October 29, 2012

Review of Anne Hyde's award-winning new book

Reviewed by David Grua

Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860, by Anne F. Hyde. History of the American West Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. xiii-xv, 628 pp.

The great project of turning the West into part of the United States, initiated in 1803 and begun   in earnest in the 1840s, had made little progress in many places. Much remained flexible and contingent about life on its complex border into the second half of the nineteenth century. Residents of the West seemed quite ambivalent about nationality, easily claiming new citizenship when it served personal or business needs. During a time when no one knew which nation or empire would finally impose control, effective trade was the sole source of power. And it continued to be a world defined by personal connections. (30)

So argues Anne Hyde, Professor of History at Colorado College, in Empires, Nations, and Families, winner of the prestigious Bancroft Prize earlier this year. Although the first word in her title is “empires,” the Spanish, French, and British empires play only a small role in her work. Empires certainly claimed title to much of the land that would become the western United States, but Hyde contends that empires, and later nations (Mexico and even the United States), exercised very little actual control west of the Mississippi prior to the 1860s. Power rested instead in the hands of indigenous nations and Euro-American fur traders who successfully tapped into Native kin networks via marriage and ceremonial gift-giving. As Hyde suggests in the excerpt above, empires and nations came and went, while elite fur trading families and Native nations maintained control in the region.

Hyde’s focus on families, rather than empires and nations, allows her to bring in a host of new actors who would normally not appear in syntheses, most notably women and children. While keeping one finger on the evolving political and military chronologies that form the backbone of narrative histories, Hyde keeps nine fingers, figuratively speaking, on families in various subregions of the emerging West—the Pacific Northwest, California, the Southwest, Texas, the Central Plains, and the Great Lakes. What she finds is a mixed-race world, with Euro-American men married to indigenous and Mexican women who provided the essential contacts for their husbands to create their trading networks. Their mixed-race children lived comfortably within the worlds of their mothers—dominated by powerful Native nations such as the Comanches, Cheyennes, and Navajos. Some mixed-race children also functioned well in the worlds of their fathers, although many faced discrimination among Europeans and Euroamericans. It was not until the United States conquered northern Mexico in the late 1840s that this fur trade economy that had created relative equality among various peoples began to unravel, although it would take decades for the United States to impose full sovereignty in the region.

Relatively speaking, religion is absent from Hyde’s text, as she prefers to analyze trade networks rather than religious ties. Certainly, she mentions Catholic and Protestant missionaries, but few receive extended treatment. On multiple occasions, she states in passing how religious ordinances such as baptisms and marriages tied families together across racial and ethnic divides, but rarely does she take the opportunity to further explore these ideas. The exception in Empires, Nations, and Families is Mormonism. The Latter-day Saints were latecomers in Hyde’s story, only making an appearance when the fur trade and its accompanying world was on the decline, soon to be replaced by a settler society that had no need for harmony among Euro-Americans and Natives.

In a provocative interpretive shift, Hyde chooses to portray Mormons, not as encroaching settlers displacing and replacing the indigenous peoples of the Great Basin, but as an Indian-like people who interrupted rather than reinforced the broader colonial processes of American settlement:

 One surprising native group was the Mormons or Latter-day Saints, who replaced the Osages in   terms of public worry and press attention on the Missouri frontier. Like the Osages, they were small in number but effective in getting the attention of imperial or national officialdom. Taking the analogy further, like many Native nations, the Mormons traveled in family groups, did business almost exclusively with their kin, and took great pleasure in refusing to do things the “American way.” Maybe a better comparison is to see the Mormons as more like the Comanches. Similar in numbers, eventually arranged across a forbidding piece of isolated desert landscape, they controlled trade and travel in the region using kinship connections, price controls, and fear.
 Mormons and Indians disrupted Anglo-American assumptions about how settlement should  occur and who should benefit from it. Unlike Native societies, however, Mormonism developed out of the heart of Anglo-American culture and religion and operated as a sort of shadow critique, which is why it upset people so much. In the same year that young Mariano Vallejo and his family fled the coast of California because of rumored French pirates landing in Monterrey, another family left New England for upstate New York [i.e., the Smith family]. Less romantic than pirates, but equally infamous and misunderstood, the Mormon religion that would come out of this move to the eastern edge of the western frontier would prove even more unsettling. (358)

After making this initial comparison, however, Hyde does not fully develop her Mormon/Indian thesis as the text progresses, although the assumption remains implicit throughout.

