September 28, 2012

Casual Friday: Social Media

We're happy to announce a new Twitter page! You can find us at RelWest. We'll tweet new blog posts when they are posted on Fridays and Mondays.

If Facebook is more your speed, we've been there for a year. You can find us under "Religion in the American West." The Facebook page has been on hiatus, but you will start seeing notifications for new posts there as well.


The Twitter account has not gone live yet--stayed tuned for further updates!

September 24, 2012

James Sheerin’s Search for the Holy Grail: Perceptions of Religion in the American West

By Dusty Hoesly

While writing a review of Chas. H. Barfoot’s Aimee Semple McPherson and the Making of Modern Pentecostalism, 1890-1926 (2011), I became intrigued by an obscure source on religion in the American West that he cited. In 1923 and 1924, the Episcopalian periodical Southern Churchman published six articles in a series titled “A Little Journey in the West,” written by Reverend James Sheerin (1865-1933), a Scotland-born immigrant who studied theology and served many roles within the Episcopalian church.* Throughout the essays, Sheerin reported on “religious conditions” west of the Mississippi River as he traveled by train, with a particular eye toward the shape and success of Episcopalian churches. For his part, Barfoot focused on Sheerin’s account of McPherson’s preaching and her work at Angelus Temple in Los Angeles. In this post, I will summarize Sheerin’s observations and offer some thoughts about what his writings might say about perceptions of religion in the American West.

Inspired by Richard Harding Davis’ The West from a Car Window (1892), Sheerin sought to explore what religion looked like across the American West. In the beginning of his series, Sheerin clarified that by “the West” he meant west of the Mississippi River, a working definition echoed by many scholars. Starting from Denver, he traveled to Salt Lake City, Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles (and Southern California generally), before returning through the Southwest and back into the Midwest. Unfortunately, the Pacific Northwest is omitted entirely, and the Southwest and Midwest are relegated to only a few snippets in the fifth essay. Most of his observations center on California, which he perceived as the climax of his Western travels. Ultimately, he lamented the “notable lack of external Church signs as one goes West” and, in the end of the series, offered solutions to increase the Church’s influence there. In searching for the Holy Grail of Christian life, he mostly found empty cups and near-empty chapels.

Consistently, Sheerin chided churches in the West, and the Episcopal Church in particular, for low attendance, lack of ornamentation like steeples or towers, and for their general sparseness (especially in agricultural areas). He also lamented that the Episcopal churches he visited catered only to wealthier, educated, urban, East coast immigrants, to the neglect of poor and rural residents. Schools were built before churches, he claimed. These criticisms, like most of his observations, rest on an institutional view of religion, one that focuses on the ratio of church congregants to city populations; the number of churches, hospitals, schools, and seminaries; and the presence of steeples and grand architecture gracing the skyline. The daily spiritual practices of people in the American West escape his attention.

St. John's Episcopal Cathedral, built in Denver in 1911.
Photograph via St. Martin's Chamber Choir website.
In the first article, Sheerin became enamored of Denver, which he called an exception to the lack of outward displays of religiosity he perceived in the West. It was “more religious, artistic and educational in its ideals than most other Western cities,” he wrote. In particular, he delighted in the prominent position of the Episcopal Church there, which he credited to the towering efforts of Bishop H. Martyn Hart. Similarly, he praised the successful ecumenical relationship between Episcopalians and Mormons in Salt Lake City, and he especially regarded the “socialistic” liberal bishops there, chiefly Bishop Frank Spalding, who Sheerin felt “won for the Episcopalian Church the interest of a multitude who are usually indifferent or hostile to organized religion.” In discussing religiosity in the West, Sheerin paid close attention to the unchurched and sought ways to mission to them.

Moving westward through the Sierra Nevada mountains, Sheerin used the sparseness of churches there as the basis of a critique of the Episcopal Church generally. Of Nevada, he wrote, “The whole region is suggestive of merely temporary effort, ecclesiastically or otherwise.” And of Sacramento: “Like it or not, so far as the United States of America are concerned, the Episcopalian Church seems to be chiefly a City Church, and if Christianity in rural districts depended on it, the country would be in a very bad way, indeed.” Even in San Francisco, despite the lasting effects of the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires on church buildings, Sheerin claimed, “Certainly the voice of religion, so far as its outer fabric goes, is less in evidence than that of commerce or amusement.” The familiar narrative of struggling Protestantism—at least in its institutional forms—in the American West is evident throughout his articles. Too bad he never included interviews with people who might have described their religious beliefs and practices; instead, we are left with only his partial impressions based upon low numbers of congregants and church buildings.

