The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 2003, Volume 49, Number 1
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Matthew F. Bokovoy, Book Review Editor


Religion in the Modern American West.

By Ferenc Morton Szasz. Tucson. University of Arizona Press, 2000. Half tones, notes. Xi + 249 pp. $19.95 paper.

Reviewed by Todd Kerstetter, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Texas Christian University.

Religion plays a remarkably important role in many people’s lives, yet historians habitually ignore it. With the exception of significant attention to the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this observation generally holds true for the American West. Ferenc Morton Szasz has made an important contribution toward addressing the paucity of material about religion in the region with this efficient, ambitious, and readable survey.

Defining the West as the region between the 100th meridian and the Pacific Ocean, Szasz argues the region participated in national religious trends, but that westerners shaped those trends into uniquely western experiences. He also argues that as a whole, the region never produced a religious mainstream, “the celebrated individualism of western life has remained preeminent,” and the West may have “set the stage for national religious life in the twenty-first century” (xvi). Szasz pursues these arguments beginning in the 1890s and by dividing the years since into three eras. In the first era, the 1890s to the 1920s, organized religion played an important part to create the West’s institutional infrastructure (hospitals, schools, and orphanages, to name a few examples). And in some places religion provided important social bonds in new communities. During the second era between 1920 and 1960, Szasz believes that western religious conflicts served as a preview of twentieth-century culture wars. For example, he points to the 1952 decision by the Southern Baptist Convention to evangelize the Far West. During the third era from 1960 to the present, he found what might be called rising multiculturalism. Native American faiths received increased popular, sympathetic attention, new government protection (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, for example), and a wave of innovative denominations garnered adherents and headlines signaling the culture wars continued in western settings. Szasz discusses each of the three eras in three chapters, one devoted to overall historical analysis, one to western religious life, and one to leading religious figures. This organization engages readers with human interest stories and enlivens the historical analysis.

Readers of this journal will find particularly interesting Szasz’s discussion of religion in California. Seventh-Day Adventists in southern California receive significant attention, especially concerning their establishment of Loma Linda University. The Point Loma Theosophists and Creation Research Society receive brief mention and Aimee Semple McPherson appears as a featured personality in Part Two.

Some readers may wonder why this book begins in the 1890s. Szasz does not directly address this question and how it might relate to 1890. He mentions, almost in passing, that the 1890 census marked the first time the government collected reliable figures on church membership, number of clerics, value of buildings, and other information. This certainly provides a good starting point for analysis, but given western historians’ love-hate relationship with 1890, it might have been profitable to discuss this issue at greater length. Furthermore, this organizational choice eliminates or diminishes events such as nineteenth-century U.S.- Indian and Mormon policies, which actively sought to limit religious diversity in the West. One minor error cannot escape mention by this reviewer: Fort Worth houses more than one church-affiliated university, but Southern Methodist University is not among them (p. 18). These minor objections aside, Szasz deserves a hearty applause for focusing attention on an important, often overlooked, element in the stories of the American West and for providing an excellent departure point for additional study.

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