She devotes four subsections in two chapters to Mormonism, which is better than average for western history surveys. In her chapter on the U.S.-Mexican War, Hyde dedicates ten pages to a discussion of Mormon origins through the Latter-day Saint sojourn in Winter Quarters (in present-day Nebraska) in the mid-1840s (359-69). Although sound overall, this section contains multiple minor errors and head-scratching assertions, that makes the reader wonder how closely she read her sources.[1] For example, she claims that at the age of 12, Smith was apprenticed out to a newspaper printer. There is no evidence for this that I am aware of, and it is unclear where the idea came from (359). She makes no mention of Smith's First Vision (traditionally dated at 1820), preferring to start her account of Smith's visions with the appearance of the angel Moroni in 1823 (359). Hyde asserts that Smith reburied the Book of Mormon plates, per Moroni’s instructions. Again, this runs contrary to all available documentary evidence, which has Smith giving the plates to Moroni, thereby removing them to a heavenly sphere (360). She omits mention of the importance of the Book of Mormon in shaping early Mormon understandings of Indians as descendants of the Lamanites, a puzzling omission given her emphasis on Native peoples. In addition, she misses the significance of the Book of Mormon in causing early Mormons to settle in Missouri in an attempt to build what the text calls Zion or the New Jerusalem (360). She claims that polygamy was a primary source of anti-Mormon violence in Missouri in the 1830s. While Smith had taken a few plural wives by the time the Mormons were expelled from the state in 1838-39, polygamy was little-known outside of inner church circles and there is little to no evidence that anti-Mormons cited Smith's marital situation(s) as a reason for their opposition (361). In addition, Hyde asserts that Smith openly practiced polygamy in Nauvoo, Illinois, whereas in actuality the Mormon Prophet strenuously sought to hide the practice and publicly denied it (364, 365). Examples could be multiplied. The best that can be said here is that Hyde is in good company, as most surveys that treat Mormons make similar errors. Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought is a notable exception [2].

The most compelling element of this section is Hyde’s use of Mary Haskins Parker (Richards) to explore how a literate Mormon woman experienced Mormonism, after her 1840s conversion in England and migration to Nauvoo. Hyde traces Parker’s marriage to Samuel Richards and her husband’s dedication to building the temple even though the Latter-day Saints would soon leave Nauvoo. In the temple, the couple would receive “the rites that. . .stood at the heart of Mormon religion” (366). Hyde then discusses the couple’s preparations to depart the city, while Samuel prepared to leave his wife for a mission, a hardship that prepared Mary for the difficulties that awaited at Winter Quarters.

Later in the chapter, Hyde discusses the Mormon Battalion, the all-Mormon military unit of the U.S.-Mexican War (388-92). The Battalion impacted Mary because her brother-in-law, Joseph Richards—who was supposed to help her on the trail—“voluntarily” enlisted and died before returning to his family. By narrating much of this section from the perspective of a Mormon woman, Hyde successfully integrates Mormons into her family-centered approach that runs through the entire work.

Mormons return to Hyde’s analysis in a later chapter on the United States’ struggles to impose its authority on the new territories. She devotes ten pages to 1850s Utah (452-62), in the context of other crises in the territorial system in Gold Rush California and Bleeding Kansas. This section contained fewer noticeable errors, perhaps reflecting Hyde’s background as a western historian who has doubtless taught on the subject. Here she resumes the the story of the recently-arrived Richards family and their efforts to establish a home in Utah territory. Hyde describes Mormon communalism, tithing, and other practices [3]. In addition, she explores the Richards family’s experience with plural marriage, as Samuel took six additional wives in the 1850s. Hyde then describes the growing conflict with federal officials over land, Indian policy, and polygamy. Only here does Hyde mention the Latter-day Saints’ distinctive beliefs regarding Indians as Lamanites, who as the Battle Axes of the Lord would help the Mormons destroy Gentile [i.e., non-Mormon] America, and Young’s instructions for missionaries to intermarry with the Natives. She concludes the section with a discussion of the Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Her interpretation of the murders is closer to that of mid-twentieth century Mormon historian Juanita Brooks, who argued that the killings resulted from the fear and paranoia of local leaders, rather than as premeditated plot devised by Brigham Young in Salt Lake City, a hypothesis advocated most recently by Will Bagley. Hyde follows both Brooks and Bagley in arguing that Young's hyper-vitriolic rhetoric created an atmosphere that made the massacre possible and that Young was complicit in covering up the murders and protecting the murderers.[4]

Later in the chapter, Hyde returns to Mountain Meadows (484-88) in a section on Western violence that also includes the 1862 Dakota War and the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. Only here does she cite Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Glen M. Leonard's Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Tragedy (Oxford, 2008), which was written by three practicing Mormon historians, supported by a small army of LDS scholars at the church's archives. Hyde takes issue with Walker, Turley, and Leonard's argument that, aside from one fateful week in September 1857, the Mormon perpetrators at Mountain Meadows were upstanding citizens and ordinary pioneers, using the claim to make a broader argument about the tendency among white settlers (and their descendants) to simultaneously employ violence while claiming innocence:

