December 9, 2013

CFP: Western States Folklore

Western States Folklore Society Conference in Logan, Utah
11-12 April 2014

Please send 100-150 word abstracts into Jill Rudy ( by 1 March 2014

All abstracts must be accompanied by payment of registartion to WSFS, PO Box 3557, Long Beach CA 90803-0557

Detailed information can be found on the website

December 2, 2013

CFP: American West Center Symposium


The American West Center at Fifty

A Symposium on Public Engagement in the Humanities and Social Sciences

University of Utah
Salt Lake City, Utah
September 19-21, 2014

"Western Lands, Western Voices," a three-day interdisciplinary symposium exploring the past, present, and future of public engagement in the Humanities and Social Sciences will be held in Salt Lake City, September 19-21, 2014. The symposium marks the fiftieth anniversary of the University of Utah's American West Center, the oldest regional studies center of its kind in the West. Our goal is to bring together college/university and community based practitioners for a lively discussion of the place and power of publicly engaged/applied scholarship in the American West.

Participation: We seek submissions from college and university based scholars, community based organizations and institutions, state and local historical and cultural entities, and indigenous Nations. The symposium will engage diverse fields including history, anthropology, political science, ethnic studies, literature, cultural studies, and the arts. We strongly encourage participants and projects that span disciplinary divides. Submissions from graduate students, early career scholars, and community based scholars are particularly encouraged, as are those that address innovative ways of reaching public audiences.

Topics: We are seeking proposals for panels, sessions, and individual presentation that illustrate the power and potential of publicly engaged scholarship. Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

· Indigenous Sovereignty

· Cultural Preservation and Indigenous Peoples

· Oral History Methods and Applications

· Community Based History Projects

· Environmental Policy and Politics

· Public Lands Management and History

· Literary and Artistic Representations of the American West

Session Formats: We are seeking submissions for sessions and presentations in a range of formats. Traditional research presentations are welcome, but we encourage collaborative formats such as roundtables and the NCPH's "working group" format. Working Groups connect individuals working on similar projects or problems through the discussion of pre-circulated scholarship.

For complete panel or session proposals a designated contact person should submit a single PDF document that includes a one-page (approx. 250 word) abstract describing the general purpose of the session as well as one-paragraph presentation abstracts and one-page CV's for each of the session participants. Contact information (address, phone number, and email) for all participants must be provided.

Individual presentation proposals should include a one-page abstract as well as a one-page CV with complete contact information (address, phone number, and email) . We will do our best to match individual submissions to create viable sessions.

Working Group Submissions should be made by individuals planning to serve as facilitators for the group. They should include a one-page abstract describing the central issue that the group will address and a one-page CV with complete contact information (address, phone number, and email). If the proposed topic is selected we will assist the facilitator in recruiting appropriate working group members.

All submissions should be sent in PDF format to by March 1, 2014.

For more information see or contact us at

November 27, 2013

AAR Group Proposal

As many of you know, Brett Hendrickson and I (Brandi Denison) unsuccessfully proposed a permanent group last year. Winds have shifted and we are being encouraged to resubmit the proposal this year.

You can help. If you wrote a letter of support last year, could you update it for this year? If you didn't write a letter last year, would you write one now?

The letter is brief and would simply indicate your interest in the establishment of this as a group. It would be useful if you could talk about how the group provides you with something unique, unmatched by other groups. Additionally, it would be useful if you indicated that it makes more sense to have this group meet nationally than regionally.

Please email this letter to The deadline for this letter is this Friday (11/29). If you have any questions, concerns, or ideas for the future of the group, please contact us!

November 13, 2013

Graduate Student Fellowships at the Western Historical Quarterly

Applications are now welcome for the Robert M. Utley Fellowship

For 2014-2015, a total stipend of $14,000, tuition awards, health insurance, and summer research funds will be awarded.

The Editorial Fellow must enroll in USU's master's program in history. Duties at the Western Historical Quarterly (WHQ) include 20 hours a week, beginning in August, helping to select, prepare, and copyread manuscripts. The fellowship may be retained for a second year (2015-16) depending upon satisfactory progress toward the master's degree and acceptable completion of editorial assignments. During the summer of 2015, the editorial fellow will work 20 hours a week at the WHQ, with time off for research.

Applicants should send a letter of interest and a writing sample directly to the editor of the WHQ. The full application, including three letters of recommendation to the USU School of Graduate Studies, will suffice to complete the needed materials. All documents should be postmarked no later than 1 February 2014. Applicants will be notified by early March.

NOTE: The S. George Ellsworth Fellowship and the Robert M. Utley Fellowship are awarded by the WHQ in alternating years.

Funding for WHQ fellowships is provided by:
Western Historical Quarterly
USU Department of History
Robert M. Utley Endowment
S. George Ellsworth Endowment

Please address correspondence to:
Dr. David Rich Lewis, Editor
Western Historical Quarterly
0740 Old Main Hill
Utah State University
Logan, UT 84322-0740

Email: or
Phone: 435-797-1301 or 435-797-1299

For more information see:
Western Historical Quarterly:
USU History Department:
USU School of Graduate Studies:

November 5, 2013

Papers Available!

The papers for our upcoming AAR meeting are now available. If you have not received an email with instructions on how to access the papers, please email me at

I'm looking forward to a great session!

October 28, 2013

Exciting New Initiative!

If you’ve browsed through your AAR program book, you may have noticed an “Additional Meeting” on Saturday morning. In previous years, there was an official AAR program unit, the Seminar on Religion in the American West, where you could get your American West fix. You may know that seminar members submitted a proposal to turn the seminar into a group; unfortunately the program committee rejected the idea, so the seminar finished its five-year run and left the AAR without a programmatic home for discussion of religion in the American West.

As a temporary solution to this sad state of affairs, a group of us have put together the exciting new Initiative for Religion in the American West (IfRAW). Sponsored this year by the Religious Studies Department of the University of Wyoming, IfRAW will hold its first meeting on Saturday, November 23, from 10-12:30. (This gives you a chance to sleep in. You’re welcome.) There are three papers, which will be available on this site SOON, that we’ll discuss. Then we’ll have a business meeting and decide our strategy for the immediate future—ways to place sessions at other meetings, when and how (and if) to propose a program unit to the AAR again, how to shape the call for papers for our next annual meeting at the AAR.

What can you do?

