December 26, 2011

Embracing and Subverting Civil Religion in the American West: Japanese Americans during World War II

by Anne Blankenship

In light of the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it seems fitting to reflect on the ways in which minorities sometimes re-imagine—or revise—a country’s civil religion in response to persecution or discrimination. Incarcerated Japanese and Japanese Americans reconciled their commitment to the United States with the nation’s betrayal in a number of ways, but given the time of year, I’ll focus on one: incarcerees used Christmas celebrations to simultaneously demonstrate patriotic loyalty and protest their current treatment.  

In 1942, war hysteria coupled with economic and political pressures led government officials to exile and incarcerate 115,000 Japanese nationals and their children (U.S. citizens) from the Pacific Coast.  A small minority repatriated, but the vast majority wanted to remain in their chosen nation.  

When I began exploring the religious life in Minidoka Relocation Center (a camp of 9,000 in southern Idaho), the quantity, quality and variety of material objects associated with Christmas jumped off the screen. ( is an extraordinary resource for researching or teaching the incarceration.)  Photographs, oral histories and newspapers documented the annual decorating contests between housing blocks.  

Eager for a creative outlet, incarcerees assembled elaborate displays comparable to those found in department store windows.  Some shouted patriotic messages like this portrait of Uncle Sam with Santa Claus. 

Photograph courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration
Others juxtaposed incarcerees’ commitment to the American way of life with their current circumstances.  A two-part display called “Santa Remembers Minidoka” expressed this complexity succinctly.  The first scene, “Seattle 1941,” depicted a family-oriented Christmas scene in a typical American home, while “Minidoka 1942” contained a rough model of the camp set in front of a gloomy Idaho landscape painting.   

Minidoka Christmas Display resembling “Christmas 1941”
Photograph courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Minidoka Christmas Display, “Christmas 1942”
Photograph courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

The display insinuated that the community would have continued celebrating Christmas in an American manner, but was forced to improvise in an impersonal, unpleasant institution.  When outsiders saw photographs of this exhibit in Portland newspapers, I wonder if they recognized the irony or saw what they expected and wanted to see—non-threatening minorities celebrating a quintessential American holiday. 

The Christmas displays were only one example of this phenomenon.  Similar modifications were visible in Christmas cards from Minidoka, one of which transformed a common image—snow covered houses—into a dark, haunting depiction of dilapidated barracks. Muddy paths surround the latter, not a forest floor or wide expanse covered in pristine, glistening snow.  The contrast of light and dark is enough to show observant viewers that this revision of a holiday staple contained a more complex message.

Courtesy of Shosuke Sasaki Collection, via

Minidoka Relocation Center
Christmas in America is not simply a religious occasion, and for the vast majority of Minidokans, the holiday was about doing something American, not doing something Christian.  At most, a quarter of the incarcerees were Christian.  During World War II, Christmas symbolized what the country was fighting for—hope and love, home and family, peace and goodwill toward men—and its observance became a patriotic act.  This sentiment was reflected in the patriotic or secular decorations and participants’ defensive insistence that Buddhists could “do” Christmas just as well as anyone else.  In fact, the men and women who first conceived of the decorating competition were Buddhist, not Christian. 

Readers might object that these displays and cards hardly constitute protest, but I disagree. The U.S. government characterized Japanese American incarcerees as submissive compatriots, but recent scholars argue that retaining cultural arts like ikebana and sumo was an act of resistance.  The Christmas celebrations were a more nuanced expression of resistance and Americanism.  However, I don’t argue that anti-incarceration sentiments were necessarily placed in displays or cards intentionally, but rather that these sentiments organically manifested themselves within creative works.  In Artifacts of Loss: Crafting Survival in Japanese American Concentration Camps, Jane Dusselier argued that artwork enabled incarcerees to “[reposition] themselves in hostile environments.”  Their adaptation of civil religious customs was personalized to match their experience in America.  Decades ago, James Scott urged scholars to look for hidden layers of meaning within the art and literature of oppressed people.  This is one such case.  

Editors' Note: Religion in the American West is happy to welcome our new contributor, Anne Blankenship. Anne is a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina. She will continue her discussion of civil religion in internment camps on Memorial Day, where she will show how incarcerees engaged and transformed the American frontier myth.

December 19, 2011

Tim Tebow: The New Western Man?

by Brandi Denison 

First, a confession. Although I am a Coloradoan at heart, and therefore, a Bronco’s fan, I am only a fair-weather football fan. My knowledge of the game is through osmosis. I have absorbed the rules and rhythms of the game through the hours my dad, uncles, and cousins have spent watching and hoping that the Broncos will recover their former glory. But there is a new man in town and he has caught my attention.

Photo by Mark Seliger
 What? No, not that. I meant Tebowing.

This gesture has started a craze among athletes—ranging from high school players to professionals, including skier Lindsey Vonn. Vonn, a native Coloradoan, said that she would Tebow if she won a race in Colorado (a feat that the world-class skier has never accomplished). When she won her first race in the States at Beavercreek last week, she knelt down in front of her skis. In honor of God? No. When asked why she did it, she said: “Go Broncos. I did it. Got to represent.” 