A nation of squatters who used violence to establish rights and to dispossess other people needs to recognize itself in these actions. Anglo-American settlers, however laudable their individual intentions, chose to settle on land owned by others and demanded that the U.S. government use all of its power to remove them, making these ‘ordinary nineteenth-century frontiersmen’ into killers. [The conflicts discussed here] compel us to consider them as logical productions of the culture that housed them: the world Euro-Americans worked so very hard to situate in the North American West. (484-85)

Although Hyde describes the concept of “blood atonement” and other doctrines preached by Mormon leaders in the 1850s that provided a context for the killings, Hyde does not conclude that the violence was a product of Mormon culture. Rather, the massacre was “an episode that could be described as collateral damage when the federal government tried to impose its will on the wayward Mormons” (485).

Hyde’s extensive treatment of Mormonism—although flawed in places—is laudable and noteworthy. As in the work as a whole, Hyde’s attention to Mary Richards and her family expands the number of actors in important ways. Comparing Mormons to Indians presents an intriguing interpretive move, although she does not fully develop this angle. Consulting recent works by Paul Reeve and Jared Farmer would have likely helped to clarify the Latter-day Saints’ complex relationships with Indians and other Anglo-Americans.[5] Overall, Hyde’s Empires, Nations, and Families is a fantastic work that will make a lasting contribution to the historiography of the American West and will provide new ways for religious scholars to situate Mormonism in the history of the West.

[1] Her sources for this section include Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, 2nd Ed. (New York: Knopf, 1971), Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Knopf, 1979), Stephen C. LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987), D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), and Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005).

[2] See David W. Grua, “Mormonism in Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought,” Dialogue:  Journal of Mormon Thought 42, no. 3 (Fall 2009): 177-82.

[3] Hyde relies here on Leonard J. Arrington, Feramorz Y. Fox, and Dean L. May, Building the City of God: Community and Cooperation among the Mormons (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).

[4]  Here she relies primarily on Juanita Brooks, The Mountain Meadows Massacre (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), Eugene E. Campbell, Establishing Zion: The Mormon Church in the American West, 1847-1869 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988), David L. Bigler, The Forgotten Kingdom: Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896 (Spokane, WA: Arthur H. Clark, 1998), Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), William P. MacKinnon, ed., At Sword's Point: A Documentary History of the Utah War, 2 vols. (Norman: Arthur H. Clark, 2008), and David Bigler and Will Bagley, eds., Innocent Blood: Essential Narratives of the Mountain Meadows Massacre (Norman: Arthur H. Clark, 2008).

[5] W. Paul Reeve, Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners, and Southern Paiutes (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006) and Jared Farmer, On Zion's Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

October 22, 2012

Papers Are Up!

By Quincy D. Newell and James B. Bennett

All four papers for this year's AAR Seminar on Religion in the American West meeting are now available online. The Seminar will meet on Saturday, November 17, from 4:00-6:30 pm. We ask that all attendees read the papers before the session so that we can spend our time on a richer, fuller discussion. The description of our session in the program book sums it up well:

"This session will explore not only the many ways that diverse religious communities have imagined the American West as sacred space and sacred place, but also the ways that religious imaginations can be found in often overlooked places and activities that characterized life in the West. Discussion will also consider how the papers, taken together, highlight the contributions the American West makes to understanding American religion and the ways studying religion helps us understand the American West."

We have four fantastic papers to talk about this year:

"Between Manifest Destiny and Diaspora: American Judaism in the Era of Westward Expansion," by Shari Rabin of Yale University;

"Material 'Goods': Towards a Commercial History of Religion in the American West," by Sarah Koenig of Yale University;

"The Evangelical Origins of National Parks and a Religio-Aesthetic Vision of the American West," by Thomas Bremer of Rhodes College; and

"Real and Imagined Territories: Restoring the Independent Oglala Nation and Reviving the Ghost Dance Ritual at Wounded Knee in 1973," by Tammy Heise of Florida State University.

To see the papers, you'll need to be enrolled as a member of the seminar. If you don’t remember whether you have been enrolled as a member, we recommend trying the first three steps below. If that doesn’t work, or if you have not been enrolled, please email Tisa Wenger to be enrolled.

Here are the instructions:

1. Go to Religion in the American West Website (this is different from the Religion in the American West blog).

2. Click on the "members only" tab, which should take you to the class management system at Yale where the papers are posted.

3. Click on the appropriate log-in tab, which for most of us will be the non-Yale log-in. 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.

4. Once you have successfully logged onto yaleclassv2 you should see a tab that says "Rel American West."

5. Click that tab and then the "papers" link on the left and you should see the folders. This year’s papers are in the 2012 folder.

