that doesn’t mean that occasional sibling squabbling doesn’t send me dreaming of archives! Alas, my forays into archives of religion in the American West will have to wait until the dog days of August, or even September (which is, here on the West Coast, the best weather of the year!). Fortunately, the quarter system (an academic phenomena largely of the West?), facilitates late season archiving when my children are already back in school.

But back to archives: what are some of your memorable archive experiences researching religion in the American West? I’m thinking here not of the biggies (the Huntington, the Bancroft, the Beinecke, etc.), but the little, out of the way treasure troves—not just of documents, but of knowledgeable and friendly archivists. The previously unknown sources (at least to me) that such places might contain is exciting, but there is something stimulating about just working in such an environment.

I’m still in the process of shifting my scholarly energy from the South to the West, so have yet to experience this while working on the West. I did, however, have several such experiences working on my first project. Perhaps the most memorable was the archives of the Josephite Fathers in Baltimore, MD. Father Pete Hogan, who served as the Josephite archivist for over forty years, had collected the largest repository of black Catholic materials in the country, all stored and organized according to a classification system he invented. It was controlled chaos. Fr. Hogan was gracious to a fault, generous in sharing whatever he knew and whatever he had. But for someone used to working in the strictly regulated environment of traditional archives and reading rooms, the Josephite archives were quite a shock: before proceeding down to the basement archive, you could grab and cup of coffee and a doughnut and bring them with you! A visit always included lunch. Once you received the dot-matrix tractor feed sheets of paper showing the classification numbers of the documents you wanted, you just got up, wandered through the basement and pulled the archive boxes you needed off the shelves yourself. If you needed a copy, you copied it yourself. If you needed to work late, you could stay in the basement and turn off the lights yourself when you were done. But most enjoyable, was being part of the banter with Fr. Hogan and his assistants and the recipients of their knowledge and insights. Gentle teasing and insight reminiscing replaced the sacred silence that dominates most reading rooms.

For me, one of the most exciting parts of embarking on a new project is anticipating the new places I’ll do my research. What treasure troves of religion in the American West have you come across?

June 23, 2010

Tribute to Ferenc Szasz

by Tisa Wenger

Anyone who studies religion in the American west owes a debt to Ferenc Szasz, Professor of History at the University of New Mexico, who passed away this past weekend after a battle with leukemia. Memorial services will be held at Albuquerque's First Congregational United Church of Christ next week and at the University of New Mexico in August.

Especially in Religion in the Modern American West (University of Arizona Press, 2000), Szasz helped make the case for the significance of this field of study, and remains among the only scholars to have attempted to sketch its contours. I was fortunate enough to meet Szasz when he spoke at an Arizona State University conference, “Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in the American West,” in the spring of 2006. I remember him from that event as a gracious and generous scholar, eager to support new ventures in the field. Perhaps not coincidentally, that conference eventually sparked the idea for our own Seminar on Religion in the American West, which supports this blog. Rest in peace, Professor Szasz.

June 14, 2010

Wallace Stegner and the (Lack of) Religion in the American West

by Brett Hendrickson

A close friend of mine is a Presbyterian minister. At her church, she leads a book club that reads novels with an eye for religious themes. Not given to twee “Christian fiction,” they read a variety of books that you would find in the Fiction & Literature section of your local bookstore. Nevertheless, my minister friend reports that it often takes some prodding for her parishioners to imagine the religiosity of the fictional characters if these are not engaged in explicit institutional acts such as church attendance, private prayer, or overt devotion.

I suppose she would be frustrated with me as I troll through Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Angle of Repose, all the while searching for mention of religious life in the American West. Angle of Repose, published in 1971, would be a joy for any reader, but it is a special treat for academic historians. The narrator, Lyman Ward, is himself a retired professor of history, and the novel is his account of the lives of his grandparents, Oliver and Susan Ward, who move to various points in the West in the late 1800s. There’s a lot of great material here: Mexican and Chinese laborers, mining boomtowns, Eastern capitalists, incredible and raw nature, and an over-riding mania (on the part of Oliver Ward) to endow the West with a vital, new civilization. What there isn’t is any indication whatsoever of religion. On page 471 of my edition, a couple characters finally see the inside of a chapel, but this is at a blue-blooded New Hampshire boys school to which the Wards have sent their eldest son to study “with the finest teachers, among the finest Eastern boys.” But that’s it. Church in this new West is, at best, a part of fine Eastern culture, sedentary, rarefied, and unsuited for the mountains and valleys of Idaho or California.

