This essay surveys the parallel trajectories of U.S. western history and U.S. religious history to suggest what each of them can gain from deeper mutual engagements. It argues that U.S. western history and its adjacent fields can benefit from more sustained attention not only to particular religious practices and traditions, but also to the dynamics of religion-making or, in other words, to the social processes that configure “religion” and shape assumptions, both popular and scholarly, about where it can be found and how it operates. This essay is the introduction to a special issue of Pacific Historical Review, “Religion in the Nineteenth-Century American West,” guest edited by Tisa Wenger. The special issue consists of this introduction; articles from Carleigh Beriont, Danae Jacobson, Jonathan Calvillo, Cori Tucker-Price, Tiffany Hale, Dylan Yeats, and Jeffrey Turner; and a conclusion from Quincy Newell.

If religion is a hard topic for historians, as Kathryn Lofton has recently observed, then the disciplinary preoccupations of U.S. western historians arguably make it harder still for them. Lofton explains that the academic discipline of history developed in the twentieth century as part of a larger secularizing endeavor. It aimed to displace religion (in this case, the cultural power of Christianity) with more objective and scientific sources of authority. Modern historians offered thoroughly material explanations for the events of the past, relegating the providential claims of their predecessors to the proverbial dustbin. Like most intellectual elites, these historians believed that all religions, not just those they deemed “heathen” or “primitive,” were fated to disappear. Far from treating religion as a credible source of authority, they hardly considered the subject worth studying at all.1

This assumed irrelevance may be doubly true for historians of the American West, who have too often overlooked the possibility that religion might be a relevant subject for the region they study.2 For a different set of reasons, at the same time, the western United States has been structurally marginalized in the study of American religion. This double historiographical lacuna is thankfully coming to an end, as we will see, and the essays in this special issue illustrate a rich variety of new work in this area. My introductory essay surveys the parallel trajectories of U.S. western history and U.S. religious history to suggest what each of them can gain from deeper mutual engagements. I argue that U.S. western history and its adjacent fields can benefit from more sustained attention not only to particular religious practices and traditions, but also to the dynamics of religion-making or, in other words, to the social processes that configure “religion” and shape assumptions, both popular and scholarly, about where it can be found and how it operates. In the field of religious studies, the concept of religion does not designate an unchanging set of practices and traditions. Rather it is a socially constructed category with social and material consequences at stake in its delineation. My own work has shown, for example, how U.S. authorities historically defined and criminalized Native American traditions as “savage” or “heathen,” not legitimately religious; and how Native people responded in self-defense by (re)defining them as religion.3 On the other hand, the insights and trajectories of U.S. western history can usefully reorient the study of American religion. Current debates over transnational or trans-imperial, settler colonial, and Indigenous studies, especially, offer salutary cautions and productive directions forward. The seven articles in this special issue collectively point toward new trajectories for both fields.

The American West emerges in this set of essays—and beyond—as profoundly diverse along religious lines. This diversity took shape, from the eighteenth century into the present, under conditions of profound imperial violence. In the nineteenth century, the focus of this special issue, the United States fought against multiple Native nations and jockeyed with competing British and Spanish empires, as well as an emergent independent Mexico, to build a newly continental empire. In contrast to the eastern half of the continent, the chronology of U.S. conquest west of the Mississippi made it hard for arriving Protestants to assume their own preeminence. White Protestant settlers in this region were generally outnumbered: by Native Americans, some of whom maintained their own religious traditions even as they embraced Catholic or Protestant affiliations; by predominantly Catholic populations in much of the Southwest; and by Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in Utah. Asian immigrants brought a growing diversity of religious traditions to the Pacific Rim. Jews built new lives and communities in many western cities, from Cincinnati to San Francisco and beyond. Miners, ranchers, railroad workers, soldiers, and fortune-seekers could belong to any of these groups—or might shape religious worlds across and beyond them—and yet have too often been depicted as if they were entirely outside the purview of religion.4 All of these religious differences were refracted through cross-cutting racial and imperial conflicts. Religious practices, communities, and institutions shaped how westerners of all kinds addressed such conflicts and how they envisioned new futures along the way. More recently, despite the region’s non-religious reputation, both the Pacific Rim and the Intermountain West have been home to evangelical revivals and to alternative new religious movements of all kinds. Accompanying this religious ferment have been heated contests over the contours of (good) religion and its appropriate public role.5