First, read the papers (watch this space for instructions on getting them soon) and come to the meeting ready to discuss them. Bring a friend! Our session this year is called “Theorizing Religion from the American West.” Here’s the session description:
The Initiative for Religion in the American West invites all who are interested in the topic to attend our first annual session. This session takes up the task of conceptualizing religion and re-thinking the methods of religious study, taking the North American West as the point of departure rather than as the end result of western expansion. Three pre-circulated papers examine how a western regional vantage point alters how the category “religion” itself is defined, imagined, and academically employed in the study of North American religions. In addition to considering these “theories of religion of the American West,” the session also reflects on methods of study of religion that are suited to (and respond to) the study of religious people, practices, and institutions in the region. Papers will be made available online about one month before the session; please see the Religion in the American West blog or email Quincy Newell for more information. Paper authors will make brief presentations, followed by a response and extensive discussion among all attendees. The session will conclude with a brief business meeting to plan the future of the Initiative.
  • Catherine Newell, University of Miami, “Myth and Religion in the American West”
  • Sarah Moczygemba, University of Florida, “Cowboy Churches: Walking the Line between Myth and History”
  • Seth Schemerhorn, Arizona State University, “Of Pilgrimage and Parody: Don Bahr’s Principle of ‘Parody’ and O’odham Methods and Theories of ‘Writing’ History and ‘Mapping’ Territory”
Respondent: Kristy Nabhan-Warren, University of Iowa

Second, help us get the word out about this session and about the initiative more generally. Bring a friend to the session! If you’ve been to past seminar sessions, and you thought they were worthwhile, tell people. Help us create some buzz.

Third, think about where you’d like to see this initiative go in the future. Send us your ideas in advance by emailing one of our current leadership team (Brandi Denison, Brett Hendrickson, Jim Bennett, and Quincy Newell). These might be ideas about strategies for getting a new program unit, or just ideas you’d like to see in the next CFP. Click here to read the IfRAW statement of purpose and get those creative juices flowing!

Fourth, if you happen to be in leadership for another AAR program unit, think about whether you’d like to co-sponsor a session with us. Since IfRAW is not an official AAR program unit, co-sponsoring won’t get you any additional sessions. But it will help advance the IfRAW cause, and we will gladly help in recruiting high-quality presenters and respondents.

Fifth, consider whether you’d like your institution to be a co-sponsor of the IfRAW. Additional Meetings cost money—not a lot, but some—and we need institutional sponsors. If you are interested in helping with this part, contact Quincy Newell for details.

We’ll have a round-up of other AAR sessions that might interest you coming soon. In the meantime, please be sure to mark this one on your calendar!!

September 23, 2013

Autry Museum and the challenge of displaying "convergence" in Western exhibits

Here is an article that may be of interest to many of you. Published yesterday in the New York Times, it addresses many of the challenges involved in presenting a revised portrait of the American West in museum displays. Journalist and critic Edward Rothstein presents a critique of the Autry National Center of the American West's efforts to reconfigure their exhibits and shift focus away from a "Wild West" narrative to one of "convergence," which, as their website explains, is "a way of seeing the evolving story of the American West as an interwoven tapestry of cultures and peoples." As Rothstein trenchantly observes, "The main difficulty has been in the interweaving."

Here is a link to the article:

September 13, 2013

CFP: Religion in California conference

Editor's note: This call for papers may be of interest to many of you:

Religion in California
April 24-25, 2014
University of California, Berkeley
Call for Papers

We invite proposals for a symposium on “Religion in California” to be held at the University of California, Berkeley, in April 2014. The symposium is co-sponsored by Berkeley’s Religion, Politics, and Globalization Program (RPGP), the California American Studies Association (CASA), the Theological Engagement with California’s Culture Project (TECC), the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion (BCSR), and Graduate Theological Union.

The symposium will feature a keynote discussion with Dr. Matthew Avery Sutton (author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America), Dr. Lois A. Lorentzen (co-editor of On the Corner of Bliss and Nirvana) and Rev. Dr. Joy Moore (Associate Dean of African American Church Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary).

We invite individual proposals that deal with any aspect of religion in California, but we are particularly interested in works that interact with the path breaking scholarship of Sutton and Lorentzen et. al. and/or theological features within the state. Proposals that focus upon some combination of immigration and movement, politics and social movements, and/or theology and culture will be preferred. Proposals should range from 250 to 1,000 words and will be considered through December 15, 2013. Selected participants will be notified by January 1, 2014.

The symposium will be relatively small with panels held on Friday, April 25. Participants will be expected to attend several selected panels and also participate in the opening keynote discussion on Thursday, April 24 and the closing conversation on Friday, April 25.

Please direct any questions and submit proposals to: Lynne Gerber (, Edward J. Blum (, and/or Jason Sexton (

September 9, 2013

Call for Papers

Editors' Note: This call might be of interest to those of you working on Catholicism in the American West.

U.S. Catholic Historian
Spring 2014 Issue: Saints in America

For more than thirty years U.S. Catholic Historian has published theme-based issues relevant to the history of American Catholicism.

An upcoming issue will assess the role of canonized saints or individuals on the path to sainthood (blesseds/servants of God) and the Catholic Church in America.

Contributions could include, but are not limited, to the following:

· Biographical studies of saints/blesseds/servants of God who ministered in the U.S.

· Studies of devotion to saints in the U.S. context

· Studies of the process of canonization for U.S. saints/blesseds/servants of God

Scholars considering a submission are asked to contact the editor, Fr. David Endres at
> before preparing a contribution. Approximate length is 7,000-10,000 words. We ask for submissions by March 1, 2014.

September 2, 2013

Protected: The New Westerns and AMC’s Hell on Wheels

by David McConeghy

Saturday, August 10th brings the Season 3 premiere of AMC’s original historical drama Hell on Wheels. To avoid spoiling the content for anyone who hasn’t found the time to enjoy the series, here is the premise:

Cullen Bohannan, a former soldier and slaveholder, follows the track of a band of Union soldiers, the killers of his wife. This brings him to the middle of one of the biggest projects in US history, the building of the transcontinental railroad. After the war years in the 1860s, this undertaking connected the prospering east with the still wild west.
I have to admit I am a sucker for historical dramas. I fell in love with HBO’s Romeand I’ve been equally enthralled with PBS’s Downton Abbey and Showtime’s The Tudors and The Borgias. Despite inevitable anachronisms and inaccuracies, I believe there’s an amazing service being done by these shows. They are soldiers on the front line of the battle for history’s relevance. They also, however self-servingly, make room for more academic roles in the creation and discussion of cultural material. As conduits for intense scrutiny–like the recent feature filmsLincoln or Django Unchained–they are something the academy desperately needs.

The American West has its own particular demons in this respect–partly because of how prolific the genre of western film and television has been. The 1950s and 1960s produced more Westerns than any other period in American film and television. As American historical products of the late Jim Crow era, not all of these have survived the test of time as cultural products worthy of continuous reinvestment. The 2010 remake of True Grit (1969), for instance, captures the spirit of the John Wayne original for a modern audience that would be unlikely to tolerate the older version’s pacing and production values. The differences between the two films are also an opportunity to imagine the (many) ways American media has changed its understanding and portrayal of the historical American West. Narrating the past inevitably reveals the present.

It’s in this respect that I direct readers to AMC’s Hell on Wheels. As history, it is certainly not perfect. Specialists would be concerned by its treatment of racial tensions among newly freed slaves, European and Asian immigrant laborers, and veterans of both sides of the Civil War. On the whole, however, I find it a revealing portrait of the Postbellum industrialization of the west. The tensions of the railroad camp–ethnic, social, religious–recall Susan Lee Johnson’s Roaring Camp with its captivating portrait of Stockton, CA during the Gold Rush. Some of the great costs of winning the west are laid bare. This can mean, as it should, a sometimes graphic experience. (Be warned that this is something shared by the majority of the recent cable TV historical dramas.)

