February 25, 2013

Call for Blog Contributors!

by the Editors

Are you a long-time reader, but desire to be a contributor? Now is your chance! We are looking for new contributors to write for our blog.

Successful posts are around 500 words, engage religion in the American West, and focus on one idea. Blog posts are more conversational than formal academic papers, and are a great forum for thinking through new ideas or current events.

If you are interested, email your contact information, along with a brief description of the blog posts you have in mind, to relamwest@gmail.com.

We look forward to hearing from you!

February 18, 2013

Researching Judaism in the West

by Shari Rabin

Over the last few years the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley has acquired the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life from the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley. Included in this collection is the Western Jewish Americana Collection, which I spent a month with last summer as part of my dissertation research on the importance of geographic mobility in nineteenth century American Judaism. In addition to being a beautiful research facility in a moderate climate with easy access to great food and really strong single origin coffee, working at the Bancroft was an exciting opportunity to research in a major archive with broad holdings in western history.

Jewish materials tend to be held in separate archives, most notably the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati and the American Jewish Historical Society in New York. Such archival divisions beget historiographical ones, however, and I hope that the presence of Jewish materials in the Bancroft, where those with interests outside of Jewish history can easily access them, will help bring Judaism into more studies of religion in the American West.

While there are sources in German, French, Yiddish, and Hebrew, some come with translations and there are plenty of fascinating materials in English. A few highlights from the collection:
The most compelling and robust congregational collection is that of Congregation Sherith Israel, one of the two oldest Jewish congregations in San Francisco. In addition to the congregation’s constitution, minutes, and marriage records, particularly fascinating is its documentation of the contentious relationship between the congregation and its clergy. For instance the collection includes a paper war over animosities with Rabbi Aron J. Messing in 1872 – he was accused of financial misdeeds, misrepresenting his English abilities, and “using during his address from the pulpit profane and indecorous language…to attack the Board of Trustees personally” – followed by a stack of applications from the ensuing search for a new rabbi.

Clerical-congregational acrimony flowed both ways. In 1855 San Francisco’s cantankerous Rabbi Julius Eckman wrote a letter to Solomon Nunes Carvalho, who had been the daguerrotypist on John C. Fremont’s Fifth Expedition. Exasperated with the indifference and bad behavior of his congregants, he noted as an example the “strange mode gaining countenance here of celebrating Wedding banquets.” Receptions were being held – and announced in the synagogue – at the non-kosher Shepherds Brewery Saloon “without grace, without a blessing.” Furthermore, “the room was crowded, people got in spirit[, and] four ladies fell headlong to the ground in the room.”

Of the Collection’s various personal memoirs, of particular interest to American religious historians is Florence Prag Kahn’s 1904 account of living in Utah as a young bride in the late 1860s. In “My Life Among the Mormons” she describes life in Salt Lake City and socializing with Brigham Young, recounting: “Did they ever try to convert us? No. One day Brigham asked us, 'Are you Jews by birth and race, or converts to Judaism?' By birth, race, faith, conviction, was the reply. 'Then you can never become Mormons; no true Jew can be converted to Mormonism.'"

Cantankerous congregants, badly behaved clergy, non-normative religious practice, interreligious encounter: these are not just Jewish stories, but are classic themes of western religious history. If you are conducting research at the Bancroft, consider taking a look, and including some Jewish stories as you document the excitement, challenges, and eclectic forms of Western religious life.

February 15, 2013

Casual Friday


The deadline for proposal for Religion in the American West AAR paper sessions is this coming Monday. See this post for more information.

February 11, 2013

Book of the Month

Anne Butler, Across God's Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012). 

Reviewed by Jennifer Meredith

Anne Butler restores Catholic Nuns to the narrative of and highlights their contributions in shaping the American West. In Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920, Butler uses an array of archived materials from religious convents in the West to trace interactions of Catholic nuns and the variety of people in the West. From creating needed institutions, such as hospitals and schools, to relief for the poor, nuns influenced surrounding communities in the West. In this process, however, Butler argues the environment and interactions with minorities in the West also changed the sisters and shifted their ideas of gender, race, and class. Butler’s analysis portrays the sisters as real, complicated, and flawed women who influenced the West.

Butler asserts the environment and process of civilizing the west forced nuns to become independent and more self-sufficient. Most had come from established convents of order, routine, and authority. The new, harsh conditions and problems of communicating forced the nuns to make their own decisions. Butler writes, “After a few blunder’s, religious women on their own in the West learned to select the sensible solution and defend their actions at a later date” (47). Butler’s argument is compelling partly because she does not discount the community aspect of the sister’s experience. Rather, her argument suggests the nuns as a group became more independent and not just individually.

Through their interactions with different racial and economic groups the sisters began to view the west not simply as a savage place but a place of inequality. Drawing from the diaries of the nuns, Butler demonstrates their activism on behalf of American Indians, African Americans, and Mexicans and their disgust for minority mistreatment. Butler complicates her narrative, however, by acknowledging most sisters continued to hold racist views common in American society at the time. Butler admits, “The women endorsed a dominating Christianity and the layering of one culture over another until the latter became invisible” (245). Rather than these interactions changing the sister’s views of minority culture that they saw as inferior, they continued to try to teach and civilize the minorities into the white dominant culture at the expense of ethnic identities. Butler portrays the sisters as real people limited in their altruistic vision by their subscription to a dominant racial perspective.