Historians’ assumptions of U.S. western secularity thus say more about the discipline than they do about the region. Sarah Koenig shows in her recent book Providence and the Invention of American History how interpretive battles over a profoundly western story, the once-ubiquitous legend that missionary Marcus Whitman saved Oregon for the United States, played a key part in the triumph of a more scientific model of historical scholarship nationwide. Koenig is careful to note that this was not a story of secular scholarship winning out over all religion. Racial and religious outsiders in the Pacific Northwest, including Catholics, were the first to push back against the Whitman Saved Oregon story in order to undermine the easy conflation of white Protestants with the United States. In ways consistent with their own religious interests, they reformulated history as a secular discipline, one grounded in human action, and minimized both the power and the presence of (a particular kind of) religion.6

By the early twentieth century, responding perhaps to the relative lack of Protestant cultural authority across much of the U.S. West, most historians of this region assumed the inevitability of religious decline. Frederick Jackson Turner’s influential frontier thesis followed the norms of the new scientific history. Turner sought human and material explanations for what he considered civilizational “progress” and viewed churches or any other religious organizations as Old-World institutions that had played a temporary role on the frontier but—much like the Indians—were already melting away. But Turner and other historians did not recognize the extent to which Christian visions were built into the imperial ideology of Manifest Destiny, and they carried these visions forward in altered form.7 As Koenig notes, Turner rejected overtly religious explanations for historical events, even as his thesis “followed the contours of providential teleology from savagery to civilization.” With Native nations across the region confined to shrinking reservations, a modernizing West could proudly situate itself at the heart of an increasingly global U.S. Empire. Secularizing historiographies thus joined in the hubris of imperial management and control.8

Turner’s thesis gained currency among U.S. church historians in the early twentieth century, who adopted the frontier paradigm to explain what they saw as the distinctively dynamic characteristics of American religion. As its name implies, church history was based largely in seminaries and assumed a commitment to Christianity on the part of scholars and readers alike. When these historians spoke of “American religion,” they meant Christianity, and often white Protestant Christianity in particular. U.S. Catholic historians formed a separate guild, motivated by their own investments in proving the patriotic bona fides of their church.9 Black religion, beyond the path-breaking work of African American scholars like W.E.B. DuBois and Zora Neale Hurston, was represented as pathological if it was mentioned at all. And within the disciplinary conventions of an imperial academy, Native American religious traditions fell under the purview of anthropology, which designated them “primitive” and a source for understanding the origins of human religiosity writ large.10 The University of Chicago Divinity School professor William Warren Sweet could thus argue in the 1930s that the dynamism of the frontier had sparked the creative energies, the revivalism, and the free-spirited anti-intellectualism that he thought characterized American religion. His was an exceptionalist history of Protestants in an expanding United States, and he differed from Turner and his disciples only in the prominence he gave to (this kind of) religion.11