Many Coloradoans of all religious stripes might be in agreement with Vonn. For fans that have seen their team come so close to glory only to have it slip away in a fumbled football, Tebow is their savior. Tim Tebow fits into a mythic narrative Coloradoans have of themselves and of their sports teams—a little scrappy, but he gets the job done. Except last night, but an SNL skit predicted that this would happen.

But there’s more to Tebow than meets the eye.In addition to being portrayed as the savior of the Broncos, he has been heralded as the new face of evangelical Christianity. For one thing, he has a mythic birth story. In short, according to his parents, Tim Tebow shouldn't be here.

He has caught the attention of non-Christians as well. In an article for the ChristianScience Monitor, Dan Lebowitz, the executive director of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston said:

I happen to be Jewish … and it’s not Tebow versus other religions,” Mr. Lebowitz says. “I believe in a new construct of manhood. You can be tough as heck on the football field, but still be kind, compassionate, respectful of women…. He sends a message that there may be dignity in choosing partners carefully, or respecting your body and someone else’s body as a temple. I respect that.
So, is Tebow, situated in the American West, giving us a new vision of manhood? One that is tough as nails in the workplace, but kind, compassionate, and respectful of women everywhere else? 

No, of course not. Tebow is just engaging a very old idea of American masculinity, popularized by many writers and actors, including John Wayne. Here’s a clip from Rooster Cogburn (the 1975 sequel to the original True Grit), where Cogburn advises Eula Goodnight (played by the “Yankee” Katherine Heburn) on his take on gender and religion. In short, Goodnight asks Cogburn if his name is written in the Book of Life. After some back and forth, Cogburn responds by advising Goodnight to follow the apostle Paul's recommendation that women stay quiet.

Cogburn was tough in a fight but always willing to help ladies in need out. Sounds a little like another popular hero (albeit a mid-western one): 


Truth, Justice, and the American Way are secular ideals that Tebow, among other western heroes, embodies. Wait! You might object, as Tebow is the first to popularize an evangelical message on the national football arena

Oh? Do you remember this guy?

Tim Defrisco/Getty Image
Bill McCartney was the storied coach of the University of Colorado at Boulder football team from 1982-1994. During his tenure as coach, he led the team to win 3 consecutive Big Eight Conference titles. Off the field, though, McCartney worked to fight another battle. 

In 1990, McCartney founded Promise Keepers, an organization whose mission is to: “ignite and unite men to become warriors who will change their world through living out the Seven Promises.” These Seven Promises include supporting men in “building strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values.” Promise Keepers teaches men that they need to be the spiritual head of their household, leading their wives and children into salvation. 

McCartney also participated in another storied birth story—that of Timothy Chase (TC) McCartney, a quarterback at LSU. TC is the son of McCartney’s daughter, Kristy, and one of his football players from the CU team, Sal Aunese. Sal was diagnosed with cancer when Kristy was pregnant. Before Sal died, Bill McCartney led Sal to Christ. You can read the story here. 

I’m sure that this list could go on. Tebow is just one of many other Christian athletes working to use sports to transform images of both Christianity and masculinity. Look for Annie Blazer’s book, Faith on the Field: Sports, Gender, and Evangelicalism in America in the coming months to help contextualize male athleticism within a broader evangelical culture. 

Now, I have to ask. Is this a type of masculinity that we want modeled for us? Tebow’s optimism, sportsmanship, and charity work do seem quite admirable. Indeed, in the face of NFL scandals like Rob Gronkowski’s photo shoot with a porn star, Tebow stands out as a quarterback parents could encourage their kids to look up to. 

However, we need to interrogate even Tebow's version of masculinity. Are these really the only two ways of being a man in the United States today? Neither one is desirable, as both define themselves against subordinating women. On the one hand, women become valued as objects of male desire, but on the other hand, women are powerful only in their capacity to sacrifice themselves  in order to build an evangelical home. In both of these visions of American manhood, women stand behind the men. We do need new constructions of manhood. I'm just not sure that we have found our guy in Tebow.  

December 12, 2011

We're Here. Get Used to It.

by Brett Hendrickson

The semester is ending, but I’m still ruminating on so much of the delicious material presented at this year’s AAR meeting in San Francisco. (Did it seem to you that the respondents this year were terrific?) Of course, one of the best panels was our very own Religion in the American West Seminar, which featured fine scholarship, poised thinkers, another spell-binding respondent (click
here to read Greg Johnson's response), and a hearty discussion. In this post, I want to reflect a little on a portion of that discussion.

At one point in part of the back-and-forth after the papers (which can be found by following
these instructions), a first-time attendee to the Seminar asked something like, “Yeah, but how is it that religion in the American West is a stand-alone topic?” Inwardly, I groaned. Not that it’s not an interesting question—it is—but we have discussed it several times now at the AAR and other venues. It’s just that the discussion in San Francisco had been going so swimmingly, with no existential angst, that I thought perhaps we had reached a moment of self-acceptance wherein we could assume a defensible raison d'ĂȘtre and move forward. But then the question resurfaced. And again this year, I heard many good points defending attentiveness to region in the study of American religion, but when I saw the questioner outside later, she confessed that she remained unconvinced.
So, as an exercise of self-definition, and as a plea that we accept our own basic existence, I offer the following points arguing for the area of study we have named “religion in the American West.” (Since this is a blogpost, not a researched article, I suggest and summarize rather than prove.)

