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 mhameeting2011@gmail.com. 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 http://www.mhahome.org.

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.”