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?