Well, ok. Not every author, even very good and influential ones like Stegner, is required to make his or her characters’ religious practices and tendencies available to the reader. And Stegner does share (with remarkable tenderness) the ways in which his characters make meaning out of their lives in the West. They forge relationships with people of different classes and races with whom they would have little interaction in the East, they regard the superlative landscapes around them with awe and industry, and they develop habits that include meditative solitude, so far away from the salons and hubbub of New England. But no praying. No preachments of salvation. No baptism for the babies born in the cabins.

Jackson J. Benson, Stegner’s biographer, wrote a critical introduction to Angle of Repose, in which he states that, “Like The Great Gatsby, [this book] helps us define who we, as a people in this new land, are.” Benson is surely correct—an important image of the West is a place of opportunity that really has no more need for the stuffy and scripted liturgies of Eastern culture, let alone the liturgies of the Church. This image, for all its impact, is misleading and insufficient.

First, there are stuffy churches in the West. But let’s let this be for a minute and say that the West is not as prone to denominational Christianity as other parts of the country. Then what is there? What does “Religion in the American West” refer to? Stegner seemed to have a difficult time imagining compelling answers to this question. A happy condition of our redoubled efforts to study religion in the West is that revisionist narratives of American religious history are not revisionist here. There are no Puritans to gum up the first four chapters of our books. There is no Robert Baird or Philip Schaff to blinker our researches. Like Stegner’s seekers of opportunity, we have something new to reveal.

June 10, 2010

Mormon History Association CFP

by Quincy Newell

The Mormon History Association's 2011 meeting is to be held in St. George, Utah, and the call for papers is already being circulated. Proposals are due October 1. The comments section of this blog might be a good place to find people to round out a session proposal (hint, hint). See the call below!

2011 St. George Utah Conference
Call for Papers
From Cotton to Cosmopolitan:
Local, National, and Global Transformations in Mormon History

The forty-sixth annual conference of the Mormon History Association will be held May 26-29, 2011, at the Dixie Center in St. George, Utah. The 2011 theme, “From Cotton to Cosmopolitan: Local, National, and Global Transformations in Mormon History,” evokes both the specific history of St. George and environs, and Mormonism as a religious tradition more generally.

Once a sparsely populated corner of what became the American Southwest, St. George was founded as part of the LDS Church’s Cotton Mission in 1861. This year’s conference marks the sesquicentennial of the community’s settlement and seeks to highlight the remarkable transformation of the city and the region from isolated outpost to recreation destination. The theme also refers to the transformations of the Mormon tradition, in all of its varieties, from its frontier American origins in the early nineteenth century to its contemporary global presence at the dawn of the new millennium. The conference also aims to further the transformation of Mormon history and historiography from its provincial origins to greater consideration of broader trends, themes, and connections, as well as new interpretations. It is emblematic that St. George, its region, and college were for decades the residence and intellectual home of one of the great change agents of Mormon historiography, Juanita Leavitt Pulsipher Brooks.

The program committee welcomes papers and panels on all aspects of the transformations in the history of the Mormon-Restoration tradition. Studies focusing on the conference location and its environs (from Las Vegas to Colorado City), region-related themes, and/or notable anniversaries, are particularly encouraged. Accordingly, the following topics are of interest: the founding and history of the Cotton Mission (1861); the development of St. George and southern Utah; Mormon perspectives on and involvement in the American Civil War (1861-1865); the history and impact of Dixie College (1911); the environmental and agricultural history of the region, including the use and conflict over resources (particularly water and timber), the founding of national parks, the impact of nearby nuclear testing, and the development of nature-related tourism; and Mormon relationships with Native Americans.

While we encourage presentations related to the conference theme, we also welcome high-quality proposals related to any aspect of Mormon history. The Program Committee will give preference to complete two- or three-paper session proposals, but individual paper proposals and innovative formats will also be considered. Please send an abstract of each paper (no more than 300 words) outlining your argument and sources, plus a short CV (no longer than 2 pages) for each speaker; complete panel proposals should also include a short abstract describing the rationale and contribution of the overall panel, as well as suggestions for session chairs and respondents. Previously published papers will not be considered. Since MHA is particularly interested in fostering a new generation of scholars, generous donors have offered to pay the travel expenses for some undergraduate and graduate students whose proposals are accepted. Students’ proposals should include estimated expenses if applying for a travel grant.