In the second half of the twentieth century, as scholars in both fields began to push back against the grand narratives of their disciplinary formations, new academic trajectories worked against more substantive intersections between them. American religious history, located increasingly in the new field of religious studies and rejecting the framework of church history, was by the 1970s moving decisively away from the frontier paradigm. Cutting-edge scholars produced locally grounded social histories that upended older grand narratives of all kinds. Yale historian Sidney Ahlstrom’s magisterial synthesis, A Religious History of the American People (1972), continued to place the Puritans and their evangelical descendants at the heart of the American story even as it acknowledged the need for new and more diverse accounts. As with many of his contemporaries in the field, Ahlstrom’s impatience with the frontier thesis led to a general lack of interest in the West. “The creativeness of the frontier, or rather, the power of the frontier to alter or refashion whatever came into it, must be minimized,” he wrote. In a discipline shaped by the imperialist teleology of Manifest Destiny, it was evidently impossible to envision a religious history of the American West that was not defined by the westward movement of the frontier. A new generation of historians looked for European antecedents and connections as a way to challenge American exceptionalism and rethink their field.12

Meanwhile, the rising stars of the New Western History pushed back still more emphatically against the Turnerian frontier. But these scholars were even less inclined than their predecessors to address the subject of religion. Rejecting older emphases on the process of the shifting frontier—and the American exceptionalism that it had furthered—they developed social and environmental histories of the West (or portions thereof) as a distinctive place. The leading historians in the field, such as Patricia Limerick, Richard White, and Donald Worster, studied the West, in Worster’s phrase, as “an evolving human ecology.” They wanted to account for imperialism and its many consequences while avoiding older stories in which an advancing frontier determined the scope of the historian’s interest. The developing field of borderlands history, too, pushed back against the notion of a singular frontier by centering instead the conflicts and complexities of life at the borderlands of competing empires and neighboring nations.13

The New Western History was equally shaped by the variety of social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, movements that had enabled the development of new academic programs in women’s studies, African American studies, Latinx studies, Asian American studies, Native American studies, and more. At long last, historians of the American West began attending more seriously to Indigenous histories and the sovereignty of Indigenous nations; to specific regional histories of race, class, and gender; and eventually to sexuality as well. Much of this work was implicitly or explicitly informed by a Marxist materialism that had long treated religion as a relatively unimportant (and declining) cultural epiphenomenon. Where it appeared at all, religion was typically portrayed by these fields as inherently anti-intellectual and as a threat, both to scholarly objectivity and to human thriving.14

The culture wars of the late twentieth century arguably intensified these academic trends. The disciplinary transformations of the 1980s took place alongside a right-wing backlash that organized many white Christians into a new era of conservative political action. In public discourse and in the eyes of most historians, the subject of religion was increasingly tied to the political agenda of white Christian nationalism. Historians could no longer ignore the subject of religion, but more than ever they saw it as a problem. A flurry of anxious scholarship appeared on the new religious right. But it took several decades for scholars to see the particularly regional dimensions of white Christian nationalism—at least in some of its iterations—and to locate this movement also as part of the history of the American West.15

The field of American religious history likewise grappled in the late twentieth century with the challenges of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Scholars like Albert Raboteau, Barbara Welter, Charles Long, and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham opened up new ways of thinking about American religion that centered new sets of voices and posed new challenges to the grand narratives that had for so long dominated the field. Very little of this work attended to the U.S. West or to the distinctive trajectories and insights that its history could provide. A classic essay by David Wills, for example, formulated three key themes for U.S. religious history—“Pluralism, Puritanism, the encounter of Black and White”—which he located geographically in the Mid-Atlantic, the Northeast, and the South. In this formulation, the western half of the continent was nowhere to be found.16

The influential volume Retelling U.S. Religious History (1997), edited by Thomas Tweed, experimented with a variety of alternative narrative centers. What would it look like, authors asked, to place women, sexuality, ritual theory, contact and colonialism, the Canadian borderlands, or the “supply-side interpretations” of sociological theory at the center of U.S. religious history? Among the most influential pieces in this collection—and the most pertinent for our purposes—was Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s “Eastward Ho! American Religion from the Perspective of the Pacific Rim.” Building on her book Religion and Society in Frontier California, Maffly-Kipp pushed directly back against the assumed centrality of the eastern seaboard and challenged the east-west trajectories that were (and still are) assumed in most textbook narratives of American religion. Her question—what would it mean for historians of American religion to center the people and places of the Pacific Rim?—remains a significant one for the field.17 A dozen years later, under the vast umbrella of the American Academy of Religion, a cohort of younger scholars organized a working group on the topic of Religion in the American West. This group was short-lived as a formal AAR unit, revealing the limits of support for this area within the guild, but it maintains an online presence and has continued to convene informally. Scholars more or less connected to this working group have taken Mormon, Catholic, Native American, and Latinx religious histories out of their respective historiographical silos into wider conversations about capitalism, settler colonialism, modernity, secularism, the American West, and American religion.18