That’s the role of all great drama, right? Bring out the light and dark of the past for those in the present. By the end of season 1 (available streaming on Netflix),Hell on Wheels has emphasized the confrontation of freedom and confinement, tradition and innovation, morality and depravity. The revenge narrative that structures the series gives ample opportunity to forge characters in the crucible of seemingly impersonal forces. The impurities that arise also reveal the ethos of the new westerns–more easily ready to wallow in the moral middle ground.

As a further instance of a growing body of new westerns worth watching, “Hell on Wheels” joins features like True Grit (2010). Rather than compile an exhaustive list of the last decade, I encourage you to look at the interestingly categorized list of western films on Wikipedia (that distinguishes among traditional, comedy, revisionist, and several other types of westerns). But on TV the star is surely has to be HBO’s Deadwood. It is consistently ranked as one of the best television series of the last decade. Its three seasons (2004-2006) brought life to the fledgling frontier town of Deadwood, South Dakota. It was also among the first truly successful historical dramas–proof for cable TV channels that original programming was profitable. If Hell on Wheels can do the same for railroad camps on the Great Plains, then we should welcome its contribution.

August 26, 2013

Call for Papers: WHA

Editors' Note: In a continued effort to increase discussions of religion at WHA conferences, we highly recommend that the readers of this blog submit paper proposals to the WHA conferences. We both have participated in past conferences. It is a welcoming, small and friendly place to present your work. Consider using the comments section of this post to pull together possible collaborations with fellow readers!

2014 Call For Papers

54th Annual Conference of the Western History Association

15–18 October 2014, Newport Beach, California


The 2014 Program Committee invites proposals that consider the relationship between the West and the world. What forces have connected the North American West with other peoples? Consider, for example, the international links forged by catastrophic events: the fur and hide trade of the 18th and 19th centuries; the mining extravaganzas ranging from the California gold rush to the Klondike; the detonation of atomic, then hydrogen bombs; the end of the Cold War, which allowed indigenous Alaskans and Siberians to reestablish contact; the tsunami of 2011; and the climate change now known as global warming. All of these events have reinforced ties between peoples of the West and their counterparts around the globe.

The Program Committee also invites proposals drawing on vibrant comparative indigenous and borderlands scholarship that explores similarities and differences between the North American West and similar regions (other “Wests”) across the planet. As we gather in Newport Beach, California, on the eastern shore of the Pacific Rim, we are reminded that the West isn’t always geographically west, yet we also find ourselves asking, “What makes it a particular place? What sets it apart as a unique region?”

Perhaps the answer to those questions lies in how the world’s peoples have perceived the West. Have the once romanticized impressions spun by Alfred Jacob Miller and, decades later, members of the Taos Society of Artists been overtaken by 21st-century features such as Starbucks, the City of Las Vegas, and Alaska’s Sarah Palin? In the early years of the second millennium, visitors to the West from Japan, China, and Europe might offer intriguing contemporary responses to resolve that conundrum. Have the earlier perceptions of the North American West changed or do they continue to prevail among outsiders who are intrigued by this unique region of the earth? We look forward to hearing proposals that respond to some of these puzzles regarding the West and the world.

The Program Committee strongly encourages full panel submissions and will consider single papers only when they can reasonably be matched with other panels or papers. When submitting an entire session or panel, include a brief abstract (250 words) that outlines the purpose of the session. Your designated contact person should submit the proposal. Each paper proposal, whether individual or part of a session, should include a one-paragraph abstract and a one-page c.v., with address, phone, and e-mail for each participant. Indicate equipment needs, if any. The committee assumes that all listed individuals have agreed to participate. Electronic submissions are required and should be sent, with supporting materials, as a single document (PDF) to THE SUBMISSION DEADLINE IS September 1.

August 23, 2013

Church Signs on Hwy 371 in New Mexico

State Highway 371 in New Mexico, between Farmington and I-40, skirts right along the eastern edge of the Navajo/Diné Nation. I drove it this summer and stopped several times along the way to take pictures of church signs. Here are a few of them, for your casual Friday viewing pleasure.

August 19, 2013

Mormons and the New York Times

by John-Charles Duffy

On July 21, the New York Times ran a front-page story about Mormons grappling with doubt as a result of discovering uncomfortable aspects of their religion’s history through online sources. The story was built around the experience of Hans Mattsson, a Swede who served in church leadership at the regional level but has now gone public with his skepticism. Other Mormons quoted in the story include well known scholars Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens, both of whom could be described as intellectually sophisticated, moderately orthodox Mormons—the Mormon equivalent of a Mark Noll, maybe, for those who know the evangelical Protestant world. In the article, Bushman and Givens refer to their own efforts to help their coreligionists come to terms with jarring aspects of the faith’s history by discussing these more frankly than has been (or is still) customarily the case in church publications. The story also cites a study conducted by a Mormon doctoral candidate John Dehlin of over three thousand doubting Mormons; Dehlin is also the founder of a podcast, Mormon Stories, that provides a forum for discussing controversial questions in Mormon history and teaching.

The appearance of this story on the front page of the NYT intrigues me. The story was not news to me: I move in or around Mormon circles where these discussions are occurring. I’m not too surprised that NYT religion reporter Laurie Goodstein would find these developments worth writing about. Mormons have been in the news quite a bit over the past few years (they’re “trending,” I believe the young people say these days?), and I can identify various angles of potential reader interest in the story Goodstein has put together. I am wondering, though: What does it mean that this story start on the front page of the NYT? Why did editors think the story was that important or potentially attractive to readers?

Let me tender three hypotheses—“interpretations,” as we call them in the humanities. I’ll save the one with the strongest “religion in the American west” bent for last.

Hypothesis 1. This story isn’t just about Mormons, it’s about modernization. In other words, this story is about a particular instance of a broader phenomenon: modern advances eroding the plausibility of traditional religious claims. The story ran under the headline “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt”—a headline which struck me as giving more prominence to the Internet than the story itself did. So from the get-go, we are being invited to read this as a story about what happens when religious beliefs collide with modern media. Charles Dickens had a quip about how incredible it is for Mormons to preach angels in the age of railways. The NYT has updated that sense of incongruity to: How can Mormons—alternatively, plug in the traditionalist religion of your choice—go on believing what they do in the age of the Internet? With difficulty, according to this story. And the trend, at least as painted in the NYT, is for the religious to painfully adapt.

This way of reading the story could dovetail with another media narrative I’ve been noticing more often lately—a narrative postulating the resurgence of liberal versions of traditional religions (Christianity is usually what’s being discussed), especially among millennials, the latest model of “the modern generation.” I have been surprised to keep encountering this narrative, because I’d become so accustomed to the narrative that “conservative religions are the ones that are growing,” coupled with the narrative that “young people are becoming seekers or nones.” Perhaps I’ve been reading more Rodney Stark than was good for me. At any rate, the NYT story on the Mormon doubters could be read as a distinctively Mormon iteration of the metanarrative that “people today want a more liberal version of their religion,” namely, a version more appropriate to the modern Web-surfing age.