Gray Whale Cove, California, via
However, despite the dearth of church steeples dotting the landscape, Sheerin grew more excited as he traveled west, charmed by the natural beauty and theological open-mindedness he found as he approached the Pacific. He argued, “In Denver, outside an aggressive element of excessive Churchmanship, and a tendency to run after healing and other evanescent cults, there seemed to be more of a love of social service than of religious dogma. This better atmosphere seemed to increase as one approached the Pacific Ocean. It may be too fanciful to attribute broadening theologic [sic] influences to oceans, but it does seem to be a fact that the great cities on either coast have a freer intellectual atmosphere than is usual in interior places!” In awe, he asked rhetorically, “Can people live between high mountains and the greatest of waters and remain permanently small in mind?” Many scholars today remark about how scenic grandeur inspires spirituality in the West, and it seems Sheerin was captivated by that same impulse. Out West, according to Sheerin, nature inspires broadened theological horizons.

He continued: “All of this is preliminary to the claim that when one has crossed the great plains and mountains of the Far West, and comes down into the broad, fruitful valleys near the Pacific Ocean, not only does the atmosphere become warmer and clearer, but men’s minds seem able to think in larger ways. There is, therefore, less fundamentalism apparent on the Pacific coast than there is among the corn fields of Illinois and Iowa, big as they are!” Like later scholars, Sheerin perceived a connection between scenic expansiveness and open-mindedness, albeit one that can tip dangerously into freethinking, indifference, and even hostility to religion. He said of Westerners: “They were obsessed with other surging emotions, associated largely with the idea of acquiring gold or mere physical health. A natural assumption would be that as civilization pressed forward towards the Pacific Coast, acting on the impulse that Westward the course of empire takes its way, the old religion would go along in somewhat increasing power, as a legitimate part of any truly civilized race. But it did not, and the inference has to be made that the pioneers were not as religious a people as were those noted by Bishop Berkeley.” As described by Sheerin, the West is a wild place where religion plays a secondary role to acquisitiveness and adventure.

Sheerin lamented that pioneers sooner sought health and wealth than religious devotions even as he praised their theological progressivism. Of the few churches he did discuss, he usually faulted them for their aesthetic failures, wishing instead for the kind of bold, grandiose architecture he found in Boston, New York, and Chicago. As he wrote: “There is a sense of disappointment that church buildings are not so marked a feature of the landscape in the Far West... They are certainly not prominent in Los Angeles.” Sheerin, a liberal who embraced evolution and social reform, enjoyed the tolerant theological views he found in the West, but he also disdained the lack of prominent church buildings that would symbolize the Episcopal Church’s place of prominence in Western civic and cultural life.

St. John's Cathedral in Los Angeles.  This building opened in 1924 and was consecrated in 1925.  Photo from the St. John's Cathedral Picasa album.
Indeed, the only churches he discussed in Los Angeles were those founded by women: “The three most prominent places of worship that I saw in California typify what many call the abnormal in religion. These three are the semi-Hindoo temple at Point Loma, near San Diego; the Christian Science Temple, and Angelus Temple in Los Angeles.” He disparaged Theosophy, and its progenitors Helena Blavatsky, Annie Besant, and Katherine Tingley, as “the most refulgent of all that horde of so-called mystic religions which have swooped down upon the United States since the interesting experiment of a Parliament of Religions, a feature of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, and which sometimes seem most in evidence in Southern California or Boston.” Of Christian Science, founded by Mary Baker Eddy, he claimed that it “undoubtedly represents the most formidable opponent of regular historic Christianity in the last half century.” Sheerin saw nothing good in these upstart religions, partly because they were not orthodox and partly because he found fault with “much-married” women as religious leaders.

Like many commentators, Sheerin focused on the “abnormal” religiosity he discovered in California, which was symbolic of the lack of religious rigor he thought rampant throughout the West. For example, he declared that New Thought thrived in the West more than the East generally, especially in Denver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but not more so than in Boston or New York City. However, he asserted that the “newness is not always so apparent as its disciples assume, nor is it necessarily indigenous to the new California soil.” In the fifth essay, he even chided Western Episcopalian bishops for embracing high church ritualism, such as candles on altars and ritualistic worship. “It is undoubtedly true that the external marks of Churchmanship that came in the wake of the Oxford or Catholic movement are much more prevalent and uniform in the West,” all of which has an “adverse effect on the traveler who prefers less ceremony, and has certainly been a factor in retarding the Church’s growth in the West.” If only the West could be purged of these new religions and the new Anglican ritualism, he argued, then there would be an explosion of religious fervor and Episcopalian preeminence in the West.

