Religion in the American West can be defined by its people and their interactions with each other and their environments. Richard White stated, “the West did not suddenly emerge; rather, it was gradually created” (White, 4). White was suggesting that the creation of the West’s culture and identity were through interactions amongst its settlers. While it has always physically been there, it has culturally changed and been divided for many different reasons. Whether it be because of Indigenous people defending their sacred spaces, the Mormons migrating to escape oppression or gold miners searching for instant riches, each group’s ideas and cultures can be seen through their establishments and interactions.
When discussing the different populations in the American West, one must understand the motives for settlement. In America, the belief in Manifest Destiny spurred expansion and led to the eventual colonization of the American West. The idea of Manifest Destiny refers to the God-given right of Americans to settle and colonize the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast (Denial). This belief is directly related to religion, as the word of God justifies the motives of Christian religions to migrate to, and further develop in, the West. While some religious followings migrated primarily due to a belief in Manifest Destiny, others relocated for religious freedom. Facing religious persecution in their previous homes, many people had relocated to the American West. As they established themselves in the West as people, they also established their religions. In 1847, the Mormons settled in the Salt Lake Valley to escape persecution and made that location the hub of their religion. Likewise, Latinx Catholics escaped religious persecution by settling in the American West, which became a sacred center outside of Mexico.
While Manifest Destiny and religious freedom are important in understanding migration, one cannot forget the existing inhabitants of the American West. Long before other populations migrated, Indigenous people lived throughout the region. Indigenous people had a strong connection to the American West, as specific places were of importance in their religions. For example, Devils Tower has been a significant location in the culture of the Lakota Sioux. To this day, the Lakota Sioux practice their religion at Devils Tower and strive to protect it from outsiders. The different motives and cultures of inhabitants led to the establishment of religion in the American West.
In closing, different groups’ associations with the West have changed both its history and culture. Today, for example, Mormonism still dominates Utah, Catholicism and Latinx culture thrive within Southern California, and Indigenous peoples’ sacred spaces are still highly debated. These examples show that the religions and cultures of each respective group, some established centuries ago, are still prominent in everyday life. This can allow one to understand how important people were and still are to the continued development of religion in the American West.
– Quinlan Crowley and Mike Cantarella, 2018
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Denial, Catherine. “Manifest Destiny: Creating an American Identity.” Teachinghistory.org.
Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: Norton, 1987.
Newell, Quincy D. “Religion and the American West.” Religion Compass 6, no. 11 (November 2012): 488-499.
White, Richard. “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.