This session is the Religion in the American West Seminar's last meeting -- seminars have a five year life-span, and we've hit our limit. There is an effort underway to create a new AAR program unit on religion in the American West. Keep an eye on this space for more information. (We'll probably also talk about it at the Seminar meeting in Chicago.) We hope to see you there!

October 19, 2012

Casual Friday: Our Lady of the Rockies and the Shape of Montana Christian Ecuminism

Earlier this summer, during a cross country road trip we pulled into Butte, Montana. I noticed right away (how could I miss it) a giant statue of what I took to be Jesus, with outstretched arms, overlooking the valley, positioned on the top of a mountain ridge in the eastern side of the valley. It made me think of the Cristo Redentor statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro, though on a slightly smaller scale. A brochure in the hotel lobby, however, explained that the sculpture is not Jesus but is the Virgin Mary, dubbed Our Lady of the Rockies.

I took it to be a sign of the prevalence of Catholicism in Montana, but the pamphlet from our hotel lobby described it as a nondenominational expression of Christian faith. Still, it seems like a rather Catholic expression of nondenominational Christian faith. Anyone more familiar with the religious landscape of Montana who can speak to this?

October 15, 2012

WHA in Denver: A Recap

By Tisa Wenger and Quincy D. Newell

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been a week since we were in Denver for the annual meeting of the Western History Association. There were a few more sessions than usual at the WHA that involved religious history topics, and we had a good showing of blog-related folks there. We don’t think that is a coincidence: we think that this blog has helped to stimulate conversation and collaboration that sparked greater participation in this conference—and hopefully more into the future.

In conversations with folks involved in WHA leadership, it was clear that this interest runs both ways. Several board members told me (Tisa) that the WHA is very much interested in increasing the number of sessions involving the study of religion. Traditionally the only WHA panels discussing “religion” involve Mormons or Native Americans, and both tend to remain rather isolated from other topics typically addressed at the conference. So WHA proposals from this blog’s readers—especially those addressing a broader variety of religious traditions, and those that bring religious history into conversation with other dimensions of western history—would be very much welcome.

This also holds true for the Western Historical Quarterly, the association’s journal, which is currently housed at Utah State University. I know I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but I heard again from Associate Editor Colleen O’Neill that the WHQ would like more article submissions addressing the religious history of the U.S. west. It’s a very good journal, so if you have anything underway that would fit in this journal, please consider submitting it to them.

Now, on to some substantive discussion of the conference itself! I (Tisa) had the privilege of serving as chair and respondent to a fantastic session titled “Open Spaces, Open Minds?: Religious and Spiritual Borders in the American West.” Brandi Denison’s paper discussed representations of “religion” and “Indian religion” in the “Sun Dance Opera,” which was staged in Utah and then in New York by BYU professor William Hanson in the early decades of the twentieth century. Stan Thayne, in a paper on a utopian religious community known as the Home of Truth, which settled in rural Utah in the 1930s, reflected on cultural representations of the West that made the region especially attractive to new religious movements. Following Stan, Jenna Gray-Hildebrand explored the history of another group, the “I AM” Activity, and its legal difficulties in California, suggesting that the distinctive religious landscapes of the West made it a key site for legal contestations around religious freedom. And finally, in a fascinating paper on hitchhiking as religious practice, Ben Brazil argued that for a segment of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture, hitchhiking epitomized and embodied an ethos of boundary-crossing and surrender that epitomized the spiritual values of an “experimental countercultural milieu” with its center in the West (especially California).

Two key themes emerged from this session. First, the significance of borders and boundary-crossing, an intentional theme for the panel (and for the conference as a whole), as a particularly useful way to theorize the religious history of the West. And second, the question of authenticity as a key theme in cultural representations of the region, especially associated with Native Americans and with the rural landscapes of the West. I argued in my response that the frequent emphasis on the “wide open landscapes” and the “spirituality” of Western landscapes both invokes and erases the memory of the region’s indigenous peoples. The trope of the wide open landscape echoes the claims of the land as unsettled and empty, erasing the reality of Indian presence. At the same time, these landscapes are depicted as spiritual precisely because of their Indian legacies, often romantically invoked even as Indians themselves were violently excised from the land. I think we need to keep this legacy and its implications in mind in deconstructing tropes of the “spirituality” and “authenticity” of the West more generally.