Hypothesis 2. This story culturally marginalizes Mormons by reminding readers of an elite newspaper how incredible their beliefs are. This reading of the NYT story is influenced by my perception—which I have documented elsewhere—that quite a bit of scholarly and journalistic discourse about Mormonism since the 1980s has “exoticized” the religion—this after a period at mid-twentieth century when Mormons enjoyed media representations that painted them as model Americans. A lot of talk about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism during the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns likewise had this function, because exoticizing Mormonism served the interests of various political players who wanted to alienate voters from Romney.

In the musical The Book of Mormon, we’re given a humorous send-up of exotic Mormon beliefs, in the song “I Believe”: I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America. I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob. I believe that God’s plan involves me getting my own planet, and that Jesus has his own planet as well. The NYT story focuses on a different set of Mormon claims, but the subtext is much the same: Who could possibly believe this? Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon while peeping at a rock in the bottom of a hat? He was commanded by God to marry 14-year-old girls? God wanted Mormons to exclude black men from priesthood ordination? No wonder Mormons are grappling with doubt. Readers are meant to be sympathetic, I presume. Simultaneously, though, the story reminds readers that despite Mormons’ social conservatism, despite their presence in mainstream arenas such as business and government, their tradition makes claims that belong on the fringe. Don’t lose sight of that, dear reader, especially the next time you see Mormons running for high political office or professing to defend traditional values.

Hypothesis 3. With this story, an eastern establishment is—still—trying to mold Mormonism according to its own lights. The “still” in that last sentence points back to the nineteenth century, when Protestant reformers, determined to civilize the trans-Mississippi west, used eastern newspapers to rally citizens and lawmakers in the fight against Mormon polygamy and theocracy. Mormons had to be made to embrace proper American values, and they were quite literally denied citizenship (voting rights, statehood) until they did. In their crusade, reformers publicized Mormon or former Mormon voices that represented the appropriate values: the voices of polygamous wives, for example, who had seen the light and left.

This is the most suspicious of my suspicious readings—i.e., I’m hedging my bets—but it looks to me like something a little similar might be happening in this NYT story. Work with me here. We have here an article on the front page of one of the elite of the elite eastern newspapers. (They would probably prefer that I drop the qualifying “one of.”) This article provides a platform for various unofficial Mormon voices who represent a slightly more progressive approach to this religion. An approach that says: We need to be less defensively dismissive of criticism. We need to acknowledge fallibility and wrongdoing on the part of our past leadership. We need to stop being so literal-minded in the way we invest our scriptures with authority. We need, in effect, to be Mormon in a different way. We need to reform Mormonism.

It’s never put that bluntly in the NYT article. But that’s the resonance I pick up as my reading of this article crosses sound waves with the echo of eastern reform-minded journalism about Mormonism from the nineteenth century. Look! the editors of today’s NYT are saying to their readers—a more progressive kind of Mormonism! Mormons are starting to see the light! And that, evidently, for the editors of this elite eastern newspaper, qualifies as front-page news.

Call for Papers

Editors' Note: This call for papers might interest some of you!

The interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary journal, Environment, Space, Place (ZETA Books), is under new editorial direction and is looking for articles from contributors that make the ‘geographical turn’ in their research by framing, or making thematic, the spatial/placial component of the earthly/worldly phenomena. The journal editors are currently reviewing submissions for the Fall 2013 edition.

The journal is published in collaboration with the International Association for the Study of Environment, Space, and Place (IASESP) Also note that annual conferences are held in the spring–2014 will be held at California Institute for the Arts. Please contact Troy Paddock, for more information concerning submitting to the journal, or send your article to him for peer review.

August 5, 2013

Mormon Handcarts: A Symbol that Perseveres

by Jennifer Polopolus-Meredith

Pioneer Day in Salt Lake City, Utah is important. It includes fun filled activities such as fireworks, parades, and a rodeo. A state holiday, Pioneer Day commemorates the passage of Mormons into Salt Lake Valley where they would settle permanently. It is the culmination of the long dangerous trek to find the sacred place for their Zion. Proud of their pioneer past, the remembrance of the trek to Utah has shaped Mormon identity as it has come to embody and promote values important to their community. Within the mythos of the journey to Salt Lake valley, travel by handcarts has become central to the story. 

It is easy to understand the attachment and romanticizing by modern Mormons to those who trekked by handcart. It provides a heroic image of faithful pioneers walking over a thousand miles from Iowa City to Salt Lake through rough terrain pulling their possessions behind. Barely 3000 traveled by handcart, less than 10% of the total migration. Despite the low percentage, those who went by handcart have become the symbol of the journey. Handcart pioneers symbolize the courage, perseverance and dedication of Mormons to their faith and each other. Mostly the poor traveled by foot as covered wagon proved to expensive, but they chose the arduous path rather than stay behind. Faith in God’s plan for them as a community gave them courage and perseverance to cross the dangerous West.

Add to the story of courage elements of tragedy, heroics, and sacrifice and the symbol grows in strength. While mostly poor Mormons pulled handcarts, some voluntarily relinquished the comparative comforts of a covered wagon to walk. Francis Webster and his wife Betsy heeded the call from Brigham Young to help finance other Mormons by traveling with handcarts and donating the savings to the Perpetual Immigration Fund (PIF). In turn, PIF offered loans to less fortunate Mormons so they could also migrate. The Websters declined easier passage because their faith commanded sacrifice for their community. They wanted to help their fellow Mormons to build a stronger society. Modern Mormons also value sacrifice as they sacrifice time and money by paying tithes, volunteering in the church and community and participating in missions that spread the Mormon faith and ethos.

Unfortunately, over 200 died walking to Salt Lake Valley. Leaving late in the season and being caught in early blizzards led to some Mormons freezing, sickness, and starvation. While the deaths may have been avoidable, the tragedy adds to the significance of the handcarts. The early blizzard trapping the handcart companies demonstrates the pioneers at the mercy of the environment. It confirms the danger of the trek West and the courage and sacrifice of those who undertook the journey, especially on foot. Without that element of danger and loss the trek would lose some of its impact. Mormons might have built a myth of God’s protection if all had come through unscathed, but the tragedies highlight the willing sacrifice and depth of faith as people continued to travel by handcart after the events. Even setbacks could not shake their faith in the rightness of their plans.

From the tragic stories of death also come the tales of heroics by Mormons. Mormons searched for those lost in the early blizzards and carrying everyone from the Martin Handcart Company across Sweetwater. Mormons also donated food and other provisions and opened their homes to the handcart pioneers. The story of the rescue at Sweetwater has reached mythic proportions with three Mormons supposedly carrying everyone from the company safely across the river. While not entirely historically accurate, as Chad M. Orton has shown, Mormons did launch heroic rescue efforts to save their imperiled pioneers. Today, Mormons continue to help those endangered and less fortunate with their welfare system and humanitarian aid. While God did not prevent all tragedy, the story takes on a mythical note that only three men saved the whole company. They must have had help from God to carry and protect everyone. In this sense, the tragedy seems proof that God led their journey and watched over their people.