The deadline for proposals is October 1, 2010. Proposals should be sent by e-mail to Hard copies of proposals can also be sent to Matthew Grow, Center for Communal Studies, 8600 University Blvd., Evansville, IN 47712. Notification of acceptance or rejection will be made by January 1, 2011. Additional instructions and information are available on the MHA website at

June 1, 2010

The Tea Party and the West, Pt 1: Land and Christianity

by Brandi Denison

Last week, I drove straight into Tea Party Country—western Colorado, my hometown. I had little choice. I could either stand my political ground and not see my family, or I could see my cousin graduate from high school by immersing myself in the land of Fox News and vacuous political slogans (I was most shocked by a breakfast place’s marquee: Washington and Denver are dirty, take out the trash in November). So, I went. Rather than fighting with my family (although we did that too), I decided to become an amateur anthropologist. My task was to attempt to understand the profound distrust of the current government on its own terms. One of my persisting questions is how and why is there a seamless marriage between pro-business political legislation and Protestant Christianity? William Connolly tackles the same question in his book, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style; however, he leaves many questions unanswered. My hypothesis is that regionalism might be able to shed some light on the seemingly happy marriage between these two powerful entities. After all, Manifest Destiny successfully merged Christianity with westward capitalistic expansion.

Three nodes of Tea Party’s nebulous platform I will focus in the coming posts are land, immigration, and individualism. This post will focus on land and land use.

One only needs to look back to the 2008 election and Sarah Palin’s “Drill, Baby, Drill” slogan for an example of the centrality of land use to the Tea Party movement. The point of land, according to the Tea Party, is to use it. The “proper” use of it will grant the US freedom and independence. Since most of the land-based energy resources are still located west of the Mississippi River—between the natural gas production of western Colorado, the coal in the Great Basin region, and Alaska’s oil reserves—this means that for the Tea Party, western resources are central to America’s continued dominance.

In 1885, Josiah Strong made similar claims about the American West. In the first chapters of Our Country, his notorious anti-immigration treatise, Strong cataloged the American West’s resources and expansive lands. The trans-Mississippi West held great potential for agricultural and ore development. Its obvious application would mean that America’s increased wealth would allow missionaries to reach out to the entire world. But these excessive resources would also serve to civilize the world, because in Strong’s words, “what is the process of civilizing but the creating of more and higher wants? Commerce follows the missionary.”

However, like many peripheral areas in expansionist projects, the promise of land-based wealth was elusive to many westerners. Caught in cycles of energy booms and busts, many towns in the American west bear the marks of hardship. In my hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado, concentric circles of old and new strip malls tell the tales of years of economic drought layered with years of plenty. In between these spaces of commerce are places of worship, which provide anchors for many people caught in these manic waves of feast and famine.

The entanglement of land, religion, and capitalism in the American West is a complicated tale: buoyed by religious exceptionalism, entrepreneurs sought their fortune in the region’s land. Those that won fortunes often left others behind. The same religious ideas that brought them “out west” provided an anchor for those struggling in the wake of capitalistic expansion.

The month-long BP oil spill might turn the tide of this rhetoric, but the connections among land, Christianity as a justification for capitalism, and Christianity as site of refuge are strong and powerful “assemblages.”

May 28, 2010

Launch of Mormon Website

by Brett Hendrickson

Dr. Fred E. Woods, professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, has recently made available a user-friendly website that compiles years of his research on LDS migration.

The website explains the scope of the project:
“The Mormon Migration website offers the inspiring first person accounts of over one thousand international converts who turned their faces toward Zion from 1840–1890. The autobiographies, journals, diaries, reminiscences, and letters link to over 500 known LDS immigrant voyages and they provide a composite history of those who crossed the Atlantic and Pacific, traveling by land and water to gather to Zion. Immigrants from 1840–46 gathered to Nauvoo, Illinois. Beginning in 1847, the Saints, driven west, gathered in the Salt Lake Valley. The immigrant accounts of their travels to the Great Basin describe not only their experiences crossing the oceans, but also their trek to frontier outfitting posts, and entry into the Salt Lake Valley (1847–1869).”