This special issue of the Pacific Historical Review is the product of a different collaboration, one that also reveals the growing importance of visual and material culture in the field. Both the New-York Historical Society and the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, the latter in collaboration with Southern Methodist University’s Clements Center for Southwest Studies, are currently planning museum exhibitions and fostering scholarly conversations under the rubric of Religion in the American West. The N-YHS exhibition “Acts of Faith: Religion and the American West” is scheduled to open in the fall of 2023 and will subsequently travel to the Eiteljorg. In conjunction with “Acts of Faith” and with generous funding from the Luce Foundation, the N-YHS sponsored a fellowship program that facilitated the development of this special issue and will conclude with a public panel at the exhibition opening in fall 2023. All this activity bodes well for generative new scholarship on the visual, material, and imperial histories of religion in the American West.

The field of U.S. western history, in recent years, finds itself at something of a turning point. As Indigenous studies, settler colonial studies, and transnational or trans-imperial frameworks have grown, the New Western History with its insistent focus on place and region no longer feels so new. Influential works center Indigenous perspectives and locate Native American nations (or empires) as key actors not only in the U.S. West but across U.S. history. Many historians now locate the American West and its constitutive subregions within larger comparative histories of settler colonialism, capitalism, or empire.19 These trends are not universally celebrated. Some criticize the framework of settler colonialism, in particular, for flattening out the full complexity of history and so reinscribing a teleology in which U.S. conquest appears inevitable. This framework can also have the effect of re-centering white settlers and creating a false binary between white and Indigenous people, leaving little analytical space for Black, Asian, and many other communities in the American West. Given these critiques, the analytic lens of settler colonialism is best applied with careful attention to historical particularities and the messiness of human identities on the ground. As with any analysis that unpacks systemic and deeply embedded relations of power, such work requires historians both to show how these systems became so powerful and to tease out the contingencies and counter-possibilities that no structure, however hegemonic, has ever fully controlled.20

The discipline of religious studies offers useful tools toward these ends. Scholars in this field examine not only the practices and institutions that are conventionally recognized as religious, though these remain important; but also, how and why the boundaries between the religious and the not-religious are defined and policed. What is at stake when the American West is labeled exceptionally irreligious, or when certain populations therein—Native Americans, Mormons, Asian immigrants, or Muslims—are labeled problematically religious, or when their own assertions of religious dignity meet with claims that they are not (legitimately) religious at all? Such disputes function to police the boundaries not only of legitimate religion, but also of the U.S. polity and who belongs within it, thus grounding and enabling the biopolitics of an expanding U.S. empire. They constrain the traditions that are condemned by the white Christian majority, pushing these traditions to shape-shift in hopes of gaining recognition as legitimate religion. They also influence the attitudes, practices, and experiences of many in the majority, who too often define themselves over and against that which they condemn.21

Still, the field of American religious history has only begun to grapple seriously with the implications of U.S. imperialism and of settler colonialism as its first and arguably most significant form. Focusing on the American West as a site of settler colonial conquest and governance—a place shaped by intersecting and ongoing imperial systems—makes a different set of events relevant to our inquiry, brings new casts of characters into view, and offers new angles of vision on more usual suspects and frequently narrated events. These themes are critically essential across the long arc of American history from the early colonial period up to the present. For a field that too often remains accustomed to an east-to-west narrative and to the assumed centrality of white Protestants, these moves defamiliarize American religious histories in productive and even necessary ways.

