Many readers may not think of the American West as a particularly religious place. What do we gain by paying attention to the role of religion in its history?

It is true that the topic of religion rarely comes up in standard narratives of U.S. western history (Of course there a few important exceptions, such as the Spanish colonial missions in California and the Latter-day Saints [Mormons] in Utah.) One reason for this is that the West doesn’t fit neatly into the stories most often told about American religion, which tend to begin with the Puritans and then keep white Protestants at the center throughout.

Paying attention to religion helps historians of the West, or any other region, better understand how diverse groups of people structured their communities and made sense of their lives within a rapidly transforming world. The subject of religion also helps us see how knowledge and power circulates, how certain groups have claimed the moral high ground and the right to rule, and how such claims have been culturally justified and maintained under the law. That process played out very differently in the West than in the rest of the United States

The West has a very different history of colonialism and conquest than the East, and it features distinct chronologies and casts of characters. West of the Mississippi, Native American nations remained mostly in control of their own lands well into the nineteenth century. The Spanish, French, British, Russian, and U.S. empires all established trading and military outposts, at different times and places, but it wasn’t until the second half of the nineteenth century that the United States became the dominant power across most of the region. That timeline is one reason for our focus on the nineteenth century in this special issue.

Could you tell us a little about how and why this special issue came to be?

This special issue grew out of a collaboration initiated by the New-York Historical Society alongside the current N-YHS exhibit, “Acts of Faith: Religion and the American West.” I served as a consultant for this exhibit, and as the senior mentor for a fellowship program organized by the N-YHS and funded by the Luce Foundation in conjunction with it. The articles in this special issue are all written by scholars involved in that fellowship program. Partway through the project, I invited Quincy Newell to write an epilogue for this set of essays. Quincy has spent many years thinking about the history of religion in the American West, and truly I can’t imagine a better way to conclude this special issue.  

Most of our collaboration took place during pandemic times, on Zoom. We did not convene in person until October 2023, just a few weeks after the exhibit opened to the public, when the N-YHS hosted a Friday evening public panel (very well attended!) featuring the work of the scholars in this special issue. It was a very moving experience to gather in person for the first time, and to walk together through the exhibit we’d all been thinking about for so long. The exhibit itself is fantastic. In remarkably compact space, it features a remarkably diverse variety of objects and works of art that tell a much more complex and multidimensional history than most viewers will have encountered before. If you’re in New York anytime in the next few months, I highly recommend that you see it!

What did you learn by working on this project?

This was my first time in the role of guest editor, and so I learned a lot about the logistics of putting together a special issue: the importance of clear communications, the essential role of the peer reviewers, and the challenge of sticking to a publication timeline when life inevitably gets in the way. I’m especially grateful to the PHR editors, Marc Rodriguez and Brenda Frink, for guiding me so skillfully through the process. These were especially important lessons for me this year, as I also moved into the position of co-editor of another academic journal, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion

As a historian, I learned something from each of the articles in this issue. They show, in conversation with each other, how religion is intertwined with the histories of race, gender, capitalism, empire, and resistance in the American West. Some of them use religious stories to challenge the boundaries of the west. Others show how religious logics helped justify and organize imperial expansion. Others show how the law managed and restructured American religion. I am proud to be in conversation with every one of them.

What other kinds of work would you like to see in this area moving forward?

By design, this special issue focuses on the nineteenth century. It does not tackle earlier periods. Nor does it move into the even more complex histories of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. My own work has focused on the racial and imperial politics of religious freedom, and how the category of “religion” has been constructed, imposed, and re-imagined in contexts of imperial conquest and indigenous resistance. There are so many more stories still to be told, not only on these points but on the shifting entanglements of religion—both the category and the variety of traditions it has come to designate—with new configurations of power in the recent past. I am always interested in how diverse communities make sense of their lives, build communities, and navigate their place in the world. But perhaps most urgently, as we face an escalating climate crisis, I would like to see more work on the entwined histories of land, ecology, and religion. What are the connections between religion, extractive capitalism, and climate change in the American West, both historically and into the present? And how can historians track not only the structural violence and the sources of ecological devastation, but also the alternative possibilities that have been dreamed into being in the margins of this vast and perilous world?   

Read the PHR special issue, “Religion in the Nineteenth-Century American West” for free online for a limited time.
Single and/or bulk copies of the special issue (vol. 92, issue 3) can be ordered on the journal’s website. For a limited time, you may save 30% off the cover price of single issues and/or an individual one-year subscription by using discount code “NYHS23” at checkout.

Visit the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit, “Acts of Faith: Religion and the American West” through February 25, 2024.