Also included is a growing archive of searchable articles about Mormon migration.

May 27, 2010

NAISA and Blogs to Come

by Brandi Denison

I just got back from the second annual Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference in Tuscon, Arizona. If you haven’t heard about this association, please check it out. NAISA supports cutting edge scholarship on indigenous peoples throughout the world. If this year’s conference is any indication of future success, NAISA will become the primary site for thoughtful and engaging scholarship.

Religious studies folks made a good showing. Most notably, David Walsh, PhD student in religious studies at ASU, won the graduate student paper prize. His paper was titled “Moving Beyond Widdowson and Howard: Traditional Knowledge as an Approach to Knowledge.” Congratulations, David!

My trip “out west” as well as shared anxiety about attending a conference on indigeneity in Arizona has me thinking about the Tea Party as an American West political movement. In the coming days, look for a three part blog on the Wild West of Christianity, Capitalism, and the Tea Party.

May 25, 2010

What is Right and What is Legal: Arizona Mormons

by Brett Hendrickson

According to a recent story in the Arizona Republic, the new anti-immigrant legislation in that state is having a negative effect on Latter-day Saint efforts to proselytize Hispanics. The problem for many potential converts is Russell Pearce. A Republican state senator, he has been the gasoline driving almost all immigration crackdown legislation in Arizona. He is also a Mormon.

Kenneth Patrick Smith, a lawyer and the president of a Spanish-speaking LDS branch in Mesa (Pearce’s home turf and a Mormon stronghold) said, “It's a great disconnect because on one hand the missionaries are out there preaching brotherly love, kindness, charity, tolerance, faith, hope, etc., and then they see on TV a quote-unquote Mormon pushing this legislation that makes them not only . . . terrified but terrorized.”

Another leader in Arizona Hispanic LDS circles, Jorge Pimienta, said, “I don't know Russell Pearce. I don't know where he is coming from. All I know is that what he is doing is not what Jesus Christ taught.”

Naturally, Pearce defends his faithfulness and refers his detractors to The Articles of Faith of the Mormon Church. Number twelve of the thirteen articles reads: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” Illegal immigrants, Mormon or otherwise, cannot follow this article.

This division among the Saints on the issue of immigration presents heaps of fodder for classroom discussion. A short list of topics could include the separation of church and state, the role of authority in Mormon scripture vs. ongoing revelation in LDS immigrant fellowships, and how a global church with U.S. headquarters does or does not monitor and influence public perceptions of the Church.

But my go-to discussion would have to be how far Russell Pearce has deviated from the central Mormon narrative of being a persecuted and unwelcome people in the United States. A little over one hundred sixty years ago, Mormons en masse entered what is now Utah but was then Mexican territory (without papers) to get away from the sort of intolerance for difference that Pearce seems to be promoting. On the other hand, Mormon leaders from Joseph Smith on down have been keen on participating fully in American government, and there is no doubt that the United States has a very unique place in Mormon self-understanding.

So which is it? Is it Mormon to reach out to the dispossessed, even those who are here illegally? Or is it Mormon to stand firmly behind American laws?

May 13, 2010

Environmentalism vs. Indian Religious Freedom

by Tisa Wenger

Yet again, legislation aimed at protecting the environment ends up doing violence to Native American cultural and religious traditions. As reported in Indybay’s online newsletter earlier this week, tribal leaders in California are protesting a new law banning fishing and harvesting activities—including their traditional practices—in special marine protected areas along the state’s north central coast. Above all this is an issue of environmental justice. Environmentalist goals needs to be pursued in ways that allow indigenous cultures to flourish—especially when the cultures in question have historically maintained sustainable practices.

This story is also important for understanding the dilemmas of Native American religious freedom, as well as the intertwined histories of land and religion in the region—two important topics for the study of religion in the American west, as Quincy Newell reminded us in her post just a few days ago. The Indybay piece reports:

Members of the Kashia Pomo Tribe and other tribes are now banned from their traditional seaweed, abalone and mussel harvesting grounds by the creation of a massive new no-take marine reserve off Stewarts Point in Sonoma County.