1. Historiography. We have noted a great lacuna in other scholarly literature about the West around the subject of religion. Somehow, others have mostly found a way to tell the story of this region of the world without fully integrating the religious motivations and practices of the people in it. When religion is mentioned, it is dropped in like a quick and mandatory visit to church.

2. Land. We have made the point repeatedly that the mountains, the deserts, the Pacific world, and much of the rest of the western landscape are unique both in scale (big) and in the American imagination. Moreover, the amount of publicly-owned land is comparably much greater in the West, and the national park system originated and still has its largest examples in the region. The connection between religion and this unique land deserves more attention.

3. Native Americans. While indigenous people live in all parts of the American continents, the largest American Indian nations are in the West as are the largest reservations and other populations of Native people. In broad brushstrokes, it is fair to say that the study of living Native American religions and worldviews has been vital in the American West as has been the development of Native American religious rights.

4. Mormons. Sure, they began in New York, but the LDS Church and the American West are utterly entangled. As Greg Johnson confirmed, the Mormons are a real gift to those who study American religions, and it is a special treat that they are headquartered in Utah.

5. Spain and Mexico. Most of the American West was once part of a non-British European Empire (Spain). Later, most of the region was part of another liberal western nation-state (Mexico). Hence, most of the American West, rather than being a colony that threw off its master, is part of our very own American colonial expansion. The West is one of the clearest results of our nation’s own imperial pretensions. As any religions scholar can tell you, empire and religion go together.

6. The Pacific World and Asian Immigration. The western United States is a part of the Pacific Rim and has historically received many immigrants from Asian nations. As a consequence, there is a long and varied history of Asian religions in the region.

7. The Frontier. It goes without saying that “the frontier” as an interpretive category is contested. But the frontier, whatever it is, is intricately connected to religious expansion and expression in the United States.

8. Women. Universal suffrage first surfaced in Wyoming in the mid-nineteenth century, and several other western states gave women the right to vote earlier than the rest of the nation. Women have been important in the missions movement, in various metaphysical groups throughout the region, and in other roles of religious leadership.

9. Pentecostalism. Now a global religious juggernaut, Pentecostalism really got going in Los Angeles. Is it a coincidence that global communication networks and media production also grew to maturity in L.A.?

Finally, as Greg Johnson also helpfully added in San Francisco, it is not necessary that “religion in the American West” be some sort of Platonic form of utter uniqueness. It merely needs to be a fruitful referent for comparative study. It passes that test with flying colors. (Let’s not forget that the AAR has all kinds of sessions that boggle the mind in their specificity. I mean, how much is there really left to say about Schleiermacher?) The existence of this Seminar is proof enough that this is a worthwhile and justifiable endeavor.

How would you add to this list? How would you nuance these suggestions?

December 5, 2011

Book of the Month:

Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt
review by Tisa Wenger

Editors' note: Today we kick off a new feature on the blog -- the Book of the Month. On the first Monday of each month, we'll have a review of a new or not-so-new book that is pertinent to the study of religion in the American West. We begin today with Tisa Wenger's review of Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.

Most of you will already have heard about Darren Dochuk’s widely acclaimed new book, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (W.W. Norton, 2011). This book is already accumulating richly deserved awards: the Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians; and, just announced last month, the Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association, named every other year for “the best book on any subject pertaining to the history of the United States.” Congratulations, Darren!

From Bible Belt to Sunbelt is chock-full of colorful characters and new historical insights that will be of interest to readers of this blog. Dochuk describes the migration of southern evangelicals to California (a move that began during the Depression and accelerated in the 1940s), their conversion to conservative political activism, and their importance in the subsequent emergence of evangelical conservatism nationwide. He does not present the convergence of evangelicalism and conservatism as inevitable in any way, and in fact he shows how volatile and varied these migrants’ political commitments were when they first arrived in California.

Sara’s last post described the discussion at the seminar meeting about whether are or should be making any claims of regional distinctiveness. This question has haunted the seminar, and every time we face it we seem to feel the need to justify our existence, to justify our focus on the West within the field of American religious history. I think Darren’s book helps us move beyond that question simply by demonstrating so well the value of attentiveness to region and to local regional cultures. Indeed he helps us understand not only Southern California but also the “western south” (Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas) where many of these migrants originated, and in far more detail than previous accounts he also shows how important these grassroots conservatives and these regional cultures were for the “religious right” that came to national prominence with Reagan’s election in 1980.

All this raises another one of our seminar’s perennial questions, which does not involve justifying a regional focus, but what seems to me the more substantive problem that there is in fact no single “West.” California is not Utah is not North Dakota is not Texas, and none of these states can be taken as a unitary entity in themselves. There are multiple regional cultures and subcultures within the purview we’ve claimed, and the question is whether bringing them together within the rubric of “Religion in the American West” obscures more than it illuminates. I could ruminate much longer on all this, but I fear I’d be testing your patience as well as moving even further away from the book I’m supposed to be reviewing. So I’ll stop here with a single piece of advice: if you haven’t yet read Dochuk, yourself a favor, and read it. NOW.