Aimee Semple McPherson, preaching at Angelus Temple.  Image source here.
Despite his qualms about women preaching and female leadership of churches, he was captivated by Aimee Semple McPherson, praising her vision, her preaching, and the aesthetic features of her Angelus Temple. Admiring her church above others, he asserted: “We have, then, in Southern California, forms of the three most permanent qualities of religion—the occult, the mystic-healing, and the evangelic-healing. It would not take me long to decide which I should accept as the more permanently useful in bringing on the Kingdom of God. Freakish as it may be in lesser elements, revolting as it often is to the man of culture and scholarship, a larger vision of Christianity, historical or personal, brings one to a belief in the superiority of the type found in the Angelus Temple, Los Angeles, which proclaims itself as the headquarters of ‘the Four-Square Gospel,’ in which conversion and healing are mingled.” He compared McPherson favorably to Billy Sunday, and suggested that the she bested him because she brought “something new in modern evangelism” and “dared to settle down in a great city and build a permanent structure to house, so far as she could, her religious ideas.” Sheerin wrote more about McPherson and Angelus Temple than any other person or place in his series. It is as much a testament to her cultural and religious star-power at the height of her fame as it is to her successful ecumenical ministry.

Returning to his theme of the search for the Holy Grail, he continued: “It was a most natural thing to ask if, after all, this Angelus Temple did not represent the bitter answer to the search for the Holy Grail of Californian life? The churches did not seem much in evidence. Most revivalists had retired in the beauty of their new surroundings. Strange sects seeking some new things were more in evidence than the Christian Church. Here in the midst was a splendid temple, built by a woman, holding thousands, beautiful as the best of churches in its own different way, and packed to the doors day after day by congregations of tourists and local inhabitants eager to hear the messages of a woman whose honest devotion they evidently took for granted.” Pushing against the decline of traditional Christianity that Sheerin perceived in the American West, he located a mecca for up-to-date orthodoxy in McPherson, a bastion of accepted theology and an example of future worship. As many writers have claimed, traditions are reborn in the West, regenerated into new forms that attract new audiences who seek, as Sheerin did, a grail-like, utopian everlasting life.

But, as Sheerin rightly observed, that life comes at a profound cost. While discussing the grandeur of the California mission system, Sheerin reflected at length on the dispossession and genocide accompanying its construction. Perhaps Sheerin’s critique was motivated by his low opinion of high church Anglicanism, rather than a particular vendetta against the Catholic Church itself; regardless, these observations are noteworthy because they document a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant’s censure of imperial religious and territorial expansionism not long after Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier closed. Sheerin argued, “No great city has ever been established without wounds and death of the workers, and these California missions included their share of murder, rape and theft and abuse as shameful as in other corners of a barbarous world. There is reason to suspect that much of this went on against the Indians under the eye of a too forgiving monk.” He went on: “Never once did the exalted missionaries lose sight of that royal-military-kingdom idea of the Church, which always held its sword unsheathed, ready to put to slaughter those who refused to be baptized or who became heretics!”

Sheerin linked this violence against Native Americans to the failure of the Catholic church to successfully convert the indigenous population: “There was nothing in the religion of the little man of Assisi that would have made him countenance for a moment a plan that included a body of priests backed by a body of soldiers coming into a land of entire strangers, camping down on their land, indifferent to the rights of its owners, issuing orders to the original inhabitants as if to slaves, and causing them to forfeit the right to existence if they did not accept the secular and spiritual authority of the intruders! No wonder that the religion ultimately failed, that the Indians died of immoral habits and disease, and that within a century every one of the buildings was a ruin, until somewhat resurrected through the sentimental admiration of American Protestants!” Here, Sheerin triply critiques the Catholic Church. First, he criticizes Catholics for harming Native Americans. Second, he argues that the Catholic Church therefore failed to missionize Native American successfully. Third, Sheerin argued that Protestants induced the Catholic Church to renovate its California missions so that it could benefit financially from tourists, even as it profited from the exploited labor of the indigenous population.