Butler also analyzes gender roles and slight power shifts brought on by independence and self-reliance forged in the west. Butler asserts the sisters obeyed the patriarchic system of authority, yet at the same time, they also pushed for autonomy and freedom that many had become accustomed to in the West. Most sisters did not outright challenge the authority of males in the church, nor did they call for women’s liberation. Rather, they worked within the system to subvert individual male authority where it interfered with their goals. They understood their own capabilities and shifted their roles to increase their authority without undermining the patriarchic structure. Gender roles and identity shifted slightly with the introduction of an independent mindset, but governing gender roles continued to prevail. Butler highlights the sisters’ complex interactions with forces and people in the west that shifted their views and identities.

In Butler’s analysis, the West becomes malleable in form as a process with changing boundaries. Her sources draw their own borders, sometimes reaching more east than many western historians would allow. As a process, the boundaries shift with the progression to the Pacific and as savagery gave way to civility. Butler’s West allows us to view the process with its complex intersections of race, gender, class and environment. This analysis offers an appraisal of nuns’ contributions and restores them to their rightful place as important actors in the building of the American West. It also demonstrates the environments affect on the sisters. Merging process with ethnic convergence and conquest, Butler also provides a symbiosis of New and Turner West that demonstrates the value of both approaches.

February 8, 2013

Casual Friday

“Religion in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains” Conference

Call for Proposals

The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Denver cordially invites you to submit paper proposals for the one-day “Religion in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains” conference, to be held Saturday, June 22 at the University of Denver with the support of an AAR Regional Development Grant.

This one-day conference is envisioned to bring together scholars at different career stages to examine religious identity and practice (including secular and spiritual identities and practices) 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 will consist of four panels of paper presentations, followed by a roundtable session in which panel chairs present the highlights of each panel, reflect on the day’s presentations, and offer suggestions for future research. The conference will conclude with a keynote speech by an eminent regional scholar.

Accepted papers will be organized into panels arranged either denominationally or thematically. Papers should reflect current research. Each panel will feature scholars from around the region and should include at least one graduate student, to support career stage diversity. Panels will take an interdisciplinary approach, with multiple disciplines represented, and will leave ample time for interactive discussions with
audience members.

Proposal requirements
Each paper proposal should include the following:

*Paper title (working titles okay)
*Name and affiliation of the submitter
*Email address and phone number of the submitter
*Abstract of 250-350 words, laying out the subject of the paper, the
sources used, and the argument, as well as the methodological approach and
a sense of the subject’s broader significance to the scholar’s field
*A/V needs (Most DU classrooms have projectors, speakers, and dvd players)
*Interest in being hosted by University of Denver faculty and graduate
students, if needed

Submission Address and Deadline
Please submit your paper proposal to: andrea.stanton@du.eduandrea.stanton@du.edu

Please submit your paper proposal by Friday, March 8. Acceptance notices
will be sent by Friday, April 5.

There is no cost to submit or present a paper, nor to attend the conference. Registration will be free and will open in late April.

Housing and Travel

The AAR Regional Development Grant will generously support lunch and coffee for conference presenters and attendees, but cannot provide travel support. The Department of Religious Studies will connect presenters in need of housing with faculty and graduate students who might host them; please indicate your interest in being hosted on your paper proposal.

Conference Website
For more information about the conference, please visit our website:
www.religionintherockiesconference.wordpress.com<http://www.religionintherockiesconference.wordpress.com> or email

February 4, 2013

Call for Papers

“Theories and Methods for the Study of Religion in the North American West” 

We are now accepting abstracts for an AAR papers session around the area of methods for the study of religion and/or theories of religion that grow from or respond to the study of religion in the North American West. At the conclusion of the Religion in the American West Seminar at the AAR in Chicago last year, a significant number of seminar participants voiced a desire to consider how our regional vantage point can and does alter how the category “religion” itself is defined, imagined, and academically employed. In addition to considering these “theories of religion of the American West,” the proposed session will also reflect on methods of study of religion that are suited to (and respond to) the study of religious people, practices, and institutions in the region.

The following suggested topics are meant to aid your reflections on the proposed session theme, but, of course, other related topics are welcome:

· the influence of western geography on the study of religion;

· understanding religion across North American borders;

· explorations of the notion of “frontier” in American religions;

· western demographic realities and the study of religion;

· the West and the formulation of national identity/civil religion;

· research data and analysis unique to the North American West;

The session will feature four short presentations (15-minute maximum) and a respondent, leaving ample time for audience participation. “We will be submitting the session proposal to the AAR as an exploratory session and to the AAR program unit(s) most appropriate to the chosen papers.

Two hundred-word abstracts are due by Monday, February 18. If you are chosen for the session, you will then be asked to write a longer description of your project which will be due Monday, February 25.

Please email your abstract and any questions to both Brandi Denison (blyndenison@gmail.com) and Brett Hendrickson (hendribr@lafayette.edu).

Editors' Note: In light of this call for papers, we have postponed the book-of-the-month until next week, when our newest contributor, Jennifer Meredith, will be reviewing Anne Butler's Across God's Frontiers

February 1, 2013

Casual Friday

For those of you researching Hinduism in the American West, Mike Altman, a PhD candidate at Emory, is looking to propose a panel around this topic for the coming AAR. You may contact him at: mjaltma@emory.edu.