More notes from the Editors: Have you read this book? What do you think about it? Join the conversation and leave your thoughts in the comments! If you have a suggestion for a future book of the month, or if you would like to review a book for the book of the month series, please contact us. Next month, Quincy D. Newell reviews Gregory Smoak's Ghost Dances and Identity: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century (University of California Press, 2006).

November 28, 2011

"Building Up What Needs to be Destroyed"

by Sara M. Patterson

One of my favorite comments from the Religion and the American West seminar at this year’s AAR—and, mind you, there were many comments worthy of quotation—was in response to a question posed by a first timer to the seminar: “What makes the West really distinct?”  In asking that question, our visitor tapped into the discussions that we’ve been having for the past four years: what really makes the West distinct?  The first response came from Greg Johnson, this year’s respondent.  He argued that the emphasis shouldn’t be on the really, rather that the West need only be sufficiently different to sustain interesting and on-going conversations.  A second response to the question came from Jim Bennett, co-chair of RAW.  He said that as a group we knew that our regionalism skirted on exceptionalism but that we still felt there was value to focusing our attention on religion in the American West: “We are building up what we know needs to be destroyed; we’re doing both simultaneously.”  I appreciated how well those comments seemed to epitomize much of what the seminar and its participants have tried to do.
Because all four of the papers presented can be found by following the instructions here, I will not attempt to summarize each author’s argument.  Rather, I will try to tease out several themes (or several manifestations of one theme) that I saw surface in this year’s discussion.  I hope that others will respond and explore the themes that stood out to them because this is in no way a comprehensive list. I am encouraged here by the comments given by Greg Johnson, whose response can be found here.  Johnson suggested that the panelists explore secondary order arguments that would promote comparison and cross-talk, while recognizing that comparisons in the past (and today) often function in a bullying fashion, forcing peoples and their spiritual identities into categories that they might not recognize themselves.  Nonetheless, Johnson argued for a cautious exploration of the larger relevance of each of the specific papers’ arguments.
The first theme that stood out to me was the role of “the West” in nation formation.  Several of our panelists noted that “the west” was not always geographically west of wherever the United States was, and yet “the West” was the space on which Americans played out their futuristic, often millennial, hopes for the nation.  As one participant noted, it was in the American imagination what America “ought to be.” This desire to create the ideal “American” (read also Protestant Christian) space, led to some very serious revisionist histories that “disappeared” indigenous peoples and wildernesses (and Muslims and animists in the Philippines), that flat out rejected whatever was deemed “non-Christian” (ie. Groups like Mormons), and re-read, in order to claim, certain histories (such as California’s Spanish, Catholic past).  All of these strategies were part and parcel of the formation of an idealized American identity.  Brandi Denison offered an important caution to our discussion of ‘disappearances,’ one later echoed by John-Charles Duffy: that in talking about disappearances and constructing these activities as the act of disappearing, we may well be participating in our own forms of romanticization.
The second theme that emerged in the papers was the theme of different groups—in these papers Mormons and Jews—claiming an American Indian past in order to foster a particular group identity.  This process stood out most clearly in Sarah Imhoff’s work which analyzed the reasons why supporters of the Galveston movement—a movement to place newly immigrated Jews in the American West—might be interested in the argument that Jews were somehow tied to American Indian ancestry, an argument that had been made since the colonial settlement of the Americas. 
The third theme that is intimately tied to the previous two was the way Catholics, Mormons and American Indians (particularly Utes, in our discussion), played a role in creating these visions of the past, present and future.  As Katherine Moran pointed out, Catholics played a key role in creating a romantic Catholic past in the pacific west, they were integral in portraying themselves as the predecessors of American Protestants.  In a similar vein, the Utes were not passive players in the creation of historical narratives that tied to the present day.  As an example Greg Johnson brought up the fact that the Utes currently own a tiny piece of the area surrounding Mesa Verde even though they have no blood connection to the ancient Pueblo who dwelt there.  Although there is no blood connection, the Utes have set up a hot dog stand where a tourist economy allows them the possibility of connecting with the esteemed and romanticized native past portrayed at Mesa Verde.
The final statement that caught my attention and may not be a ‘theme’ from the seminar this year, but is certainly worthy of note, was Johnson’s claim that Mormonism was “God’s gift to people who study religion.”  The argument behind this comment was simply that Mormon history is so rich and full of data about the founding of a new religious movement.  Johnson encouraged seminar participants to use their own approach to teaching Mormonism as a type of litmus test: If one can’t teach about Mormonism as a serious religious movement, then there “is something wrong with your methodology.”  I think this is an excellent reminder that I will use to end my comments about this year’s seminar. What stood out most to me was that we should be constantly questioning our methodologies while also continuing to explore, compare and make secondary-order arguments.  We should, indeed, continue the task of building up what we know needs to be destroyed.

Editors' note: Stay tuned for further conversation about our recent AAR session!  Did you go?  What did you think?  Leave your thoughts in the comments!  ALSO, coming up next week: Tisa Wenger kicks off our Book of the Month series with a review of Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (W.W. Norton, 2010).

November 22, 2011

Contributors Wanted!

We’d like to keep up the once-a-week posting that we’ve got going on here.  To that end, we asked for blog post pledges Sunday at our seminar meeting.  But many of you did not get to attend the seminar meeting!  This post is for you.  Will you help us keep the blog going at this rate for the next year? 

