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!