Mission San Juan Capistrano is one of several missions Spanish Franciscans founded in California during the Spanish colonial period.  Image via Wikipedia.
In the mission system, he saw an opportunity where Christianity could have created a semi-socialistic community life, a Christian utopia, but instead he faulted Catholics for degenerating missions into conquests, for replacing the desire to care for Indian bodies and souls with the desire for wealth. Nonetheless, Sheerin concluded that the missions “are at least suggestive of a better city of God than has yet appeared,” and like McPherson’s Angelus Temple, were closer to the “Holy Grail of Christian life” than elsewhere. However, despite his acknowledgment of the evils of forced conversions at the missions, he neglected to censure Protestant missionaries who carried out similar acts and similarly dispossessed, murdered, raped, and otherwise abused Native Americans in the West. Whereas elsewhere he celebrated “Westward Ho!” and manifest destiny ideology for Protestants, he loathed Catholic imperialism. While the story of Catholic relations with Native Americans continues to be explored in the scholarly literature, more work remains to be done regarding other religious groups’ interactions with native peoples.

St. Matthew's Cathedral in Laramie, Wyoming, was constructed between 1892 and 1896.  The towers were added in 1916.  Photo by McBlobb, via Panoramio.
Like his brief observations about religious life in the Mountain West, Sheerin wrote little about the American Southwest or elsewhere towards the end of his series, pausing briefly to discuss low congregant-to-population ratios in Phoenix, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Topeka, St. Louis, and Indianapolis, although in one essay he noted that Wyoming “is our strongest missionary state.” In the Southwest, he bemoaned that the Episcopal Church only had a foothold in the cities but ceded rural areas to the Catholics. And while St. Louis had a centrally-located cathedral, he regretted that it was the exception to the rule of plain-looking city churches.

In the last essay in the series, he proposed a model that, if it were adopted by church leaders, would lead to church growth in the American West. Sheerin described himself as a “Broad-High Churchman,” meaning that he embraced liberal orthodoxy and missionary evangelism. Therefore, he urged the Episcopal Church to adopt local customs and forgo high church ritualism. Instead, he advised Episcopal leaders to encourage inner devotion, missionary zeal, and “ecclesiastical emancipation.” Pragmatism runs through Sheerin’s approach, one that bends orthodoxy towards greater inclusiveness.

Throughout Sheerin’s articles, he displayed a tendency to equate religiousness with institutional forms, be they church steeples or members in pews. Many scholars continue to embrace this description of religion. Missing from his observations are rich descriptions of peoples’ daily lives, the way they integrated their religion into civic activism, tending the land, or preparing meals at home. Although he focused on the Episcopal Church, the other religions he observed are largely lumped together as “abnormal,” a frequent theme in reporting about religion in the West. When Westerners are not seen as irreligious they are often portrayed as weirdos in Sheerin’s essays; even more recognizably Christian religions like Mormonism and McPherson’s Pentecostal evangelicalism are deviants from “traditional” orthodox Christianity as espoused by mainline Protestants. One would think there must be something in the water, given the way he talked about the mind-expanding qualities of the Pacific Ocean. But Sheerin is not alone; many scholars and other commentators have made similar observations. Hopefully, future scholarship about religion in the American West can push beyond these tropes and into new terrain, discovering new stories and new ways of storytelling heretofore undocumented in the annals of the American West. As Sheerin should have realized, there is no grail at the end of the trail, but only the journey and its tale.

*Publication dates include: November 17, 1923; December 8, 1923; December 15, 1923; February 16, 1924; March 8, 1924; and March 15, 1924. In Barfoot’s bibliography and footnotes, he lists October 10, 1923 as the publication date for the first article in the series, but as far I can tell from the microfiche copies I obtained, part one of the series instead appears in the November 17, 1923 issue.

September 21, 2012

Casual Friday: Chican@ history

This is exciting news!

The Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University, has opened to researchers an extensive collection documenting Mexican immigrant and Mexican-American history in Los Angeles. This is the Venegas Family Papers, which consist of correspondence, photographs, immigration records, Roman Catholic realia and devotional literature, and business records, principally related to Miguel (1897-1994) and Dolores (1900-1991) Venegas. The collection guide is on-line at the Online Archive of California.