This special issue showcases new ways of thinking about religion in the nineteenth-century American West, locating these histories always within an expanding continental empire. These authors are not preoccupied with carving out a distinctively “western” story, or with policing the boundaries between what is western and what is not. Nor do they treat religion as a unitary or singular phenomenon, but rather as a constantly shape-shifting field that is entwined with other dimensions of historical change. They tell multivocal, multidirectional, transnational stories that are embedded in local and global power relations. They attend to the perspectives of Indigenous people and the significance of Indigenous nations; to the imperial inequities that have structured so much of American life; and to the complex intersections of race, indigeneity, gender, sexuality, and other formations of identity and difference. They are concerned with materiality, practice, and the intimacies of daily life; they ask how individuals and communities construct their identities, make meaning, build connections, erect boundaries, and imagine “otherwise possibilities” (in Ashon Crawley’s evocative phrase) for their worlds.22 Attending to discourses about religion—and to the religious traditions that they shape and sometimes constrain—thus offers new ways of seeing the racial, settler colonial, and trans-imperial histories of the American West.

As special issue editor, I have grouped these seven articles into three thematic sections.23 The first two, under the heading “The Economies of Missions,” address the relational and material economies of nineteenth-century missionary labor and show how these missions shaped imperial and trans-imperial worlds. Carleigh Beriont’s piece on the Children’s Mission Ship, organized by the American Board of Foreign Missions as a way for U.S. children to support Protestant missions to the Pacific Islands of Micronesia, reminds us that missions moved beyond national and imperial borders, and that the American “West” came into being as part of an imagined geography of U.S. expansion. In Beriont’s account, the Children’s Mission Ship helped forge a Protestant public that enacted and enabled imperial expansions both across the continent and across the Pacific. In a very different context, Danae Jacobson examines the gendered labor of begging as performed by Catholic missionary sisters among gold miners in territorial Montana. Challenging the standard narratives of a Catholic historiography that has viewed these nuns as champions of Catholic civilization, Jacobson locates them instead as workers, much like the miners, invested in building Catholic futures but locked into the gendered economies of an expanding settler empire. By showing the centrality of place and landscape to these economies, too, Jacobson demonstrates the potential intersections of religious and environmental histories.

In the second section, three essays on Latinx Protestants, Black Californians, and the 1890 Ghost Dance come together under the heading “Race, Religion, and Resistance.” These articles ask how racial and religious identities were mutually defined in the nineteenth century and how racial-religious minorities made space for themselves within (or beyond) the constraints of U.S. empire. Using the metaphor of grinding chile peppers, Jonathan Calvillo shows how Hispanos wrestled with the tensions of Protestant traditions that had first been introduced to them by white missionaries. By memorializing the figure of Ambrosio Gonzales, argues Calvillo, Latinx Protestants have bolstered their collective identities in a changing world. In the next article, on Black citizenship and religious life in Southern California, Cori Tucker-Price suggests that attacks in the white press on the Black entrepreneur Mary Ellen Pleasant, maligned as a “voodoo queen,” worked to police Black arrivants into conformity with white settler standards for good religion. Tiffany Hale’s article on the rapture of the Ghost Dance insistently centers Indigenous ways of knowing and being, resisting historiographical tendencies to make the Ghost Dance legible and non-threatening to a white settler society. Rather, Hale insists, this ceremony signified Indigenous ways of marking time and of envisioning lives free of settler colonial bounds. These authors do not posit simple polarities of accommodation and resistance. Rather, they develop nuanced accounts of how three very different communities navigated, in dramatically constrained circumstances, to build meaningful lives and envision new ways forward. All three help us see how racially marginalized and colonized communities used religious practices and vocabularies to reimagine their places in an expanding settler empire.