The themes of border crossing remained salient in other sessions on religion as well. I (Quincy) got to chair a session on borders and boundary crossing in Mormonism and Mormon Studies that included a selected of papers from a collection forthcoming from the University of Oklahoma Press next spring. David Gore kicked things off with some reflections on Joseph Smith’s political economy and the ways in which it attempts to erase the boundaries drawn within the LDS faith community and, more broadly, the boundaries that divide humans from one another. Grant Underwood’s paper compared Mormonism and Islam, specifically in their constructions of leadership, applying the discipline of comparative religion to arrive at new insights on how authority works in Mormonism. Finally, Eric Mason (my co-editor for the collection) explained the startling rise of Brigham Young University in Dead Sea Scrolls research and the implications both for BYU and for the field. Patrick Mason (no relation to Eric Mason) was the respondent for this session. He introduced the helpful notion of “enclave cultures” to think about the dynamics of Mormonism’s relationship both to broader American and academic cultures, and also to think about the internal dynamics of the religious community. As Patrick Mason pointed out, this session didn’t really fit at the WHA in many ways, since the papers were neither necessarily historical nor particularly about the West. But the program committee accepted it, which perhaps we should read as an illustration of the hunger for more attention to religion at the WHA that we discussed above.

I (Quincy) got to attend an interesting session that was put together in honor of Ferenc Szasz. The session was titled “On the Border between the Sacred and the Profane.”
(Apparently that had started as the subtitle, with some indication in the title that the session was to be in Ferenc Szasz’s honor, but at some point in the preparation of the program things got changed.) The speakers had all (I think) been Szasz’s students at the University of New Mexico, and they spoke movingly of him as a teacher, mentor, and scholar. Oddly, however, although many of the speakers mentioned Szasz’s work on religion in the American West, none of them engaged it in substantive ways. Instead, mention of this aspect of Szasz’s scholarship usually served as an entrance into a discussion of Szasz himself as a man of faith, generosity, humility, and other admirable qualities.

There’s a need, and a real hunger, for more discussion of religion at the WHA. From the first question in the session that Tisa chaired and responded to, which had to do less with the papers than with how to handle – and historicize – religion in the classroom, to the acceptance of sessions on religion that only barely fit the parameters of the Western History Association’s ostensible field of study, it is clear that folks in the WHA want to talk about religion. The deadline for proposals for the next WHA is already past, but we encourage you all to start organizing now for the 2014 WHA!

October 12, 2012

Casual Friday: Temple Emanuel

Photo by Tisa Wenger
This is Temple Emanuel in Denver, where the Western History Association meeting was held last weekend. According to the Temple Events Center website:
The Temple Emanuel Building, a Moorish style synagogue, was built in 1899 by architect John Humphreys. It is a local and national historic landmark. The Events Center features 100-foot towers with copper domes, stained glass windows, intricate woodwork, vaulted ceilings, gold leaf stenciling, and velvet-covered seats. A 1911 Estey pipe organ, the oldest in the country, is located in the choir loft.
These days, a "multidenominational community" called Pathways Church meets there. It is certainly a beautiful building, and thanks to Tisa Wenger for the photo. Watch this space for a recap of the WHA meeting, coming on Monday!

October 8, 2012

Columbus the Catholic

By Kate Moran

Landing of Columbus, oil on canvas by John Vanderlyn, 1846.  In the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.  Source: http://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/historic-rotunda-paintings/landing-columbus.
This week many Americans will celebrate, as a founding hero, a man who is also widely believed to be a Roman Catholic.[1] This hardly seems shocking these days: we are, after all, moving quickly towards a Presidential election in which perhaps the only certainty is that we will elect a Catholic Vice President. Yet if present realities tempt us to forget the long and powerful history of anti-Catholicism in the United States, we risk missing one of the more interesting things about the history of Columbus Day: not just that a Catholic was included in the pantheon of American founding heroes during an anti-Catholic age, but that he was not the only one.

In the past few decades, the annual arrival of Columbus Day (or, in many parts of the country, Indigenous People’s Day) has raised important questions about how we define heroism and discovery, how we approach tragedy and violence in history, and from whose perspective history should be told. I’d like to add another thread to that discussion, one that links the American celebration of Columbus to the history of religion, nationalism, and the U.S. West.

Columbus, of course, was not initially celebrated in the United States for being Catholic. In fact, in Washington Irving’s popular 1829 biography, he is given a bit of a proto-Protestant gloss. Here is Irving’s (apocryphal) portrait of Columbus pressing his case in front of a tribunal of scholars and priests:
The hall of the old convent presented a striking spectacle. A simple mariner standing forth in the midst of an imposing array of clerical and collegiate sages; maintaining his theory with natural eloquence, and, as it were, pleading the cause of the new world. . . . Columbus was assailed with citations from the Bible, and the works of the early fathers of the church, which were thought incompatible with his theory: doctrinal points were mixed up with philosophical discussions, and even a mathematical demonstration was allowed no truth, if it appeared to clash with a text of scripture, or a commentary of one of the fathers.[2]
At this dramatic turning point in Columbus’s story, Columbus is cast as holding his own against the forces of received knowledge and tradition, hierarchy and authority. In this iteration, the story of Columbus becomes the story of an enlightened individual challenging a stereotypically “medieval” mindset: a quasi-Catholic hero for an anti-Catholic United States.