Themselves Cristeros, the Venegases came to Los Angeles from the Mexican state of Jalisco in 1927 as refugees from the troubles of the Cristero Rebellion (1926-1929). A remarkable run of correspondence from Miguel and Dolores Venegas to relatives in Jalisco from the first five years of their life in Los Angeles (1927-1932) extensively details the challenges and opportunities of their lives as immigrants. The letters offer valuable insights into their work and economic opportunities, family life, recreation, religious practices, diet, health, continued ties with Mexico, and education. Examples of the kind of detail found in the letters include the effects of the Great Depression on the Mexican-American community in Los Angeles and the United States immigration law of 1929.

A letter from Miguel Venegas to his brother, containing (on p. 2) one of the earliest known uses of the word "chicano." From the William H. Hannon Library tumblr.
Almost all the correspondence is in Spanish, often colloquial, with irregular orthography, which in itself is evidence for Spanish linguistics and levels of literacy in Mexico and Los Angeles in Spanish. Striking in the correspondence is the uses of the word "chicano" by Miguel Venegas to describe his United States-born children (the couple had ten). His uses of the word here may constitute some of the earlier written instances of the word.

The collection also treats the history of Mexico. The Venegases' correspondence with relatives in Jalisco contains extensive information on commerce, agriculture, health and medicine, family life, and religious practices from the 1920s through the 1940s in Jalisco. Comments by relatives in Guadalajara on the political situation in Jalisco, both before and after the Cristero Rebellion, are especially valuable for understanding the course of the Cristero Rebellion and its aftermath. Cristero "corridos" (ballads) provide a valuable source for understanding the culture of the Cristero movement.

Photographs in the collection record the social activities and work of this LA family. Noteworthy are those of Venegas family outings to Lincoln Park and the beach in the late 1920s, which provide photographic documentation of the social life of Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles at that time. In addition, there is a strong run of photographs of Guadalajara and Zapotlanejo, in Jalisco, which document work, family life and religious culture, e.g. vacations, masses, and work on a hacienda.

September 17, 2012

Homesteaders and High Holidays

By Sarah Imhoff

On the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur traditional prayers are in the plural: “May it be your will, Lord our God and the God of our ancestors that you renew us for a good and a sweet year,” a Rosh Hashanah prayer pleads. As Jonathan Sarna points out, even the prayers asking for forgiveness during Yom Kippur use communal language.[1] “We” have sinned, and therefore “we” ask for communal forgiveness. These are, at their essence, communal religious holidays.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, marks one of the two high points of synagogue attendance. The other, Yom Kippur, follows ten days after Rosh Hashanah. Jews observe these high holy days as a community, often with hundreds of their fellow Jews. Even many of those who do not set foot in a synagogue during the rest of the year or have decisively left behind other aspects of Jewish life appear.

What would these holidays be apart from the company of others? For Jews in the American west in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, finding or creating a community was no easy feat. Even learning the dates that corresponded to the Jewish calendar would require a letter, a visit, or some kind of contact with other Jews. For Rachel Calof, who became a North Dakota homesteader just months after her 1894 arrival in New York, the early years of frontier life were lonely despite her in-laws crowding into her tiny home. Apart from her husband’s family, she had no nearby Jewish neighbors, let alone a synagogue. Her first decade as a homesteader was hard, and it was hard on her Judaism.

The American west represented a radical departure from most of the rest of Jewish history. These Jews left behind the shtetlach of Eastern Europe, the cities and towns of Western Europe, and neighborhoods in American cities where they found Jewish communal life available, or even the default mode of everyday life. But when they struck out as pioneers into the sparsely populated landscape, the vast majority of their nearest neighbors were non-Jews. The opportunity to convene a minyan (quorum of ten adult male Jews) seldom arose, and ritual functionaries might visit only a few times a year. On the frontier, a Jewish community represented a major achievement, and a rare one at that.

By 1910, the Calof farm had grown significantly, and Rachel and her husband Abraham had become prominent members of their region. In her memoir, originally written in Yiddish, she begins her recollection of this social transformation with an account of the holidays: “Our home became the center for all the Jewish holiday celebrations. Jewish farmers came from far and near to gather at our home for these occasions, some traveling for days by horse and buggy or on horseback. These were wonderful and festive events. Everyone stayed for as long as the holiday lasted. We put up for the visiting children’s sleeping quarters, and in the house sleepers occupied all the chairs and covered the floors.”[2] Calof associated her economic success with her ability to bring together a community for the holidays. Her first recollections about her upward mobility weren’t about material or prestige; they were about convening a Jewish community. Calof’s memoirs and her palpable joy at the opportunity to host a Jewish community—however ad hoc the sleeping arrangements—suggest not that the community gathers together in order to be blessed and forgiven, but rather that the gathering together itself constitutes the blessing.