The third set of articles, which I’ve titled “Governing Religion,” show how religion operated as a tactic of governance both in national politics and in U.S. immigration policies. Dylan Yeats uses President Rutherford B. Hayes’s western tour in 1880 as an entrée into the significance of the region for the religious and political culture wars of the Gilded Age. Yeats offers a bird’s eye view of how Protestant moral reform energies aimed to discipline the diverse populations of a newly conquered west under an expanded federal authority. Then, in an article that moves through San Francisco and New York—ports of entry for the Pacific and Atlantic worlds—Jeffrey Turner shows how immigration policies worked to co-constitute race and religion in discriminatory ways. The Bureau of Immigration used anti-polygamy restrictions not only to police the Mormon immigrants who had inspired them, Turner shows, but also (and even more insistently) against the Sikh and Muslim immigrants who were largely traveling across the Pacific and arriving in San Francisco. Where U.S. immigration officials construed new arrivals from India and other parts of Asia as simultaneously religious and racial deviants, the predominantly European Mormons generally found it possible to disavow polygamy, plead the rights of conscience, and benefit from their own presumptive whiteness.

Finally, in a lyrical set of concluding reflections, Quincy Newell remixes themes across these articles to reflect on how westerners have forged “religion” in ways that sometimes facilitated colonial governance, but at other times pushed back against U.S. projects of imperial conquest and control. By asking not only when and what we are studying here, but also who, what, and why, Newell pushes us to think more expansively about new approaches and imaginative frames through which we might re-envision the study of religion in the West.

By way of conclusion, I want to reflect briefly on some new directions for future research that are suggested by this set of essays and by what is missing from them. This special issue deliberately showcases nineteenth-century histories of colonization, migration, and immigration. We need more work on how westerners of all kinds—especially Indigenous peoples, immigrant workers, and other marginalized populations—have practiced and conceptualized religion; how territorial, state, and federal governments delineated and managed religion; and how the religions forged through these processes intersected with other dimensions of meaning-making and identity formation. Far more remains to be done, too, on the religious histories of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The American West in recent years has experienced dramatic transformations through new industries, new technologies, new waves of immigration, and new contests over natural resources and public lands. Religious movements, traditions, and visions have all played a part in these changes in ways that scholars are only beginning to explore. The oppositional contours of the religious and the secular, too, are being transformed. Some conservative Christians have claimed religious exemptions to vaccine mandates and employment discrimination laws, for example, thus identifying these concerns as centrally and essentially religious. Other Americans assert the right to religious freedom either for self-identified secularist organizations or for groups like the Church of Satan and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which claim the prerogatives of religion—and sometimes assume the functions of religion—more or less intentionally to parody or provoke.24 Minority religions such as Islam, meanwhile, continue to be targeted and labeled as un-American, at least in part through allegations that they are not legitimately or properly religious.25 Religion is being constructed, contested, and managed in new ways, too, across the expanding arenas of commerce, fitness, arts and entertainment, social media, video games, and other virtual worlds.26 All of these developments have distinctive valences in the twenty-first century American West that deserve our sustained attention.

The essays that follow dig deeply into the nineteenth-century precursors and foundations of these contemporary concerns. They ask how Christian missions operated as part of larger imperial economies; how race, religion, and citizenship were co-constituted in the nineteenth century; how colonized and marginalized peoples imagined their worlds otherwise in rebellion against the violence of empire; and how the federal government delineated and employed religion as part of a larger expansion of U.S. power in the American West. Along the way, the ideas, practices, communities, and traditions that Americans name as religious come into view as ways for people to narrate and organize their place in American society; to fit themselves within (or in opposition to) various racial and imperial projects; and to envision new possibilities for future worlds.

For their thoughtful feedback on this essay, I am indebted to Zareena Grewal, Kathryn Lofton, Sally Promey, Nicole Myers Turner, Quincy Newell, and Susan Yohn.