Blog posts do not have to be long: 200-250 words is plenty, though you’re welcome to write more. 

Blog posts can take a variety of forms:
  • alerting readers to a useful resource
  • reviewing a new or not-so-new book or article
  • ruminating on an idea or event
  • reporting on a recent conference, lecture, or other happening
  • ranting about something at least tangentially related to religion in the west
These are all welcome!  You might come up with something that doesn’t fit any of these categories – that’s great too! 

You do not need any technological expertise to write a blog post: We can help with formatting, illustrations, hyperlinks, and the like – you come up with the idea and the text.  You send it to us as an email or a Microsoft Word document.  That’s it.

Your pledge does not have to be large: Even pledging one post will help.  In fact, if each of us writes a couple posts, we can probably cover the whole year!

WILL YOU PLEDGE?  If you would like to contribute a blog post (or two, or ten) over the next year, please contact us.  Tell us how many posts you’ll write before AAR 2012, and alert us to any conditions or qualifications on your pledge.  (For example, Quincy Newell pledged six posts, not including posts regarding Seminar business.  You might pledge three posts, of which one will be a book review.  Or not – it’s up to you!)  Please note, too, that the Seminar leadership and RAW blog editor reserve the right to refuse to publish any post that they deem unsuitable for the blog.

November 14, 2011

Religion and the WHA

by David G.

Since the advent of the New Western History in the mid-1980s, BYU Professor Emeritus Thomas G. Alexander has frequently commented on the absence of religion in western history. At the WHA conference held last month in Oakland, California, Alexander again raised the issue during the Q&A of a plenary session on the place of biography, environmental history, public history, Native America, and gender within western history. When Alexander questioned why religion was not included in the panel, panel organizers explained that selections were based on submissions to the Western Historical Quarterly, and religion, while not absent from the journal's pages, does not approach the volume of the topics selected for the panel. Afterward, Stanford historian Richard White commented to Alexander that people are writing on religion in the West, but they're not submitting their work to the WHQ.

Alexander's critique of the panel could stand in for a general assessment of religion at the entire conference. While religion was not completely absent, only one panel (on Mormon women) was dedicated entirely to religion as a separate category of analysis. When it did appear in papers, religion was usually subsumed in another field. My guess is that people interested in religion in the West are presenting at different conferences (such as AAR or ASCH), and that most western historians that touch on religion see it as secondary to other categories seen as more “central” to western pasts, such as race, the environment, or gender. 

David G. is a Ph.D. candidate in American history at Texas Christian University, working with Todd Kerstetter. David's dissertation examines the politics of Wounded Knee memory from 1890-1940. He blogs on Mormon history at

November 7, 2011

Religion in the 19th-Century West: Primary Sources Online

by Joshua Paddison

With the proliferation of digital collections and archived newspapers in recent years, it can be difficult to keep track of the online databases of historical primary source materials now available. An added complication is that some offer completely free and open access, while others (noted below) are subscription-based, locking researchers out unless they or their institutions pay the often hefty fee. This is a round-up of online databases I'm familiar with that offer primary sources useful for the study of religion in the nineteenth-century American West. Across them, you'll find a wide and sometimes frustrating array of software systems, visual designs, retrieval capabilities, output options, and search sensitivities.


Nineteenth-century newspapers are treasure troves of information on religion, revealing not only media portrayals of various religious groups but also the practices, beliefs, and rhetoric of the groups themselves via transcriptions of sermons and speeches. With the exception of the Mormons, few if any church-affiliated newspapers in the West (such as the Methodists' California Christian Advocate) are currently available online, however.

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: the gold-standard in terms of ease of use and, in my experience, sophistication of keyword searching, but subscriptions are pricey.

19th Century U.S. Newspapers (Gale Digital Collections): also subscription-based.

America's Historical Newspapers (Readex): subscription-based; notable in that it includes numerous African American and Spanish-language newspapers.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers (Library of Congress): free access but awkward to use in that its output is page- rather than article-based.

Making of America (Cornell University): contains long runs of American Missionary, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, North American Review, and other journals.

California Digital Newspaper Collection (UC Riverside): almost 500,000 pages from California newspapers both urban and rural.

Historic Oregon Newspapers (University of Oregon): almost 20,000 pages from Oregon newspapers, but its lack of an advanced search option makes it difficult to search effectively.

Utah Digital Newspapers (University of Utah): more than 50 Utah newspapers.

Deseret News Collection (BYU): full run of Utah's first newspaper, a weekly until 1898.

19th Century Mormon Article Newspaper Index (BYU): almost 5,800 articles by Mormon and non-Mormon authors about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

19th-Century Publications about the Book of Mormon, 1829-1844 (BYU): fascinating collection of early responses to the Book of Mormon specifically.


The amount of western-related content in these databases vary, but together they offer a staggering amount of material on nineteenth-century American religions, from sermons and tracts to prescriptive literature and hymnals. The challenge is finding what you're looking for among the millions of pages now available.

Google Books:  phenomenally useful and growing daily, with everything from James Mooney's The Ghost Dance Religion to W. J. Colville's The Problem of Life: A Monthly Magazine Devoted to Spiritual Science and Philosophy.

Making of America (University of Michigan): counterpart to the Cornell site, this contains 10,000 digitized books.