Yet as the nineteenth century unfolded, America’s Columbus became increasingly Catholic. A great deal of this change can be traced to American Catholics themselves, to their appropriation of Columbus as a hero who could tie them to the nation’s mythic past. Beginning in the 1860s, Italian Catholic immigrants celebrated the anniversary of Columbus’s landing, and gave the celebration a religious flavor: in 1869 in San Francisco, their celebration of “Discovery Day” began with a Catholic mass and involved a procession with a statue of Columbus, similar to a saint’s day festa.[3] Irish Catholic immigrants founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882, and they joined other immigrant societies and the Catholic press in lobbying for the creation of an official, federal Columbus Day.

Jacques Marquette, statue in marble, by Gaetano Trentanove. Presented by Wisconsin to the U.S. Capitol, 1896. Part of the National Statuary Hall collection. Source: http://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/national-statuary-hall-collection/jacques-marquette.
But the emergence of a Catholic Columbus can also be understood as part of a larger trend, particularly apparent in the American West. Take Jacques Marquette. In the late nineteenth century, during the era of the Italian-American “Discovery Days,” Catholics and Protestants near Lake Michigan began to celebrate the life of the French Jesuit missionary who had helped found missions at Sault Sainte Marie and at St. Ignace and who had accompanied Louis Joliet on a 1673 expedition down the Mississippi river. Nineteenth-century promoters cast Marquette as a regional and national founding figure, frequently referring to him as the “first white man” to see the area. In the 1890s, Wisconsinites waged a successful battle against the anti-Catholic American Protective Association to place a statue of Marquette in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., as one of the two statues representing their state. (The A.P.A., for its part, worried that the statue of a Jesuit in the Capitol would acclimate Americans to Catholic images in government buildings, enabling a smooth transition to Catholic rule when the Pope’s forces inevitably marched on Washington.)[4] Chicagoans, too, embraced the missionary as a city founder. In the boom decades after the Great Fire, Marquette became a useful spiritual symbol for a city often derided as a godless chaos of commerce. In 1924, President Coolidge would declare, “Of the men who laid the foundations of our country, he [Marquette] deserves his place among the foremost.”[5]

Junípero Serra, statue in bronze, by Ettore Cadorin. Presented by California to the U.S. Capitol, 1931. Part of the National Statuary Hall collection. Source:
Or take Junípero Serra. As the Marquette commemorations were beginning in Wisconsin, Anglo Protestant boosters and prominent Catholics in Southern California began to celebrate California’s Catholic mission past. They worked to preserve and protect the ruins of the eighteenth-century mission buildings, arguing that these buildings were the equals of European cathedrals in beauty, romance, historical importance, and cash value. Indeed, the missions inspired a massive tourist industry that included, by the beginning of the twentieth century, pageants and plays, railroad and automobile tours, and even a spectacular theme hotel in Riverside called the Mission Inn, which once hosted President Taft. In the process, Junípero Serra, the Franciscan friar who led the mission effort, emerged as a popular historical figure. In poetry and prose, much of it published nationally, Serra was heralded as California’s own founding father—a West Coast corollary to the East Coast’s Puritan heritage. Protestant boosters often collaborated with prominent Catholics to celebrate Serra’s legacy, and both sides remarked with pride (if perhaps an excess of optimism) that these celebrations helped break down religious prejudice in California. In 1931, Serra joined Marquette in the National Statuary Hall, as one of California’s two representatives.

At least some of the people celebrating Marquette and Serra saw an explicit connection to Columbus. During the fight to place the statue of Marquette in the Capitol in the 1890s, Marquette supporters argued that if the country could rally behind Columbus, why couldn’t it rally behind Marquette? The Chicago Daily Tribune warned: “If these resolutions [objecting to the Marquette statue] were to be adopted, they would be followed by others demanding the removal of that of Columbus from the Capitol, because he was a Spaniard and a fervent Catholic.”[6] Such an outcome, the paper implied, would be ridiculous. The existence of one Catholic as a founding hero implied the possibility of including more. Tourist literature in California invoked Columbus as well. Take, for example, promotional material put out by the Automobile Club of Southern California in 1915: “What Columbus, Washington and Lincoln have been to the United States of America,” the club proclaimed, “Father Junípero Serra . . . has been to California.”[7]

What, then, can we make of this emergence of Catholic founding figures? To promoters of Marquette and Serra, it often meant the inclusion of their regions’ histories in the national story, a story that they complained (with justification) had too long been dominated by Puritans, Pilgrims, and the East Coast. To many Catholics, and to their non-Catholic allies, it meant a more inclusive, cross-confessional group of national heroes, potentially powerful symbols of Catholic national belonging in a society marked by anti-Catholicism. Finally, it meant that in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, many American Catholics and Protestants were united by their embrace of heroic interpretations of European exploration and empire, Christian evangelization and territorial acquisition. While they challenged exclusively Protestant notions of the nation’s origins and identity, they reinforced the idea that the United States was—from coast to coast—an essentially Christian nation born out of a Christianizing, civilizing project. At the dawn of the American century, this too was a legacy of Columbus Day.