The reserve is the largest in a network of 21 marine protected areas (MPAs) that took effect on May 1 along California's north central coast under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative.

To mark the final day before the unprecedented closure, tribal leaders held a historic ceremony to bless an area where the Kashia Tribe of Pomo Indians has gathered seaweed, mussel, abalone, clams and fish for centuries. Stewarts Point, called “Danaka” by the tribe, is sacred to the tribe since it is regarded in their creation story as the place where the tribe first stepped on land, according to Eric Wilder, former chair of the Kashia Pomo.

Like Wilder, other Pomo tribal leaders quoted in the article emphasize the religious quality of their relationship with the site. Their story illustrates the disjuncture between indigenous traditions on the one hand, and the concept of religion as framed in American law and governmental practice on the other. As Tribal Elder Violet Chappell put it, “I don’t think the Fish and Game would be allowed to close down a Catholic Church, would they?” Although some exceptions have been painstakingly created, the system is simply not set up to work for land-based traditions. Come to think of it, maybe mainstream America’s lack of any real connection between land and religion is what got us into this environmental mess in the first place.

May 11, 2010

Mojave Cross Stolen

by Brandi Denison

A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court heard a case about a cross that stood in the Mojave Desert--not about the constitutionality of a religious symbol on public land, but about the legality of the transfer of land in order to allow keep such religious symbols. The Court ruled that this transfer was constitutional AND that religious symbols on public land do not violate the establishment clause. Here NPR's story here.

Today, the cross was stolen.

Free Money

by Quincy Newell

Okay, maybe not free. And not for everyone. But grad students out there should know about the Sara Jackson award, given by the Western History Association: $500 to support research by an MA or PhD student. There’s also the Rundell award for dissertation research ($1500). And in general, check out the Western History Associations awards, fellowships, prizes, etc. They even have money for us non-student types. Most of the deadlines for the WHA appear to be in mid-July.

May 10, 2010

Summer Reading and Traveling!

by Quincy Newell

Summer has come to the University of Wyoming, even though it doesn’t look like it. (Seriously: the National Weather Service is forecasting snow for later this week.) So in the grand blog tradition of summer list-making, I have two questions for you readers out there:

1. Reading: what books and articles related to religion in the American West are you looking forward to reading this summer? What would you recommend to other folks interested in the topic? Because it’s not fair to ask questions without answering them, here are my responses (in reverse order): I’m a perennial fan of Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s essay “Eastward Ho!” (in Retelling U.S. Religious History, edited by Thomas A. Tweed). I also really like Steven W. Hackel’s Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis, which examines the encounter between California Indians and Spanish Franciscans at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in California. But this summer I am gearing up for a class on Mormonism (to be taught next spring) and a project on Mormonism (already well underway), so I’m going to be reading mostly about – you guessed it – Mormonism. I’d love to hear your recommendations on that topic as well, but I don’t want this post to get too distracted. So stick to the “Religion in the American West” recommendations for now. If I have time, I’m also going to check out a couple titles I ran across in our library recently: Catholicism in the American West: A Rosary of Hidden Voices, edited by Roberto R. Treviño and Richard V. Francaviglia (University of Texas at Arlington, 2007); and Blake Allmendinger’s Imagining the African American West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005).

2. Traveling: Summer is the season of travel for many of us. What sites do you think are most important to, most illustrative of, or just downright coolest when it comes to, religion in the American West? I have often lamented the fact that I became an Americanist – it’s tough to justify research trips to exotic locales (though Hawai’i might count), and the chances of leading study abroad trips or getting to go to conferences in cool places are pretty slim. But with Americans tightening their belts and staycations becoming standard fare, suddenly the American West is looking a lot better! I also have an ulterior motive here: I’ve pondered the possibility of a summer course incorporating a travel component, but I’ve not yet figured out a coherent set of sites to visit. So what would you suggest? For me, Devil’s Tower would certainly be on the list, and if my travel budget were unlimited, so would Jesus Mountain. We can’t forget Salt Lake City, of course, and if there are any LDS temples opening in the west, a temple tour would be de rigeur. (The LDS Church lists temple openings on their website – pretty handy.) Then there are the Spanish missions in California and the Southwest. I know the most about San Francisco de Asís (a.k.a. Dolores), so I would be tempted by that one – but the archaeology is probably better at Santa Barbara, and I could probably be persuaded to forgo California altogether in favor of Texas or another Southwestern state. But this is just me dreaming. Where would you recommend, and why?