The Nineteenth Century in Print (Library of Congress): 1,500 more books.

Sunday School Books: Shaping the Values of Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (Library of Congress): 163 Sunday school books published during the antebellum era, including such gems as The Indian Chief and the Little White Boy from 1857.

Mormon Publications (BYU): 150 books, tracts, hymnals, and other writings by Mormons in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Making use of unpublished manuscript collections in digital form brings different challenges than books and periodicals. Few manuscripts are keyword-searchable at the full text level, forcing researchers to rely on cataloguers' subject terms. Reading nineteenth-century handwriting  can be difficult in the best of conditions, and digital scans are often especially difficult to decipher. It remains to be seen to what extent digitalization can (or should) replace in-person archival work.

Mountain West Digital Library: a digital portal for digital collections related to Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and the Rocky Mountain West.

The Chinese in California, 1850-1925 (Library of Congress): few of the materials here were created by Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans themselves, making this collection mostly useful in understanding how white Americans viewed Chinese "heathenism," especially its materiality (to which Laurie Maffly-Kipp has called scholars to pay more attention).

Oroville Chinese Temple (Bancroft Library): photographs of artifacts from a Chinese Temple in Oroville, California, built in 1863.

Documents Relating to Indian Affairs (University of Wisconsin): contains a run of the Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1826 to 1932 as well as ratified treaties the U.S. government made with the Cherokee, Seneca, Delaware, and other Indian groups.

American Indians of the Pacific Northwest (Library of Congress): photographs and textual depictions of Pacific Northwestern Indians, including religious practices.

Utah American Indian Digital Archive (University of Utah): gateway to government and tribal documents, oral histories, photographs, and maps related to the Northwestern Shoshone, Goshute, Paiute, Utah Navajo, White Mesa, and Ute Indians.

Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life (Bancroft Library): online collections related to Jewish life in the West.

California Cultures (University of California): pictorial and manuscript materials related to racial groups in California; most of the material is from the twentieth century.

Western History Collections (University of Oklahoma): portal to western history-related digital collections at UO, featuring material on the Cherokee, Cheyenne-Arapaho, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole nations.

Mormon Migration (BYU): geared towards genealogical research, this database pulls together  information related to Mormon migration and immigration from letters, newspaper articles, ship logs, and customs reports.

Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869 (BYU): transcriptions and scans of 49 migrants' accounts of the overland journey.

American Westward Migration (University of Utah): 6 diaries and 32 maps documenting Mormons' travel westward in the 1850s.


These collections offer much for the study of religion in the West. Photographs of western churches, synagogues, temples, and religious artifacts provide evidence for scholars of religious material culture, while paintings, drawings, cartoons, and other pictorial representations shed light on religious iconography and popular attitudes.

History of the American West (Library of Congress)

Calisphere (University of California)

Jewish Archives Collection (University of Washington)

These lists are far from comprehensive, I'm sure. Please report online resources I've missed!

October 31, 2011

AAR is Coming Soon!

...And that means we're getting ready for our session, which will be on Sunday, November 20, from 9:00 to 11:30 in the Parc 55 Wyndham hotel's Sutro room. We hope you all will be able to join us!

The theme for our session this year is "Land, Identity, and Transnational Wests." We'll read and discuss four papers: "City Jew, Country Jew: Immigration, Masculinity, and American Zionism," by Sarah Imhoff of Indiana University; "Civilizing the American Frontier: Utah, Kansas, Nicaragua, and American Millenarianism, 1856-1858," by Konden Smith of Arizona State University; "'Playing Indian': Defining American Religion through Ute Land Religion, 1910-1940," by Brandi Denison of the University of North Florida; and "Faith, Place, and Power: Catholicism and the Making of the United States Pacific," by Katherine Moran of the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. 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 and the ways in which religion helps us understand the American West. As in the past, our session will open with brief summaries of the papers from each author, followed by a response to the papers, this year given by Greg Johnson of the University of Colorado, Boulder. That will get the ball rolling for our discussion.

Seminar attendees are asked to read the four papers in advance; they are now posted on the Seminar’s website. Click on the "members only" tab, which should take you to the class management system at Yale where the papers are posted. (This link will take you directly to that site.) Click on the appropriate log-in tab, which for most of us will be the non-Yale log-in. If you have been enrolled as a member of the seminar, you should be able to use the log-in from last year. If you do not remember your password (your log-in should be your email address), there is a "forgot your password" link that should enable you to recover access. Once you have successfully logged onto yaleclassv2 you should see a tab that says "Rel American West" Click that tab and then the "papers" link on the left and should see the folders. If you are not yet enrolled as a member of the seminar, please contact Tisa Wenger to be enrolled.

October 24, 2011

Religion in the News

by Brandi Denison

This past week, several incidents occurring west of the Mississippi have called attention to the way in which the religious diversity of the American West leads can lead to friction.

First, in Roosevelt, Utah, a small town in eastern Utah, police officers used pepper spray against an "unruly" crowd at a high school football game. The Washington Post reported that a group of Polynesian men had come to the came to support a relative, who was playing for Union High School. Union had lost the game, but to rally the team's spirits, the relatives decided to perform the Haka, a traditional Maori dance that has been appropriated by sports teams as a pre-game ritual. You can see a video of the All-Blacks (New Zealand's soccer team) perform it here. Police reported that they did not know the Haka would be performed and were alarmed by the aggressive dance.