[1]There are interesting theories that Columbus might have been Jewish, but since my subject is the myth rather than the man, those theories will be left for others to explore.

[2]Washington Irving, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, abridged ed. (New York: G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1829), 41-42.

[3]Gerald McKevitt, “Christopher Columbus as a Civic Saint: Angelo Noce and Italian American Assimilation,” California History 71, no. 4 (January 1992): 518.

[4]K. Gerald Marsden, “Father Marquette and the A.P.A.: An Incident in American Nativism,” The Catholic Historical Review 46, no. 1 (April 1960): 8.

[5]“Text of Coolidge Speech Before Commerce Club,” Chicago Evening Post, 4 December 1924.

[6]“The Marquette Statue,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 2 March 1896.

[7]Automobile Club of Southern California, California’s Mission Tour (Los Angeles: Geo. Rice & Sons, 1915).

October 5, 2012

Casual Friday: Built Miracles

The Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is known for its spiral staircase.

Photo by Quincy D. Newell
Specifically, this is a spiral staircase built, apparently, in answer to a prayer by nuns. Built by a mysterious stranger who rode into town, built the staircase, and disappeared. Built in such a way that it still stands, even though the laws of engineering seem to indicate that it should have collapsed long ago.

In the West, it seems the focus is often on the natural landscape and the ways people find the divine in it. But people also see the divine in the built environment (as attested by the number of tourists who visit Loretto Chapel every day)!

October 3, 2012

Twitter Update

We had a premature launch of our Twitter account last Friday, but we're happy to announce that we are officially on Twitter. Follow us @relwest1, or ReligionAmericanWest, or here: https://twitter.com/RelWest1.

Thanks for your patience!

October 1, 2012

Book of the Month

Reid Neilson. Exhibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Review by Konden R. Smith

Back in January, Laurie Maffly-Kipp brought up the question regarding Mormonism’s status as a “western” religious tradition. Rather than answering this question, she turned the question around by asking why such labels have been so important and used in the first place. In short, what was at stake in its usage? I think an important answer to this question comes from the Mormon presence at the Chicago World’s Fair (aka. Columbian Exposition) of 1893, covered in Reid Neilson's Exhibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the 1893 World’s Fair (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). At this fair, Utah’s non-Mormon Governor Caleb West re-introduced Mormons as loyal patriots and archetypal developers of the American West. “These pioneers of Utah blazed the way for the westward course of empire, and at the time of their first entrance into the valley of the Great Salt Lake planted the flag of the union on foreign soil.” In part due to West’s successful repositioning of Mormonism under this “western” banner, Americans began, for the first time in American history, to re-imagine Mormons as acceptably American. Recognizing this new and unprecedented national interest in Mormonism, Mormon leaders introduced themselves as “pioneers” rather than “prophets,” and their talking points were buffalos, women’s suffrage and pioneering rather than the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith or religious persecution. Defining Mormonism as a “western” religion was thus a pivotal moment in Mormon history and the history of American religious pluralism.

The argument behind Exhibiting Mormonism was straightforward: to demonstrate how Mormonism went from a narrow “missionary-minded people to a twentieth-century evangelistic and public relations juggernaut” (7). Although Neilson’s focus was largely on Mormonism’s public relations conversion and subsequent change in policy and attitude toward the outside world, Neilson recognized a broader significance of the international event and the correlated Mormon response. It was, he explains, “a larger story of the church’s accommodation and assimilation into the larger American religious mainstream,” and as such opens itself up for comparative studies of American minority relations and transformation (207). Importantly, the hinge in this pivot was in Mormonism being redefined as “western,” and thereby “American.”  

By way of organization, Neilson charts Mormonism’s response to American culture in three parts. (1) 1830-46: The founding period where Mormons sought to convert, not befriend the nation and world. (2) 1847-1890: The pioneer period that was marked as largely non-violent, with the exceptions of the Utah War, 1857-58, and the three decade long “cold war” surrounding the question of Mormon politics, economy and sexuality. Public relations during this period were not important and Mormon provocations were common. (3) 1890-today: Exceptionally strong focus on public relations and education (16-17). As Neilson demonstrates, this last phase did not really take off with the surrender of polygamy in 1890, but more importantly the World’s Fair three years later.

