Religion in the Modern American West. By Ferenc Morton Szasz. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2000. Photographs, index, xi + 270 pages. $35.00 Cloth.
Reviewed by Mary L. Mapes, a visiting research associate at the Polis Center at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.
Ferenc Szasz begins this study with the observation that in the last twenty-five years western scholars have “reinvigorated” the history of the West with “approaches that ranged from the traditional narrative line to that of bold revisionism,” but that most have ignored religion (p.xi). Religious historians have also given the West short shrift, even though they have begun closely examining the impact of space and place on religious practices and institutions. By bringing religion to the center of western history and also placing the uniquely western religious experience into the larger narrative of American religious history, this book addresses both of these audiences. Drawing on both secondary literature as well as his own primary research, Szasz writes a history that is long overdue. The most striking fact of the western religious landscape at the beginning of the twentieth century was its diversity and, in contrast to the rest of the nation, the relatively small mainline Protestant population. In Arizona, Catholics constituted a clear majority and Mormons were more numerous than either Presbyterians or Methodists. Catholics were the majority in many other western states including New Mexico, Montana, Nevada and California. At a time when mainline Protestants still felt entitled to define civic life in most cities east of the Mississippi, only 15 percent of all church members in San Francisco attended Protestant churches. While much of the West was heavily Catholic, there were important exceptions, including Utah, where Mormons constituted 84.7 percent of all church members. Almost one hundred years later, at the end of the twentieth century, the West has become even more diverse. Catholics, evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and Jews share this region with a growing number of Buddhists and Islamic converts even as homegrown New Age faiths attract wider audiences. These figures provide an interesting contrast to other regions in the country, and Szasz’s discussion of the West’s distinctiveness makes clear that this region needs to be incorporated into the larger national narrative of religious history even as it reconfigures that narrative.
In addition to describing in detail the changing religious landscape of the West, Szasz brings the study of religion into the mainstream of western history itself. One of the strengths of Szasz’s book is that he shows how the West participated in national developments and movements such as the social gospel movement, the Great Depression, and World War II, although he argues that westerners “generally bent these trends along their own trajectories” (p. xv). For example, Szasz points out that western religious communities representing a broad array of theological and social beliefs began offering the kinds of social programs associated with the social gospel long before the movement itself became popular. And, in contrast to the East, Szasz argues that these religious peoples were often the only groups involved in such social activities. As a result, religiously affiliated hospitals, orphanages, and schools provided the infrastructure that many western towns and cities depended upon. Even as the West participated in national trends, the region faced its own unique hardships. Szasz describes how religion proved critically important for the construction of community life among westerners. This included the European immigrants who settled in the rural West and for whom religion provided the “core of ethnic identity” as well as groups like the Mormons who used the economic calamity of the Great Depression as an opportunity to build a largely self-contained and self-sufficient social welfare system that still operates today (p.36). Throughout the book Szasz devotes a considerable amount of space to leading western religious figures, including some who had national reputations such as Aimee Semple McPherson and Robert Shuler, and others who were known only locally. Religious movements that had their origins in the West before spreading outward are also discussed. These include John Muir’s “Nature religion” as well as Native American spiritual traditions, which when considered together, Szasz argues, “may rank as one of the nation’s most rapidly growing contemporary faith perspectives” (p.63).
In this book, Szasz attempts, rightfully so, to cover a broad time frame and discuss an impressively wide array of topics, issues, and themes. At times, however, the book jumps too quickly from topic to topic without weaving sufficiently strong conceptual threads through them. In part the problem may lie in the difficult balance between paying enough attention to the internal stories of individual religious leaders, congregations, and denominations while still placing them within the region’s larger social and cultural history. Despite this weakness, however, this book is an important one that will influence both western historians and religion scholars.