The handcart trek has become the dominant narrative of the pioneer trek to Salt Lake Valley. It has the elements of tragedy, heroics and sacrifice that create an exciting meaningful narrative. It also portrays the important values of sacrifice, hard work, and the centrality of community essential to the Mormon ethos. This is evident in the popularity of handcart treks taken by youth groups and entire wards. Mormons can follow in their ancestor’s footsteps, literally, by renting handcarts and pulling them for a weekend over part of the trail. They learn the history while feeling first hand the hardship and perseverance of their ancestors. Some wards go all out and make their own clothes, walk for ten hours a day, and try to authenticate as closely as possible the experience. They find out first hand, the sacrifice, perseverance, and hard work of their ancestors. Others take a less strict path and dress in modern clothing, and have more of a camping experience using tents and not walking as long. However, they still learn the history and the experience strengthens the bonds of community in the wards and also the youth groups. Fittingly, the handcart has become the symbol of the Mormon migration to Salt Lake Valley.

July 15, 2013

New Resource from Jared Farmer!

We received this note from Jared Farmer the other day about a promising online resource

Dear fellow followers of Mormon (and/or Utah) history,

Please excuse the impersonal nature of this note. I simply want to call your attention to a newly launched website that serves as the permanent home for my two (!) free e-books:

• Mormons in the Media, 1830–2012 (revised edition, now in iBooks format as well as PDF)
• The Image of Mormons: A Sourcebook for Teachers and Students

Cordially, Jared

These look to be promising resources. If anyone would like to review them for our blog, please contact us!

June 28, 2013

James W. Scott Regional Research Fellowship Awards for 2013-2014

Western Washington University’s Center for Pacific Northwest Studies welcomes applications for the James W. Scott Regional Research Fellowships, established to promote awareness and use of archival collections at WWU and to forward scholarly understandings of the Pacific Northwest. The fellowships are awarded in honor of the late Dr. James W. (Jim) Scott, a founder and first Director of the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, and a noted scholar of the Pacific Northwest region. The Center for Pacific Northwest Studies is a program of Western Libraries' Heritage Resources, located in the Goltz-Murray Archives Building.

For more information, see this announcement at H-net:

or here:

June 10, 2013

“Religion in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains” Conference

The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Denver is delighted to host a one-day conference on “Religion in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains”, to be held Saturday, June 22 at the University of Denver, with the support of an AAR Regional Development Grant. It begins with welcoming remarks at 8:45, panel I 9:00-10:30, panel II 11:00-12:30, lunch 12:30-1:45, panel 3 2:00-3:30, coffee break 4:00-5:30, and keynote speech at 7:00. 

This conference brings together scholars from nine universities and colleges around the United States to examine religious identity and practice (including secular and spiritual approaches) around the region, past and present. It is intended to help highlight and bring greater interest to issues of religious identity and practice in the states of the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains, and to provide an opportunity for faculty, researchers, and graduate students to connect with and learn from colleagues. The conference is envisioned as a catalyst for more sustained efforts at regional community building, including future conferences and workshops.

Conference structure

The conference consists of four panels of paper presentations, arranged thematically, highlighting recent research on 20th-century Protestantism in South Dakota, the development of the “Mormon Migration” website, the rise of non-denominationalism in Colorado and the United States, Judaism in early 20th-century Utah, indigenous studies and religious subjectivity, Muslim women in Colorado, Denver-area black churches as agents of change, and Colorado’s influence on Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb, among other topics. Dr. Bonnie Clark, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Denver, will deliver the keynote talk, “Follow the Request of the Stone: Spirituality and Gardening in Internment Camps”, about her work on the World War II Japanese-American internment camp of Amache.

Registration and Attendance

There is no cost to attend the conference and registration, while encouraged, is not required. To register, please email Professor Andrea L Stanton: Lunch and coffee will be provided to presenters and attendees.

Conference Website and Contact Information

For more information about the conference, please visit our website: or email For more information about Dr. Clark and her work, please visit:

June 4, 2013

Book of the Month

Lee Gilmore, Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010) + DVD. 

Review by Dusty Hoesly

Lee Gilmore’s excellent Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man focuses on why so many Burners, as participants call themselves, find the countercultural festival to be culturally and personally significant. Gilmore combines ethnographic fieldwork (based on over a decade of attendance as well as official participation on its Media Team), interviews, surveys, and media reports into a multidisciplinary analysis of religiosity on the playa.

Evolving from a spontaneous effigy-burning on a beach near San Francisco, Burning Man has become a highly organized corporation which manages the annual temporary encampment at Black Rock City in northern Nevada, attracting people from California and around the world. It is a haven and a catalyst for culture jammers and technopagan free spirits. (Incidentally, this year’s theme is “Cargo Cult.”)

Gilmore’s survey data show that most attendees are either “spiritual but not religious” or avowedly secular. By examining this sub-population more closely, Gilmore navigates what religion/spirituality looks like at Burning Man and amongst American “nones” more broadly. For Gilmore, “Burning Man is an important site on the vanguard of this contemporary movement [‘spiritual but not religious’] in which creative expressions of spirituality and alternative conceptualizations of religions are favored, thereby destabilizing and reinventing normative cultural assumptions about what constitutes ‘religion’” (2).

Throughout, Gilmore wisely resists labeling the views of participants or the festival itself as religious, spiritual, or secular. Part of what makes her study engaging and possible is a polysemic understanding of these terms, as well as recognizing the heterogeneity and fluidity of participants’ experiences. Participants’ usage determines how Gilmore operationalizes such terms. Staying close to the ground, in this sense, imbues her analyses with greater legitimacy and persuasiveness. “Ultimately,” she claims, “what matters more to Burners than academic quibbles about what properly constitutes spirituality, religion, or authenticity are their own immediate and idiosyncratic experiences, their encounters with community, their cathartic and visceral rites, and the challenges met and overcome in the crucible of the desert” (155).

Burners seek ritual without dogma, experiences which are spontaneous, immediate, and authentic, open to interpretation, and non-institutional. In this way, Burning Man critiques normative aspects of American culture, even as the meaning of the experiences at Burning Man and the event itself are contested within the community. Transformation occurs not only within individual participants but also in the larger culture, as Burners leave the utopian community on the playa and return to the default society. Burning Man is not just an event but a way of life

The theoretical tools Gilmore deploys—from anthropology to religious studies to media studies—are well-suited to elucidate the events taking place at Burning Man. Gilmore argues that Victor Turner’s theories of liminality, communitas, rites of passage, and pilgrimage not only aptly explain ritual experiences at Burning Man, but also that its organizers explicitly model aspects of Burning Man on his concepts. However, Gilmore is careful to point out places where Turner’s theses do not match perfectly with ritual aspects of the festival: for example, noting that even as a homogenizing communitas is created through Burning Man, social and class distinctions amongst participants remain.

Gilmore demonstrates that both the festival and the effigy itself are open signifiers which mean whatever participants want them to mean, even as various in-group members and Burning Man managers articulate a normative vision for what the festival is and should be. While Burning Man is an open ritual that resists routinization as a barrier to spontaneity, immediacy, and authenticity, these elements are also controlled, rehearsed, and familiar, she argues. The communitas at Burning Man is “increasingly normative or ideological,” and thus contrary to the spontaneity which many participants seek and idealize (117-118). This is just one of many examples where Gilmore reads against the grain of the festival, demonstrating shrewd judgment despite her lengthy affiliation with the festival that has “changed the course of [her] life” (167).