This space is no stranger to governmental crackdowns on indigenous dance practices. Roosevelt borders the Ouray-Uintah Ute reservation--a space where, in the early twentieth century, authorities attempted to quell the Sun Dance and other traditional practices.

Second, earlier this month, the Seattle division of Hertz, the car rental company, fired 26 Somali Muslims for failing to clock out during prayers. The Washington Post reported that 34 workers were suspended for not clocking out during breaks, which the company contends includes prayers. Eight employees were reinstated once they agreed to sign out. The union which represents the drivers, Teamsters Local 117, contends that the most recent contact states that workers would not need to clock out for prayers. Seventy percent of the Hertz employees the union represents are Muslim, making this contract dispute significant. Hertz argues that their policy is not discriminatory, but instead, making sure that all their employees are treated fairly. 

This isn't the full story, though. You might think this all sounds familiar. That's because in 2009, non-Muslim Hertz employees in Atlanta sued the company for not requiring Muslim employees to clock out during prayers. Like the Seattle case, the non-Muslim employees in Atlanta were concerned about fairness. Muslim employees, the lawsuit contended, had up to three 15-minute paid breaks a day.

Are these two cases simply about maintaining order and fairness? Or are there elements of racial and religious discrimination in each? What do you think?

October 19, 2011

Faith Healing in Oregon

by Quincy D. Newell

For a long time, people have come to the West to be healed. Whether it’s the high desert air thought to relieve the symptoms of tuberculosis, asthma, and other ailments; the cosmic vortices, thought to concentrate spiritual energy; or the charismatic personalities, able to heal through prayer, the laying on of hands, and other religious practices, healing and the West have gone hand-in-hand in the American imagination.

Aimee Semple McPherson, whose ministry was built in large part on healing, preaching in 1939.  Photo from the Los Angeles Examiner collection, Regional History Collection, via 
Many of those healing practices were, or are, alternatives to the modern medicine of their day. Their scientific validity has been questioned – their practitioners have taken them on faith. 

But faith-based healing is struggling in the West, at least in Oregon, these days. An Oregon jury recently convicted Dale and Shannon Hickman of manslaughter in the death of their newborn son. The Hickmans are members of the Followers of Christ Church, based in Oregon City. (The church also has branches elsewhere in the West, including three in Idaho.)

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, via
The Followers of Christ are a small church with Pentecostal roots. The approximately one thousand members believe in healing through prayer and anointing with consecrated oil – not through modern medicine. The Hickmans’ trial is the latest in a run of several Oregon cases concerning the deaths of Followers children whose lives could have been saved by basic medical treatment.

For many years, the Followers of Christ were protected from prosecution by Oregon laws that granted religious exemption from criminal charges in some cases, including cases of manslaughter and criminal mistreatment. According to journalist Susan Nielsen, this made Oregon “the nation’s most lenient state for parents who let their children suffer in the name of religion.” (That quote is indicative of local discourse surrounding these cases, which are framed in terms of child abuse rather than in terms of religious freedom.)

In 1999, the Oregon legislature narrowed the exemptions, eliminating the spiritual healing defense in cases of second-degree manslaughter and first- and second-degree criminal mistreatment. This year, they passed another law eliminating “spiritual treatment” as a defense against homicide charges and subjecting parents to mandatory minimum sentencing rules. But even before the 2011 legislation, the District Attorney in Clackamas County (which covers some of the suburbs of Portland, OR, including Oregon City) had brought charges against three couples. The Hickmans are the fourth couple in two years to be charged. Seven of the eight people charged have been convicted.

These cases are tragic. Since 2009, parents have been charged in the case of a 15-month old girl who died from pneumonia and another infection; a 16-year-old boy who died of a urinary blockage; a child who nearly went blind in her left eye because of an abnormal growth of blood vessels there (the state intervened and got treatment for her, which the parents may have to pay for); and the Hickmans’ son David, who died from an infection shortly after being born two months prematurely. Concern about the Followers is not new; Time carried an article in 1998 raising concerns about the high mortality rates for children in the group and the extraordinary suffering some endured before death.

The tragedy, I think, can overshadow the extremely complicated nature of the issues at stake here. On the one hand, we have the state’s concern for the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens, its children. On the other hand is the concern of religious people for their First Amendment rights – specifically, the free exercise of religion. On the third hand (Kali seems an appropriate image here) is the question of parental rights – the ability of parents to raise their children as they see fit, without undue interference from the state. The case of Neil Beagley, the 16-year-old boy who died of a urinary blockage, raises a concern for the fourth hand: minors’ own religious convictions, and their ability to act on those convictions.

Neil Beagley at age 14, via
Neil’s parents, Jeffrey and Marci Beagley, were sentenced to 16 months in prison for their son’s death. According to Marci Beagley’s testimony, reported by Nicole Dungca, “As Neil lay in the bed before his death in June, he asked that family members come for a laying on of hands, his mother testified. They asked him if he wanted medical care, but she said he declined.” Some two and a half months earlier, Neil spoke with a Department of Human Services caseworker, telling him that “he had the flu, but was feeling better and didn’t want to go to the doctor.”