Let’s hear it, people! Leave your top picks, wish lists, and idle speculations in the comments!

May 7, 2010

Religious Bodies & Western Landscapes

by Quincy D. Newell

I’ve been pondering bodies in the American West lately. Religion is, of course, often understood as an intellectual, doctrinal matter – it’s about what you believe. We struggle, in religious studies, to get our students (and sometimes our colleagues!) to remember that religion is about more than this – that there are literal bodies involved. Right now, as I write this, my students are my living, breathing reminder that bodies are involved in everything we do. Even the most intellectual exercise, like the final exam my students are taking, is a physical activity as well as an intellectual one. I look around and I see students stretching hands that have wearied of writing; cracking knuckles and bouncing legs; raising hands and asking for relief from the most physical of discomforts – tissues for running noses, bathroom breaks for full bladders. Religion is about bodies – bodies born, bodies dying, bodies dancing, kneeling, joining hands, giving voice to creeds and chants and prayers and songs. But that’s religion around the world – I’m wondering if thinking more about embodiment can help us understand religion in the American West. What’s special about religious bodies in the American West? Perhaps it’s just because I live in Wyoming, but I think the environment has something to do with it – the problem of adapting these religious bodies to an environment that is not prima facie suited to human habitation, or adapting that environment to habitation by religious bodies.

The West has long been an object of attention for environmental historians, and it’s an environmental shift that some historians use to define the boundaries of the region. I’ll not rehearse the “where is the West?” debate here – it seems to have gone dormant, and it’s best to let sleeping dogs (and dead horses) lie. I’ll merely remind you, dear reader, that some scholars have seen environmental factors such as the lack of rainfall as the primary, defining characteristic of the region. That and other characteristics made this place a forbidding one for human settlement. Of course, various groups of Native Americans lived in the West quite successfully for eons. But places like Laramie, where I live and work and where, even in early May, we have snow banks and days full of wind gusts topping 50 miles an hour (two days ago they were warning of 80-mph winds in the western part of the state) -- as I say, places like Laramie have only been the sites of year-round human habitation since the late 19th century.

The last century or two have seen humans in the West progressively distance themselves from, and then fetishize, this harsh environment. Jared Farmer’s book On Zion’s Mount, which Tisa Wenger wrote about here not too long ago, explores one example of this progression in detail; Lynn Ross-Bryant’s work on religion and the national parks explores others. There’s a religious aspect, then, to the way humans relate to the environment out here in the West that seems to be missing – or at least less prevalent – in the east. The explanation for this seems simple: eastern landscapes don’t threaten human lives the way western landscapes do.

National Public Radio recently ran a remembrance of Floyd Dominy, the man responsible for the Glen Canyon dam, who died last month at the age of 100. (Listen here.) The same kind of non-specific environmental religiosity that values places like Mount Timpanogos and Yosemite National Park ran through the piece – but in an apparently opposite way. Dominy declared himself the “messiah” of water development and Elizabeth Arnold describes his enthusiasm as “downright evangelical.” Here, the environment was not fetishized so much as demonized: humans needed saving from this parched landscape, and Dominy saved them. He tamed the land by controlling the water – and along the way he flooded the harsh, wild landscapes that outdoors enthusiasts and environmental activists cherish. In part, it was Dominy’s work that allowed humans to separate themselves sufficiently from their environment to be able to fetishize it subsequently. (Those who extol the spirituality of the southwestern desert landscape, for example, live well-hydrated lives because of Dominy’s dams.)

There’s a lot more to religion in the American West, of course. But, especially in the early years of white settlement in the West, I think the relationship between religious bodies and their natural environment bears scrutiny. Weber tells us that religions and economic systems shape one another, but religions and natural environments also have effects on one another. Dominy’s sense of himself as a “crusader” was surely shaped by a Christian ethos that took God’s command in Genesis 1:28 to “subdue” the earth (I’m using the language from the KJV) as justification for altering the natural environment to make it suitable for human habitation. Other readings of Genesis and other scriptures have undergirded environmental movements. And surely the environment has guided religious peoples’ interpretations of their scriptures. Would the Mormons have placed so much emphasis on the prophecy that the desert would “bloom like a rose” if they had ended up in the Pacific Northwest (where it rains a lot)? It seems unlikely.

