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.