Religion in the Modern American West
When Americans migrated west, they carried with them not only their hopes for better lives but their religious traditions as well. Yet the importance of religion in the forging of a western identity has seldom been examined.
In this first historical overview of religion in the modern American West, Ferenc Szasz shows the important role that organized religion played in the shaping of the region from the late-nineteenth to late-twentieth century. He traces the major faiths over that time span, analyzes the distinctive response of western religious institutions to national events, and shows how western cities became homes to a variety of organized faiths that cast only faint shadows back east.
While many historians have minimized the importance of religion for the region, Szasz maintains that it lies at the very heart of the western experience. From the 1890s to the 1920s, churches and synagogues created institutions such as schools and hospitals that shaped their local communities; during the Great Depression, the Latter-day Saints introduced their innovative social welfare system; and in later years, Pentecostal groups carried their traditions to the Pacific coast and Southern Baptists (among others) set out in earnest to evangelize the Far West. Beginning in the 1960s, the arrival of Asian faiths, the revitalization of evangelical Protestantism, the ferment of post-Vatican II Catholicism, the rediscovery of Native American spirituality, and the emergence of New Age sects combined to make western cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco among the most religiously pluralistic in the world.
Examining the careers of key figures in western religion, from Rabbi William Friedman to Reverend Robert H. Schuller, Szasz balances specific and general trends to weave the story of religion into a wider social and cultural context. Religion in the Modern American West calls attention to an often-overlooked facet of regional history and broadens our understanding of the American experience.
“Commentators on the contemporary American West rarely even glance at how religion has affected cultural life in the region. In an invaluable addition to the Modern American West series, Szasz redresses this deficiency, conveying the unexpected vitality and the confusing complexity of religious traditions in a region dominated by no one faith but shared by many. . . . [Szasz tells] his many-stranded story with a richness of both anecdotal and sociological detail. . . . A vitally important volume for anyone wanting to understand the strange kaleidoscope of beliefs west of Omaha.”—Booklist
“Lucidly presented . . . Szasz takes pains to present the unique character of Western American religious practice, marked as it is by a mixture of frontier spirit, utopian questing, a certain religious consumerism, and a philosophical eclecticism tied to a secular mind-set that thirsts after an individualistic social order. . . . The comprehensive footnotes and bibliography make this especially worthwhile as a research tool. Recommended.”—Library Journal
“This first major survey on the subject commands a rereading of American history as a whole. . . . It is a work that no historian, whether broadly secular or narrowly denominational, may with impunity ignore.”—Catholic Historical Review
“Provides general readers with a readable introduction to a fascinating field and simultaneously invites specialists in American religious history and the westerning experience to explore an array of important, interesting, long-overlooked topics. Szasz's effectiveness in ‘preaching to two audiences’ is impressive.”—Journal of Presbyterian History
“Thanks to this book, students and practitioners of religion in the West will have an easier time getting the full lay of the land.”—Utah Historical Quarterly
“Interesting and engaging . . . No one can read this book and not be convinced that religion has played and continues to play a prominent role in American life and culture.”—Journal of American History
“Szasz’s work is quite persuasive. His attention to sources and his excellent choices of narrative strategies gives us a richly human West, a West we recognize.”—Journal of Religion
“In the midst of the rich detail, the author has woven a narrative that fits easily the personages and events recorded. For its scope this is one of the best books on religion in the West that has appeared.”—Journal of American Ethnic History
“The strength of this book rests in its cross-denominational approach. Szasz embraces of host of persuasions, placing each into a clear and readable framework. . . . A thoughtful presentation of a provocative and difficult subject by a skilled historian.”—Journal of Arizona History