In the United States, we have tried children younger than Neil Beagley as adults for taking the lives of other people. Beagley, according to his mother’s testimony, played a significant role in his own death by refusing medical care. His church, to which he was devoted, taught that seeking medical care showed a “lack of faith.” It is not unreasonable to think that Neil believed asking for a doctor might jeopardize his salvation.

Neil learned the beliefs that led him to reject medical treatment from his parents and other members of his faith community. Acting on those beliefs, he essentially foreclosed the possibility of saving his life. His parents claimed that they complied with his wishes based on their understanding (facilitated by conversations with a state-employed social worker) that Oregon law allows children to seek or refuse medical treatment once they reach the age of fifteen. (Technically, the law allows children to seek medical treatment, but says nothing about their right to refuse it. The law also obligates parents to provide adequate medical care for their children.) But notice the apparent paradox into which Neil Beagley and his parents unwittingly walked: the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, allows virtually unlimited freedom of religious belief as well as limited freedom of religious practice. 

The current justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.  Of these nine people, three are Jewish and six are Catholic.  Only two were born west of the Mississippi.
The limitations on practice generally revolve around protection of vulnerable populations (like children) and restrictions on impinging on other people’s rights. It’s basically agreed that you can believe anything you want – that the earth is flat, that the wafer on your tongue is human/divine flesh, that the world is going to end next year, that evolution is a crock. You can also teach your children these beliefs. But, at least in Oregon, if your children – children who are apparently old enough to make decisions on their own, old enough to drive, old enough to hold a job – if those children act on those beliefs in ways that physically harm themselves (but nobody else) – you are liable for criminal prosecution. Jeffrey and Marci Beagley were convicted because their son learned and practiced the religion they taught him.

The Followers, of course, are not the only religious group to teach doctrines that contradict current scientific thought. I’m thinking here specifically of conservative Christians who reject the theory of evolution because it conflicts with their interpretation of the Bible. My friends who are biologists rant every so often about what they perceive as these folks’ hypocrisy, dutifully taking antibiotics when a doctor prescribes them, but rejecting the science on which these drugs are based. Followers eliminate the hypocrisy that drives my friends nutty, but by doing so they open themselves up to criminal prosecution.

Striking a balance between respect for citizens’ religious convictions, the need to protect children, and the desire to raise our children according to the dictates of our own consciences is a difficult task. In the wake of so many childrens’ deaths, Oregon has moved to emphasize the protection of children, giving less deference to the wishes of parents and the concern for free exercise rights.

October 10, 2011

MHA CFP Deadline extended!

Please see the CFP below.

The 47th annual conference of the Mormon History Association will be held a month later than usual – June 28-July1, 2012 at the MacEwan Conference and Events Centre at the University of Calgary. The year 2012 marks the 125th anniversary of the establishment of the first Mormon settlement on Lee’s Creek (later Cardston) in southern Alberta by Charles Ora Card. Furthermore, July 1, 2012 will mark the 145th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation. Originally established in 1875 as Fort Calgary by the Northwest Mounted Police, Calgary has become a thriving metropolitan center to many of Canada’s most successful oil, gas and transportation businesses. So come celebrate with us!

Building upon last year’s theme of global transformations, we intend to capitalize on Calgary’s dynamic setting to invite papers that interpret the Restoration Movement in fresh, new ways. Canada is a richly diverse and cosmopolitan nation and as such beckons the immigration of new viewpoints on Mormon history. International studies of the Mormon experience and comparative studies with other faiths and their environments are encouraged; we also invite research that considers changing perspectives. For instance, how have media and the new era of electronic digitalization influenced the print culture of Mormon history and historical research? What influence has internationalization had on church structures and local memberships as well as interpreting our histories? To what extent has U.S. politics defined the internal understanding of Mormonism? How might various disciplinary lenses such as lived religion, theology, praxis, gender, race and ethnicity shape and reshape our understanding of the Mormon past? Beyond the standard North American perspective, how have local cultures, challenging economics, and national politics affected our interpretations?
The intersection of Canadian and Mormon history also begs scholarly inquiry. For example, how did the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881 impact Mormon migration to Alberta? What unique legal and social challenges did Mormon polygamy encounter in Canada? How does the current debate in the Supreme Court of Canada over plural marriage challenge historical interpretations? How have the Restoration Movements developed in Canada? What of the challenges of secularization?
While we encourage presentations related to the conference theme, we also welcome high-quality proposals related to any and all aspects of Mormon/Restoration history. As a Program Committee we invite proposals for panels as well as individual papers. Innovative formats will also be considered. Please send an abstract of each paper (no more than 300 words) plus a short CV (no longer than two pages) as well as suggestions for session chairs and respondents. Previously published papers will not be considered. Young scholars are especially encouraged to participate. Generous donors have offered to pay travel expenses for some undergraduate and graduate students whose proposals are accepted. Student proposals should include estimated expenses if applying for a travel grant.

The deadline for proposals has been extended to November 1, 2011. Proposals should be sent by email to If necessary, hard copies of proposals can be sent to Richard Bennett, 370D Joseph Smith Building, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602. Notification of acceptance or rejection will be made by December 31, 2011. Additional instructions and information are available on the MHA website at