How can Gilmore’s book help us study religion in the American West? First, she encourages us to rethink the categories of religion, spirituality, and the secular, privileging emic perspectives over those of scholars, and stressing contestations within groups as well as with outsiders. We might begin to see religious-looking activity in places we had not expected and beyond traditional institutional settings. What counts as sacred space exists in the eyes and bodies of the beholders. Second, this festival may spur us to explore religiosity in the desert beyond asceticism or nature religion, beyond interiorized and solemn experiences of solitude. Third, Gilmore invites us to examine pilgrimage as a tool and category for analysis in Western religiosity. This could include everything from early marketing materials presenting the West as a place for transformative experiences to national parks and environmental tourism to visiting cultural meccas like Hollywood and Portlandia.

As Gilmore’s treatment of Burning Man and the above examples show, there is no clear line separating sacred and secular, and there never has been: “the persistence of alternative spiritualities and the apparent manifestation of spiritual expressions in ostensibly secular venues such as Burning Man is ultimately nothing new,” she contends (63). “The dynamic and creative deployment of religious discourses and ritual symbols in surprising and compelling new ways at Burning Man—and elsewhere in North American society and culture—illustrates how themes such as transformation and redemption that have traditionally been expressed and developed in ‘religious’ contexts are also experienced and ritualized in ‘alternative’ venues such as Burning Man, which many participants understand as a theater for spirituality, self-expression, communal bonding, and cultural transformation” (165).

As an astute analyst who grounds her theoretical interventions in abundant data, Gilmore has written the definitive account of ritual and spirituality at Burning Man, as well as one of the most exciting books yet about religion in the contemporary American West.

May 27, 2013

Studying Religion in the West

by Joshua Paddison

In my previous installment, I discussed some of my experiences teaching an upper-division course on Religion in the Nineteenth-Century American West for Indiana University's Religious Studies department. Today I'll be presenting the students' perspectives. I asked my current and former students to respond to three questions about the course. (I have omitted the names of students who did not wish to be identified.)

1. What was the most interesting or important thing you learned from the class?

Students' most common response related to the religious and ethnic diversity of the West. "While in elementary and high school I had learned about Native Americans in the West, I truly had only a small understanding of the other influences, such as the Chinese and Mexican Americans," commented Sarah Orth. Similarly, Andrew Sweet wrote, "What I had previously learned about American religious history had been, for the most part, focused on the eastern part of the United States and had not dealt too extensively with the American West. This reorientation helped me to understand the vast amount of religious diversity that had been present within the United States even prior to the turn of the 20th century."

Another common response focused on conflict between groups and how power relations shaped religion. "I found it fascinating how religious leaders sought to make sense of frustrating questions: who is Christian? Who is not? Who is 'civilized'? Who is not? The most important thing I learned is that these are not simply religious questions but social, political, racial, economic, and gendered ones," wrote Travis Cooper. Commented another student, "The extent to which different religious/racial groups were persecuted surprised me. I obviously already knew the plight of the Native Americans, but the Mexican, Asian, and especially Catholic persecution was new to me."

On a lighter note, Dason Anderson reported that "the lengthy discussions on Mormonism have given me an annoyingly academic upper-hand when discussing such things in causal social settings."

2. Has studying religion in the American West helped you think about religion differently? If so, how?

Several students reported that they were now more sensitive to the experiences of non-Protestants. "Studying religion in the West made me think about the assumptions we have about religion as Americans, particularly as a 'white' 'American' person and how much these assumptions in the past have had a negative effect on people who were seen as different or were part of a non-normative religion," said Ann Whaley. Joan Ong commented that the course "encouraged me to be more sympathetic and see things from the point of view of minority religions."

Other students said that they came to see the category of religion itself differently. "Although I knew that American religion is more than just Protestantism, I still tended to have a narrow view of religion," said Amanda Koch. "This class reminded me to think more broadly about religion and examine how different religions interact and sometimes blend."  Another student wrote that studying the West "illuminated how changeable and complex religion is. I think this is commonly underestimated because, in American society, we are so used to various ideologies and belief systems, we forget how they've historically been influenced."

Others reported that they came to view religion's role in American westward expansion differently. "I was of the opinion that a good portion of religious sentiment was just thinly veiled justifications for greed and bigotry," wrote Derek Briles. "I now realize that it's much more complex than that."  Another student wrote that the course "contextualized religious identity in the U.S.'s broader cultural, institutional, and political identity. As the U.S. expanded, the question of how it should expand invited existential questions about what the U.S. actually means and represents."

3. What was your favorite reading (secondary or primary source)?

Students especially enjoyed two accounts, one by Red Jacket and another by Wong Chin Foo, that explained why the authors weren't interested in Christianity. "I enjoyed the pieces that offered resistance to the persecution they faced, such as Red Jacket's and Wong Chin Foo's writings," explained a student. "They offered powerful arguments, arguments I would have thought would have swayed the persecutors." Travis Cooper also appreciated those two authors' "compellingly logical retorts to Christianity's 'Manifest Destiny.'"

Another primary source students enjoyed was Chief Seattle's famous speech. In our discussion, we explored the tortured history of the speech -- see Albert Furtwangler's fascinating book for details -- and pondered what, if anything, it can actually tell us about Seattle's religious beliefs. "I enjoyed this reading because it brought forth such an interesting discussion and it reveals the need to truly examine primary sources," commented one student. "It also shows how even with 'historical' documents we need to question them."

Another popular source was Helen Mar Whitney's defense of Mormon polygamy, "Why We Practice Plural Marriage." "It carries implications not only for how we think about religion and marriage historically, but also how we think about it in contemporary societies today," wrote Andrew Monteith.

To my surprise, several students singled out secondary sources as their favorite. Rani-Henrik Andersson's The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890, Timothy Matovina's Guadalupe and Her Faithful, Amy DeRogatis's Moral Geography, and Cameron Addis's "The Whitman Massacre" all received praise.

I'll give Tyler Dennis the last word on the course: "I learned that historiography has shifted in recent years to focus on a history of the West which does not privilege traditional storytellers, i.e. white/Anglo Americans. Furthermore, that historiography shows that culture did not shift in one direction as whites moved westward. Rather cultural influences moved and reacted in both directions causing synthesis, not conversion."

May 20, 2013

Teaching Religion in the West

By Joshua Paddison

These past three spring semesters, I've had the good fortune to teach an upper-division course on Religion in the Nineteenth-Century American West for Indiana University's Religious Studies department. Having just finished up the third iteration of the course, I thought I would share some of my reflections on teaching western religious history.