May 5, 2010

Arizona Immigration Law

By Brandi Denison

“Arizona” is a word that is now spoken with utter disdain, at least in my circles and perhaps in yours too. Unless you have been hiding under a rock, Arizona Immigration Law SB 1070 and the subsequent arrest of American-born truck driver has inspired a range of opinions—that we should boycott the state and it’s products or that we should support the state for acting on an issue that the federal government has stalled on. National conversation about the immigration law provides a moment of visibility to religious activists, as well as a moment for us to reflect on Arizona’s complicated history with immigration, race, and religion.

Randall Stephens pointed readers of the Religion in American History blog to an interview with Catholic Bishop Gerald Kicanas as a way to help us gauge the religious response to this racist law.

Bishop Kincanas has been a long time advocate for immigration reform through the ecumenical movement “No More Deaths,” a non-profit organization dedicated to treating immigrants as human beings—including an effort to making water available to people who attempt the dangerous walk across the Sonora Desert. This organization makes the “radical” statement that “humanitarian aid is never a crime.” While it might be easy to associate this immigration law with loosely veiled religious and political conservatism, No More Deaths reminds us of the counters of religious responses to hot-button issues.

As an emerging American Religions historian, I can’t help but think about Arizona’s complicated history with the United States and the role of Catholicism and Protestantism in the efforts to assimilate Arizona into the Union. In the last 150 years, Arizona has been at the heart of national debates around the oft-cited, vacuous concern of the “direction of our country.” Race and religion have been at the center of these national debates.

Just as a reminder, Arizona was admitted as a state in 1912—the last of the “lower 48.” Less than a hundred years before, Arizona was a part of Mexico. Once the United States military occupied Mexico City during the Mexican-American War, the northern portion (including parts of Colorado, California, Arizona, and New Mexico) became United States Territory. Arizona silver mines tempted Eastern entrepreneurs, but “marauding Indians” and the US government’s inefficiency at protecting US citizens concerned these pioneers and stalled their colonial enterprises. In a familiar “Westerner” move, Arizonians blamed the federal government for their local problems and took matters into their own hands. They responded to perceived federal neglect by forming a militia to fight the Apache Indians who raided settlements.

Arizona remained peripheral to the nation’s problems in the years leading up to the Civil War, but the question of Arizona’s slaving holding status again centered national questions on the periphery. During the Civil War, Arizona became part of the confederacy. Pulled into turmoil over 1,000 miles away, the imagined “Arizona” became a site upon which moral debates were enacted and fought.

In the years after the Civil War, former abolitionists (mostly Protestant) turned their reformation energy into assimilating a variety of “new” United States citizens, including former Mexican citizens and particularly southwest Native Americans “tainted” by Catholicism. These reformers were responding to national concerns that the admission of Arizona as a state would change the direction of the country. Thus, assimilation of these non-white Catholics was the highest priority. Arizona again became a threat because of its provinciality.

Once again, Arizona has become the center of national conversation about the direction of our country by the state government’s attempt to take matters into their own hands. Arizona is once an imagined place for the rest of the country to debate moral issues rooted in race, and again, for many Arizona citizens, a place that feels forgotten by the federal government. It is also again a place where religious organizations are attempting to fill a vacuum, although quenching thirst rather than teaching mechanics and agricultural is the guiding principle today.

I welcome your thoughts about the passage of this bill and the response to it as a moment to reflect on the intersection of race, religion, and politics in the American West.

April 29, 2010

On Zion's Mount

by Tisa Wenger

One of the best books I read this year was Jared Farmer's On Zion's Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard University Press, 2008), which turns the story of a Utah mountain into a profound meditation on the historical processes that create culturally significant places. Refusing to isolate Mormon and Great Basin history, Farmer places this story within broad currents of American history. In Farmer's hands the process of making Mt. Timpanogos into a Utah landmark illustrates, among other things, some of the ways in which Americans justified taking possession of Indian land-dispossessing living Indians-by weaving romantic legends of Indian pasts.