Neilson clarifies that Mormons did not simply “attend” the fair. Their presence was rather complicated, being celebrated and cheered in one section and then rejected and insulted in another. In the chapter that outlines this acceptance, Neilson provides an overview of the size and complexities of the fair itself. In an exhibition of “Utah Territory,” Mormons displayed their “western” identity to the nation. Over two million visitors toured the Utah building, having a dramatic impact on how non-Mormons saw Mormons and how Mormons sought to present themselves. As part of this new “western” presentation, Utah was represented by way of mineral deposits and mummies, rather than Mormons and polygamy.

Perhaps most profound to the question of Mormonism’s entrance into Americana is Nielson’s chapter on Mormon women at the fair, as it was them who led this early “Mormon moment.” Whatever success Mormon leaders found at the fair, Mormon women had already “woven themselves into the larger fabric of domestic and international feminism,” and, as such, found themselves well received (102). With much less foresight, male leaders initially resisted representation at the fair and remained outside and detached from ecumenical associations, such as the Evangelical Alliance. With a desire to be part of the national female suffrage movement, Mormon women early on recognized the value of national inclusion. Ironically, popular portrayals of Mormon women were that of being slow, stupid, and mere erotic tools of Mormon male masters. Participation at the World’s Congress of Representative Women was thus not only a watershed moment for the American feminist movement, but as Neilson demonstrates, allowed Mormon feminism to merge with that of the national. The Mormon female Relief Society and the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association (YLMIA) stood side-by-side at the fair with the National Council of Women of the United States (NCW) (104).     

Beyond the Mormon female presence at the fair, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the Welsh Eisteddfod, an international musical competition associated with the fair, proved the magical element for healing Mormon-American relations. Welsh Americans looked to such an event as a way to demonstrate their retention of Welsh culture and musical influence within America. For Welsh Mormon immigrants, such as Mormon Tabernacle Choir conductor Evan Stephens, the choral competition represented a similar opportunity to display Welsh civilization and Americanism as filtered through the Mormon machine. Though being redefined as “western,” Mormon sophistication emerged, in part, outside the US. In an attempt to be more warmly welcomed as “Americans,” Mormons from various nationalities heartily embraced this new “western” national identity, however Danish, Welsh, or English they were. The result of this appropriation was a resounding success, as Neilson put it, “thanks in large measure to the Tabernacle Choir, the Chicago World’s Fair seemed to mark a new dawn for the public image of the church, at least as a cultural institution,…” (144).

But as Neilson explains in a later chapter, not all was well for Mormonism at the fair. Though it was true that Mormon leaders at first saw little importance with the fair, Mormon orator and leader Brigham H. Roberts was the exception. In what amounted to a story of excellent drama, Roberts convinced leaders of the Parliament of Religions to bring him on as a speaker. Parliament organizers finally agreed, but following a speech on Islam that defended the practice of polygamy, the polygamous Roberts found his speech sidelined and he left the parliament resentful and bitter. But Roberts had friends, most importantly a Roman Catholic parliament official who defended Mormonism and decried its exclusion as ignorance and prejudice.  
Being largely descriptive rather than analytic, Exhibiting Religion proves an important contribution to the study of the American West. Beyond this, it is an important contribution to Mormon Studies and its larger patterns of religious accommodation, boundary maintenance and identity formation more generally. My only real criticism of Neilson’s work is that it lacks analysis in any broad way. The focus is on Mormonism and its entrance into the American heart and its consequent conversion to PR. But Neilson’s stated goal was not to bring in this national and even international religious, political, economic, and cultural context. Instead Neilson leaves intact the larger implications of this dynamic encounter of Mormonism at the fair for future scholars to dissect and elaborate on. Indeed, this is Neilson’s true contribution.  

To return to the original question regarding what was at stake in being “western,” Mormonism found that a more positive relationship to the nation depended upon this new distinction. Whatever was meant by the term, it seems clear that it signified “American.” As such, instead of speaking on Mormon themes, such as the Book of Mormon, temples, and religious freedom, Mormon men and women spoke instead of settlement building and on pioneering rather than prophets and saints. In this case, “western” represented an identity that Mormons, though perhaps not Mormonism, could fit into. As Neilson put it, “the church was eventually integrated into Americana in spite of, not because of, its religious contributions” (178).

As Neilson reminds us, Mormonism’s effective PR campaign did not begin with the “Mormon moment” in 2011-2012, but rather the World’s Fair of 1893. Recognizing this early history we learn a bit about what was at stake in being defined “western” as well as the enthusiasm Americans held in its celebration. Mormonism’s success in PR has little to do with the nation beginning to appreciate religious difference, but rather because Mormons allowed them to forget their religious difference by blinding them with being “western.” In asking why presidential contender Mitt Romney rarely speaks of his faith in public, we can recognize that it likely has something to do with his recognition that America may not be ready for a “Mormon” in the Whitehouse, however much they have come to accept the idea of a president who happens to be Mormon.