As I tinkered and experimented with the course, I moved toward an approach in which students helped to set our agenda. After reading several "foundational" articles on western history, religion in the west, and religious change among Native Americans, I asked the students to help me generate a list of "big questions" with which we would grapple. These would be the questions we would return to throughout the semester; they were also integral to our midterm and final exam format. Here is our list from spring 2013 (I wrote the first six; students generated the others based on their interests):

1. Did religious tolerance flourish in the "wide open spaces" of the West?
2. How did the natural environment shape religion in the West? How did religion shape the natural environment?
3. How did the religious legacies of the pre-American history of the west (Native American, Spanish, Mexican, British) affect the American period?
4. How and why did Native American and/or Asian American “converts” practice, appropriate, adopt, and adapt Christianity?
5. How does studying religion in the west reframe and reorient our understanding of “American” religious history?
6. Why are people religious?
7. Is there such a thing as a “western” religion? (i.e., do religions in the west have especially “western” characteristics?)
8. Why has there been so much religious innovation in the west?
9. Why have there been so many new religious movements in the west?
10. How has religion in the west shaped and been shaped by U.S. national identity?
11. How did westerners use religion to cope with social/political/economic change?
12. How did American Christianity change in going west?
13. How did manifest destiny shape people’s daily religious practice?
14. Did Native Americans imagine themselves from an internationalist/colonialist perspective?

As you can see, these questions include both historical concerns as well as more theoretical. My approach to the course was mainly historical -- we read books and articles by historians as well as primary sources from the period -- but studying religion in the west proved to be an excellent way to grapple with larger theoretical questions regarding the nature of religion, the meanings of “conversion,” how and why religions change over time and space, and how religion is interrelated with other social forces, especially race, gender, sexuality, and nationalism. In the nineteenth-century West, patterns of religious encounter, conflict, accommodation, and exchange played out in especially intensified form, making it a particularly useful place to consider how religions are constantly being made and remade, blending, mixing, and fusing in specific local contexts and in relation to larger structural forces and power dynamics.

After our foundational readings, I divided the course into five thematic units: Manifest Destiny, Violence (in which we compared the Whitman "massacre" of 1847, the Minnesota War of 1862, and the 1890 Ghost Dance), Mormonism, U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, and Immigrants (specifically Chinese and Irish Catholic). I strove for chronological as well as geographical coverage, though I never did include Alaska or Hawai'i, regrettably. Hawai'i in particular would have opened up a fascinating set of issues.

One of the surprises of the course, for me as the instructor, was the extent to which anti-Catholicism spanned virtually every topic we learned about, from Lyman Beecher's "Plea for the West" to the ways the Whitmans' deaths were interpreted, from the dynamics of the U.S.-Mexico War to the ways Chinese Buddhists were represented by Protestants. It leaves me convinced that Protestant-Catholic tensions, though discussed, are not emphasized enough by scholars of western religious history.

Toward the end of each semester, I conducted a “history lab” where students worked in groups with primary sources related to a conflict between a Methodist minister-agent and a Catholic priest on an Indian reservation in the 1870s, drawn from my own research. The primary sources, which include depositions, newspaper accounts, and transcriptions of meetings with Indian leaders, directly contradict one another, forcing the students to think carefully about the limits and reliability of each source. I asked each group to produce a timeline of events; we then compare the timelines produced by the groups to explore how historical narratives are constructed. Finally, I gave them an excerpt from my book that makes use of these sources and I talked with them about how and why I crafted the narrative and analysis as I did. This activity helped students to learn the material but also to approach historical texts with greater rigor and to get a sense of the nuts-and-bolts of how historians create narratives and make arguments.

The primary challenge of teaching a course like this is that, at least in the midwest, students do not enter the classroom having had much exposure to the basics of western history, let alone western religious history. Over time I've moved more toward giving mini-lectures to help them get up to speed about the "facts" so we can discuss readings with more sophistication.

On the final day of class this past semester, we were discussing our "big questions" and it was laid bare that, while students could think of plenty of examples of conflict, war, intolerance, and oppression, they were hard pressed to come up with examples of cooperation, collaboration, and tolerance. This made me wonder: to what extent is that a result of my own preoccupations, personality, and politics? Could a course on religion in the nineteenth-century American West be constructed that emphasized -- or at least included -- happier moments, even if fleeting? What would those moments be? And if we, as historians, have to search hard to find them, should we bother to do so? I honestly don't know, but it is causing me to think about whether I'm over-utilizing a conflict model in my teaching.

You can take a look at a version of my full syllabus here, as presented in IUPUI's Young Scholars of American Religion program. Next week, I will be presenting students' perspectives on what they found valuable in the course.

April 8, 2013

Book of the Month

Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia

Review by Dusty Hoesly

In Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver, BC: Ronsdale Press, 2008), editor Douglas Todd and the volume’s contributors seek to pin down the secular spirituality which they claim pervades the region.  Bringing together a diverse group of writers—including historians, sociologists, theologians, and poets—Todd, a Canadian journalist who covers spirituality and ethics for the Vancouver Sun, insists that while Cascadia has some of the continent’s lowest religious affiliation rates, it remains very spiritual.  Todd defines spirituality broadly to mean “the way that humans create for themselves ultimate meaning, values, and purpose,” and he brings a flexible attitude even regarding committed secularists: “we assume that atheists, who live in record numbers in Cascadia, can and are making profound contributions to this region’s particular sense of spirituality and place” (4).  For nearly every contributor, Cascadian spirituality is characterized by sacred reverence for nature and utopian idealism.  While some authors worry whether Cascadian spirituality is too individualistic and too forward-thinking to sustain a robust social and moral community, Todd claims that Cascadia can serve as a “model for measured progressive transformation, especially regarding how people of the planet interact with nature” (11). 

For the purposes of this book, Todd limits Cascadia to Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, which he claims share a bioregional and cultural cohesiveness.  (Ernest Callenbach’s prescient novel Ecotopia charts a similar boundary, although it includes northern California.)  Prominent themes and similarities include connectedness to nature, sense of place, anti-institutionalism, individualism, idealism, liberalism, experimentalism, openness to contrasts, and a shared history as the last frontier.  In a more critical mood, several authors, from both American and Canadian perspectives, note that Cascadian spirituality can have a dark side too, leading to self-absorption, lack of roots and collective memory, imperialism, faddishness, and rural-urban bifurcation.

In the next few paragraphs, I will highlight some of the diverse approaches and conclusions presented by the book’s contributors. 

Patricia O’Connell Killen—echoing arguments she made in an earlier volume, which was reviewed previously on this blog—contends that the region’s lack of an established religion, low rate of affiliation with religious institutions, and imposing natural environment all shape its spiritual sensibilities.  Since the region had no established political order until the mid-nineteenth century and has never had a dominant religion, she argues, residents have had to actively construct their religious or spiritual identity, if any.  Moreover, due to high physical mobility rates, many residents experience loosening social ties.  The resulting individualism and anti-establishment mentality also indicate a liberal and libertarian moral worldview for the region, she claims. 

Sociologist Mark Shibley states that Cascadian spirituality reveres both self and nature in a “secular but spiritual” matrix.  He locates three prominent strands of this spirituality in apocalyptic millennialism, nature religion, and New Age and new spirituality.  “None of these spiritual practices is unique to Cascadia, but in the absence of a dominant religion, they define regional culture and identity more substantially than they do elsewhere,” he asserts (35). 

