Welcome to the Religion in the American West site created and maintained by students in Hamilton College’s Religion in the American West course. One of the learning outcomes for the course is that students “synthesize the religious history of the American West by identifying key figures, groups, ideas, and events and explaining the connections between them.” This site accomplishes that objective in a collaborative way: students worked together to design the site and create its content–and future generations of students will add to it.
What do we mean when we talk about religion, or when we talk about the American West? This course has left the definition of religion deliberately vague, but we generally understand the term to encompass both traditional religious systems like Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism, as well as less institutional expressions that address questions of meaning, ethical obligations, and humans’ place in the cosmos.
The American West is a similarly fuzzy category in scholarship. In this class, we have used Richard White’s political definition:
The American West is that contiguous section of the continent west of the Missouri River acquired by the United States, beginning with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803; continuing through the acquisition of Texas, the Oregon Territory, and the Mexican Cession in the 1840s; and ending with the 1854 Gadsden Purchase of the lands between the Gila River and the present Mexican boundary (White, 4).
But White also argues:
What connects the various parts of the West, the various ethnic and racial groups and classes, … is a series of interlocking relationships. These relationships are historical. They developed over time; they were not latent in the place itself…. A common dependent relationship to the federal government and a common economic origin in a largely extractive and service-based economy were formative influences. A dual labor system based on race and the existence of minority groups with distinctive legal relationships to the larger society have defined the American West; particular patterns of party loyalty and political organization, and widespread aridity, have proven to be enduring traits. Except for aridity they are all creations of the history of the region. They have made the West a historical creation (White, 539).
The work of our course, then, has been to explore how the West, and religion in the West, was shaped, practiced, and experienced in a variety of ways through those historical relationships. We invite you to explore with us, and to check back as we continue to develop this site. Thanks for visiting!
–Quincy D. Newell, December 2015
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Goff, Philip. “Religion and the American West.” In William Deverell, ed., A Companion to the American West, 286-303. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Hine, Robert V. and John Mack Faragher. The American West: A New Interpretive History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.
Maffly-Kipp, Laurie F. “Eastward Ho! American Religion from the Perspective of the Pacific Rim.” In Thomas A. Tweed, ed., Retelling U.S. Religious History, 127-48. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Newell, Quincy D. “Religion and the American West.” Religion Compass 6, no. 11 (2012): 488-99.
White, Richard. “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
Featured Image: In the Distance, by Angus MacRae, cropped for use here. Used according to the terms of the Creative Commons License.