[1] Jonathan Sarna, A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew, (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 112.
[2] Rachel Calof’s Story (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1995), 85-86.

September 14, 2012

Casual Friday

I snapped this photo while passing through the Columbia Valley in British Columbia, just south of the town of Radium Hot Springs and the southern edge of Kootenay National Park. Does this perhaps mark a notable exception to the characterization of the Pacific Northwest as the "none zone"? Or an indication that the narrative needs to be revised, or at least complicated? (On that note, see Dusty Hoesly's previous post). Or was I slightly north and east of the borders of none?

September 10, 2012

Unearthing the Western Past of Same-Sex Marriage

By Jeff Wilson

I’m a regional thinker, as my recent book Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South attests. And though that book focuses especially on the South, much of my work is Western, since I study Buddhism, and Buddhism has especially been a religion of the American West. So last year when I started working on uncovering the earliest documentable history of same-sex marriage in America, I thought that I was taking a break from regional, especially Western, studies.

Same-sex marriage status in the United States, July 2012, by Greg Stoll. 
Click on the image for a larger view, or go to Greg Stoll's website for the animated version.
The evidence is starting to suggest that I was wrong. At first, the West doesn’t seem like it might be the most congenial place for same-sex marriage to emerge. After all, legal marriage equality appears to be an Eastern thing. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Washington D.C. all recognize same-sex marriage. The record is better on the civil union/domestic partnership front, but still more Eastern than not: Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maine, Delaware, Illinois, plus Washington, Hawaii, and California, with more limited rights also granted in Wisconsin and Colorado. Depending on November voters, same-sex marriage may or may not come to Maine, Maryland, and/or Washington. Here in my adoptive country of Canada, same-sex marriage is fully legal—but the push came especially from Ontario and Quebec.

This map of same-sex marriage rights in Canada is interactive at CBC News.
The situation reverses, however, when we look at religious ceremonies for same-sex marriage. Turns out that the religious milestones of same-sex marriage all occurred in the West. As I discussed in my recent article “'Which One of You is the Bride?' Unitarian Universalism and Same-Sex Marriage in North America, 1957-1972" (in the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History), the earliest clergy-led same-sex weddings I could uncover were Unitarian ceremonies in Santa Monica in 1957. Then there was Troy Perry’s founding of the Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles, where he began performing same-sex ceremonies in 1968. Also that year, Rev. Robert Cromey performed the first Episcopalian same-sex wedding, in San Francisco. By 1970, Revs. Cecil Williams and Lloyd Wake had performed the first Methodist same-sex weddings and Rev. Thomas Maurer performed the first such services for the United Church of Christ, all in the San Francisco Bay Area. As I documented in my article “'All Beings are Equally Embraced by Amida Buddha': Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and Same-Sex Marriage in the United States” (in the Journal of Global Buddhism), Rev. Koshin Ogui began performing what are probably history’s first Buddhist same-sex marriages at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco in the early 1970s.

Main worship hall at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, site of history's first Buddhist same-sex wedding.  Photo by Jeff Wilson.
Meanwhile, across the border, Canada’s first same-sex marriage was performed in 1973 at a Unitarian church in Edmonton, Alberta, followed in 1974 by a very public Unitarian service in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and another at a Unitarian church in Vancouver, British Columbia. And of course, many other major religion and homosexuality milestones can also be claimed by the West, from the first clergyman to come out of the closet (Unitarian James Stoll, in Colorado, 1969) to the first openly gay man to be ordained (William Johnson, in San Carlos, California, by the United Church of Christ in 1972), and so on.

There are exceptions, but the pattern seems to be that the West has produced the earliest religious recognitions of same-sex partnerships, while the East has most consistently produced legal enfranchisement for such couples. Is there something about the West, or at least parts of the West, that allows for greater cultural openness to homosexuality, while failing to support legal equality? Like I said, I didn’t expect to be pursuing a regional project when I got started—but like Michael Corleone in the Godfather series, even when I think I’ve gotten out, somehow I get pulled back in.

