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.