Andrew Grenville, a market researcher based in Toronto, observes that Cascadians exhibit privatized belief, skepticism, social liberalism, weak affiliation with institutions, and a DIY attitude—summing up their ethos as “live and let live” (59).  In this open religious environment, fluid spiritual identities flourish. 

Mike Carr, a regional planning professor, outlines the contours of the Cascadian bioregion before presenting his understanding of Cascadia’s “bioregional Earth-centered spirituality,” giving examples (particularly from native peoples) and arguing that this spiritual worldview can serve as a counterweight to the globalization and rapacious capitalism which threaten natural habitats (129).  Mark Wexler, a business ethics professor, examines Cascadian workplace spirituality and notices the tensions between Pacific Northwest environmentalism and utopianism, a paradox perhaps best illustrated by his image of organic farms with Wi-Fi connections. 

As these examples show, Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia articulates a shared cultural identity between Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, and an anti-institutional, DIY spirituality that suffuses the region.  Nevertheless, critical omissions and challenges remain.  The work is largely representative of white, middle-class, urban, liberal perspectives.  It ignores the perspectives of Asians, Latinos, and conservative evangelicals, despite their significant presence in the Cascadian population.  Moreover, since much of this “elusive” spirituality takes its cues from indigenous and Asian traditions, this volume fails to analyze sufficiently issues of cultural appropriation or to give voice to members of those communities.

Aside from these omissions, I wonder how unique Cascadia’s landscape and spirituality are.  All of the volume’s authors agree that the “spirituality of place” that pervades the region is based upon its natural beauty and spectacular wilderness, and several claim that environmentalism is the region’s civil religion.  However, these authors do not explain why the landscape in Cascadia is more inspirational than in other regions, a project which would require a more comparative perspective that is missing from this volume.  The Great Basin region, for example, has produced several notable authors who describe its sacred geography, as have the Rocky Mountains.  Is the rugged landscape of the Pacific Northwest any more beautiful, imposing, or regionally-defining?  And now that New Hampshire and Vermont have eclipsed Oregon and Washington as the least religious states, what remains about Cascadia that is so unique from other regions?  In other words, how would the authors explain a Cascadia which is no longer as singular as they have described it?  

April 1, 2013

Polygamy and Gay Marriage: A Reflection on “Non-Traditional” Marriage

by Konden Smith 

This past week, the Supreme Court has heard two historic cases concerning gay marriage, furthering the intensity of it as a national debate. Jeff Wilson has recently noted that it was in the American West that we see the “earliest religious recognitions of same-sex partnerships.” Interestingly, it was also in the West that we see the first significant argument against traditional marriage (that of “one man and one woman”) as the only viable alternative for American citizens. This fight came from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka. Mormons) as they pled for the country to tolerate their practice of plural marriage. Although the church today has taken a strong public stand against gay marriage, this early Mormon struggle for non-traditional marriage offers an important (if not ironic) contribution to the discussion.

Throughout the nineteenth century, prominent Americans looked to Mormonism and its open practice of non-traditional marriage as a national embarrassment and a direct threat to the integrity of the divinely established institution of the family, and as such, was a direct threat to the nation itself. “I must only beg,” spoke historian Philip Schaff to his German audience in 1854, “in the name of my adopted fatherland, that you will not judge America in any way by this irregular growth.” Just a few years later, American Colonel Patrick Connor argued for the “annihilation of this whole people [of Mormonism].” “If the present rebellion [Civil War] is a punishment for any national sin, I believe it is for permitting this unholy, blasphemous, and unnatural institution to exist almost in the heart of the nation[.]” 

Considered “unnatural,” polygamy was thought to encourage sexual promiscuity and cause birth deformities. The first legal test for Mormons came in the Supreme Court case Reynold’s vs. US (1878). In citing religious liberty, the Mormons claimed that the state had no right to criminalize non-traditional marriages. The Court explained however that the founding fathers “never intended” for religious freedom to hurt innocent women and children through unorthodox marriage, and as such, the government had the right “to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.” Establishing it to be the function of government to encourage “religion” and “morality,” the Court criminalized polygamy. Therefore, in order to protect the ideal family, the government ensured the breakup of non-traditional ones. 

At the height of anti-polygamy agitation, Mormon leaders wrote an official protest, complaining that the 1882 Edmunds law, which helped define marriage as between one man and one woman, as oppressive and severe. President Grover Cleveland, upon receiving a copy of this protest, remarked, “I wish you out there could be like the rest of us.” Mormon leaders publicly shot back: “We are inconsiderately asked to rend our family relations and throw away our ideas of human freedom, political equality and the rights of man, and ‘to become like them.’” They then challenged, “Be like them for what?” “It means that E pluribus unum is a fiction; it means that we tamper with and violate the grand palladium of human liberty, the Constitution of the United States and substitute expediency, anarchy, fanaticism, intolerance and religious bigotry for those glorious fundamental principles of liberty, equality, brotherhood, human freedom and the rights of man.” The Church was emphatic: “We cannot do it….We cannot and will not lay aside our fealty to the nation at the bidding of political demagogues, religious fanatics or intolerant despots.” 

As part of this protest in support of unorthodox marriage, Mormon leaders arranged for U.S. flags on government buildings throughout Salt Lake City to be hung at half mast on Independence Day. With widespread national outrage, the Mormon leaders defended the half mast: “A condition of affairs exists in this Territory which, when understood, every lover of human rights must condemn; and in behalf of ourselves, in behalf of our wives and children, in behalf of the Constitution of the United States, and in behalf of the principles of human rights and liberty in this land and throughout the world, we enter our solemn protest against such iniquitous acts as are being perpetrated here.” According to the Court, however, few crimes were “more pernicious to the best interests of society,” and to not punish them “would be to shock the moral judgment of the community.” The theme was established: marriage between “one man and one woman” was divinely ordained, and any unconventional form of marriage was an affront toward God and a threat against peace and social order. 

Mormon leaders rejected such campaigns as an attempt by the US government to enforce, from the “pulpit of our nation,” a particular sexual and theological “orthodoxy.” Men had the right of forming family bonds and worshiping God according to their conscience, “despite the Supreme Court decisions, despite the action of Congress, despite the expressions of pulpit and press.” This was more than a battle over religious liberty, but instead, “we are fighting the battles of religious liberty for the entire people; it might be said, for the entire world.” Mormons fought for the freedom to establish their own family bonds, however immoral others imagined it to be. Even after Mormons officially ended polygamy, efforts arose to constitutionally define marriage as between “one man and one woman.” Mormons charged that such efforts came from “sectarian ministers of the nation” and were “unjust and uncalled for.” 

In looking at these early contests, there are many parallels between gay and plural marriage. For both, opposition comes largely from theological concerns rather than empirical evidence. For early Mormon leaders, at stake were not just their families, but principles of liberty to determine those relationships according to their own conscience and their own sense of divine morality. Importantly, it was not a national departure from “Christian marriage” that caused Mormon leaders to threaten God’s wrath on the nation, but rather the imposing of a majoritarian familial morality on the rest of the nation.