There's a new interview with Jared Farmer just posted at Religion Dispatches. It's well worth looking at whether you've read the book or not, and features some especially intriguing reflections on contemporary Mormon sacred spaces.

April 19, 2010

New Digital Archive for Native American History

The University of Wisconsin has digitized US/Native American treaties and the Annual Reports to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, setting Native American Historians free from hours in front of microfilm machines.

You can find these invaluable digital resources at: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

April 13, 2010

Reflections on Multiplicity, Freedom, and Transnationalism

by Tisa Wenger

In teaching a course titled “Religion in the American West” this semester, I must confess to an occasional frustration with the limitations of this rubric. Some days I’m not even sure why I’ve chosen to configure a course in this way. The western half of the United States (if we can even agree that this is what we’re studying) is just too much, too big, to identify consistent themes that might distinguish its religious history from that of the rest of the country. Rather than constituting one region, it encompasses multiple regions, each with multiplicities of its own. And then it occurs to me that this is precisely the point. We are not engaged in a quest for some unique quality that would separate the West from the rest of the country, or from its multiple borderlands. Rather, as Brandi Denison’s inaugural blog entry also suggested, focusing on the multiplicity of Western narratives may bring new insights and new questions to national, hemispheric, and transnational histories.

For example, I’m thinking a lot these days about the topic of religious freedom in American history. My project is not limited to the West, but my concern with the West significantly transforms the shape of this work. As the United States expanded westward, how did concepts of liberty and the ideal of the free conscience shape Protestant visions of their own role in what seemed to them a divinely ordained drama? When and where did Anglo-Protestant conceptions of “freedom” tend to exclude and/or discipline other modes of religiosity? How did the peoples they encountered—Indians, Catholics, Mormons, Hispanos, Asian immigrants, and others—understand and make use of the religious freedom ideal, and how did it transform them? Were the dynamics of religious freedom different in the West, where in most areas the “mainline” Protestant denominations never established any controlling presence and competed with multiple forms of religious commitment?

Another question I’m pondering involves the relationship between religion in the American West and (buzzword alert!) more global or transnational approaches to religious history. Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s classic essay “Eastward Ho!” (in Thomas Tweed, ed., Retelling U.S. Religious History) reminded us well over a decade ago that a “Pacific Rim” perspective on U.S. religious history would require us to think multidirectionally and even globally about human migration into and across the Americas. This seminar and this blog, I hope, will help all of us to take up Laurie’s challenge and to expand our field of vision so that we’re not only orienting ourselves regionally within the U.S.—but that the American West might also open up new ways of seeing transnational religious networks and movements.

For anyone who happens to find this blog without already knowing about our seminar and/or website, please check out our home site: “Religion in the American West Seminar.” We welcome your comments and suggestions.

April 6, 2010


“But there is the rhizomatic West, with its Indians without ancestry, its ever-receding limit, its shifting and displaced frontiers. There is a whole American “map” in the West, where even the trees form rhizomes.” --A Thousand Plateaus

For a quarter of a century, I called it home. Now, a displaced westerner living in the south, I call it the subject of my graduate study and one of many homes. I was drawn to the history of religions in the American West in part because my experience of religion in the West was not reflected in the narrative of American religions. I became enamored with it because the multiplicity of encounters naturally challenges what Deleuze and Guattari would characterize as the “tree thinking” of old “master narratives.” Histories of the American West constantly resist categorization. For instance, we have difficulty locating the West. Is it geography? Political boundaries? Climate? An idea? Temporal questions also frame our work. When can we begin a narrative of the American West? Does it begin with the immigration of Native Americans from the south or with the Louisiana Purchase? Whose story do we tell and how do we tell it? The American West persistently confounds categories, not because we have not yet found the right ones, but because “master narratives” have never adequately represented the rich religious history of the Americas.

This group blog is a place to initiate a rhizomatic mapping of religions in the American West. With multiple contributors focusing on a variety of places, times, and points of reference, this blog will aim to capture the diversity of narratives and approaches. Contributors will review books and journal articles, reflect on the rewards and challenges of teaching religion in the American West, share syllabi, comment on current events, point out conference paper calls, share primary source documents, and provide informal reflections on the subfield.

In the coming month, look for posts from James Bennett, Roberto Lint-Sagarena, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Quincy Newell, Sara Patterson, and Tisa Wenger.