January 9, 2012

Unearthing the "Spiritual Underpinnings of the American West"

a.k.a. The ASCH Recap, Part I
by Cara Burnidge

For those of you could not attend the American Society of Church History’s winter meeting, your presence was certainly missed as we continued the ongoing conversation about the role of religion in the history of the American West.

In a particularly fascinating examination of “Violence and Religion: Nineteenth-Century Massacres in the American West,” Patricia Nelson Limerick, Jan Shipps, Sarah Barringer Gordon, Jennifer Graber, and Walter Nugent led an important conversation that incorporated many themes discussed at the 2011 AAR meeting. (You can review those themes by reading our AAR recap and further discussion.) The two presentations that composed this panel provided a necessary reminder to all historians that studying the American West is an exercise in unearthing a matrix of ideologies that clash as much as they complement one another.

Limerick opened the panel affirming what fellow blog readers and writers have come to assert: religion has been too long neglected in histories of the American West. Co-presenters Jan Shipps and Sarah Barringer Gordon illustrated this point well with their paper, “The Sins of the Fathers: The Mountain Meadows Massacred as a Religious Event.” In a tripartite analysis Shipps and Gordon described three religious ideologies that converged in Southern Utah in the fall of 1857. Beginning with the perpetrators, Jan Shipps untangled the complicated history of the incident. Despite the LDS Church’s previous claims, Shipps asserted that Mormon men—and not Native Americans—attacked unsuspecting western travelers over 150 years ago. Sarah Barringer Gordon built upon Shipps’ account by explaining the religious significance of the event, for Mormons, lay in the doctrine of Blood Atonement. The Mountain Meadows Massacre, despite previous claims otherwise, involved a blending of religious, political, and military ends evidenced not least of all in the Saints' tithing their plunder to the Church.

Gordon then turned her attention to the Native Americans framed for the massacre as well as the victims of Mormon assault. Even though historians tend to focus on Utah as the site of Mormons' religious worldviews, Gordon pointedly reminded her audience that religious commitments to the landscape existed in the area prior to and distinct from Mormon settlement. Not content to focus exclusively on points of conflict, Gordon concluded her remarks by asserting the ways in which these three groups and their ideologies complemented one another. All three groups understood the landscape to hold spiritual significance within a cosmic history; all three relied on revelation and prophecy to determine individual and communal action; and, finally, all three belong to “meta-critical narratives” that demand attention outside of secular chronologies of the American West.

In her presentation, “’The Indians Have No West Point’: The Meanings of Frontier Violence among Missionaries to the Lakota,” Jennifer Graber offered an equally rich re-consideration of an oft-cited event of the American West. Rather than offer a re-telling of the Ghost Dance movement, Graber compared the experiences of two missionaries to the Lakota: Father Francis Craft and Mary Collins. Graber explained that both Craft and Collins believed themselves to be “friends” of Native Americans yet articulated different views about the role of Christianity for the Lakota, especially following the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Father Francis Craft, a Jesuit missionary, considered the Ghost Dance movement as an opportunity to bridge the divide between Christianity and Lakota beliefs. Not merely present at the massacre but wounded during battle, Craft became energized by what he believed to be Lakota openness to a Messiah figure and blood sacrifice. Congregationalist Mary Collins, on the other hand, became convinced that the Lakota had misappropriated Christian doctrine for the Ghost Dance. Absent when the massacre occurred, Collins shifted her attention from being a defender and “friend of the Indian” to being open to the use of force in the process of assimilation. Above all else, Graber demonstrated the distinctions among Christian missionaries particularly when it comes to issues of violence. The proximity of armed conflict coupled with contested Christian doctrines related to violence and blood caused these two Christians to intimately re-consider their own convictions...with very different results. Together Craft and Collins contribute to what Graber named the “spiritual underpinnings of the American West.”

This panel was a welcome reminder that scholars of the American West must be good jugglers. The number of balls the field keeps in the air—a multiplicity of religious ideologies as well as the political, economic, and social forces wrapped up within them—proves that the study of the American West poses a unique challenge that continues to unfold.

In this effort to unearth the spiritual underpinnings of the American West, I leave readers with a particularly rich, if more contemporary example: 

Editors' note: Stay tuned for part II of the ASCH recap, which will be posted in a day or two -- that's right, this week you get EXTRA blog posts, because 2012 is just that great!

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