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


Brandi Denison said...

Thanks, David, for this follow-up on Jim's earlier post about the lack of religion at the WHA. It seems that Quincy's assessment is correct: we are to blame!

For those scholars out there working on religion in the American West, which forums have you found the most fruitful to present your research?

Quincy D. Newell said...

Sounds to me like there should be a special issue of the WHQ on religion in the West. Who wants to organize that? (Part of the problem, of course, is that we're all busy doing other things, or so it seems.) Still, fingers crossed that someone will take David's post as a challenge. #OccupyWHA, anyone?