September 7, 2012

Casual Friday - Online Resource

Jared Farmer, author of On Zion's Mount: Mormons, Indians,and the American Landscape (Harvard, 2008) has published a free e-book titled Mormons in the Media, 1830-2012. It looks like a great resource for teaching and for research, described as "a free educational e-book archive of nearly 500 images about Mormons and Mormonism in U.S. politics and the public sphere, from Joseph Smith to Mitt Romney."

Mormons in the Media, the e-book's website explains, "considers both outside views of Mormons—including historic anti-Mormon propaganda—and media images promulgated by Latter-day Saints themselves. This topical reference work also features a preface, a fact sheet, a list of suggested readings, and bibliographic citations." The collection comprises a vast range of visual media. 

Check it out!

September 3, 2012

Book of the Month:

Glenna Matthews, The Golden State in the Civil War: Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California

Review by Joshua Paddison

In 1913, California's state legislators voted to install a statue in National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol representing an "honored" person from its past. Each state had the right to install two statues in the "marble senate," and for its first the state legislature made what today seems a surprising choice: Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King. State senator Herbert C. Jones explained that King "did more than any other man to keep California in the union when the civil war broke out."

Glenna Matthews's new book The Golden State in the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2012), the best and broadest biography of King so far published, helps us understand why the minister loomed so large in the public memory of California. Matthews shows that, while it was probably impossible that the state would have joined the Confederacy, King's religious, political, and environmental writings and speeches indelibly shaped the cultural climate of nineteenth-century California.

Born in 1824, King spent his formative years in Boston. When King was fourteen his father, a Universalist minister, died, forcing him to quit school to support his family. However, his voracious intellect and spiritual longings eventually led him to become a Unitarian clergyman, and he found mentorship from a who's-who of New England thinkers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Parker, Horace Greeley, and Frederic Henry Hedge. An ardent abolitionist (though "not consistently antiracist," in Matthews's words), King soon gained a reputation as a stirring speaker on the New England lyceum circuit (p. 234).

Offered posts at Unitarian churches in both Cincinnati and San Francisco in 1859, King opted for San Francisco, undaunted by the fact that it was the only Unitarian congregation west of Missouri. In California at the outbreak of the war, King lectured so often and forcefully on behalf of the Union that he became what Matthews calls a "larger-than-life figure" in the state (p. 92). Attested one onlooker in 1861, "He is a most brilliant orator, his language strong and beautiful. He is almost worshipped here" (p. 92). King moved between different pockets of California's diverse society, preaching in a variety of Protestant churches and for audiences both black and white.

Matthews makes it clear that it was not only King's oratorical skills but his personal connections to other celebrities (not just Boston intellectuals but local literati like Jessie Benton Fremont and Bret Harte) that propelled his fame. Matthews argues that King served as a "cultural broker" between the west and the northeast, promoting the beauty and importance of California to New England readers while introducing Trancendentalism and Boston-style literary salons to San Francisco (p. 132).

King's brand of Unitarian theology--what he called "spiritual Christianity"--emphasized the potential of the natural world to inspire awe, humility, and communion with God. For the Boston Evening Transcript, he wrote a series of appreciations of California's varied landscapes, praising especially the "sweetness and beauty amid the threatening awfulness" he found in Yosemite Valley (p. 139). These writings would influence later generations of Yosemite chroniclers, especially John Muir.

Matthews situates King's experiences within the larger saga of California during the Civil War, devoting chapters to the growth of the Republican Party, various military engagements, and how California gold helped support the Union, among other topics. However, the chapters that focus directly on King are, to me, the freshest and most compelling. It's unclear why Matthews elected to drop him from her narrative as often and for as long as she does.

King died from a combination of exhaustion, pneumonia, and diphtheria in 1864, and his death sent California into mass mourning. "Some 20,000 people thronged the church and its vicinity as King lay in state," notes Matthews (p. 232). It was perhaps California's first celebrity funeral, and his early demise (he was 39) must have helped spread his legend.

Interestingly, the California legislature ended up putting another spiritual leader in the National Statuary Hall alongside Thomas Starr King: Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra. However, in 2009 the state legislature replaced King's statue with that of former governor and president Ronald Reagan. Donald Ritchie, historian of the U.S. Senate, remarked at the time, "I've rarely met a Californian who knew who [King] was." Reagan and King were both Republicans, though I don't know how much else they shared.

Editor’s note: 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, Konden Smith reviews Reid Neilson’s Exibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (Oxford University Press, 2011).