Kathryn Lofton, “Why Religion Is Hard for Historians (and How It Can Be Easier),” Modern American History 3, no. 1 (March 2020): 69–86,; see also Kathryn Gin Lum, “The Historyless Heathen and the Stagnating Pagan: History as Non-Native Category?,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 28, no. 1 (Winter 2018): 52–91,


Exceptions to this rule include the Mormon corridor and the colonial Spanish Catholic missions, topics that, until recently, have each been treated by distinct historiographies. In these cases, depending on the historian’s angle of vision, religion was treated either as uncomfortably ubiquitous (a colonizing apparatus, and/or dangerously irrational) or, for historians writing from within these traditions, as a salvific agent. My thanks to Quincy Newell for helping me formulate this point.


Tisa Wenger, We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (Chapel Hill: Published in association with the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies, Southern Methodist University, by the University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Tisa Wenger, “Indian Dances and the Politics of Religious Freedom, 1870–1930,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79, no. 4 (December 2011): 850–78,


For a classic account of the religious lives of miners during the California gold rush, see Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, Religion and Society in Frontier California (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994). See also Shari Rabin, Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: NYU Press, 2017); Michael E. Engh, Frontier Faiths: Church, Temple, and Synagogue in Los Angeles, 18461888 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992); Tamar Frankiel, California’s Spiritual Frontiers: Religious Alternatives in Anglo-Protestantism, 18501910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).


Jan Shipps and Mark Silk, eds., Religion and Public Life in the Mountain West: Sacred Landscapes in Transition, Religion by Region 2 (Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2004); Wade Clark Roof and Mark Silk, eds., Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Region: Fluid Identities, Religion by Region 8 (Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2005).


Sarah Koenig, Providence and the Invention of American History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021).


John B. Boles, “Turner, the Frontier, and the Study of Religion in America,” Journal of the Early Republic 13, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 205–16,


Koenig, Providence and the Invention of American History, 109.


On the divides between Protestant and Catholic historiographies, see Robert A. Orsi, History and Presence (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016).


On representations of Black religion, see Curtis J. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). On the coloniality of academic disciplines, anthropology in particular, see Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London & New York: Zed Books, 1999).


Boles, “Turner, the Frontier, and the Study of Religion in America,” 205–8; Koenig, Providence and the Invention of American History, 109; William Warren Sweet, The Story of Religions in America (New York & London: Harper & Brothers, 1930).


Cited in Boles, “Turner, the Frontier, and the Study of Religion in America,” 212. The grounded social histories of the 1970s and 1980s more or less explicitly rejected the frontier thesis; see for example John B. Boles, Religion in Antebellum Kentucky (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1976); Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period (Princeton University Press, 1989); and Paul K. Conkin, Cane Ridge: America’s Pentecost (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990).


Patricia Nelson Limerick’s interest in Mormon history represents a partial exception. See Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, 1st ed (New York: Norton, 1987); William Cronon, “Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner,” Western Historical Quarterly 18, no. 2 (April 1987): 157–76,; Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West, 1st ed (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991); David J. Weber, The Idea of Spanish Borderlands (New York: Garland, 1991).


Elizabeth Jameson and Susan H. Armitage, eds., Writing the Range: Race, Class, and Culture in the Women’s West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997); John Mack Faragher, ed., Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and Other Essays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); William Francis Deverell, ed., A Companion to the American West, Blackwell Companions to American History (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Pub, 2004), Blackwell Reference Online, 16 December 2010,; Anne Farrar Hyde, Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 18001860 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011).


Matthew Avery Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009); Michelle Nickerson and Darren Dochuk, eds., Sunbelt Rising: The Politics of Place, Space, and Region (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); Michelle M. Nickerson, Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012); Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012).


Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); Barbara Welter, Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976); Charles H. Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986); Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 18801920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); David Wills, “The Central Themes of American Religious History: Pluralism, Puritanism, and the Encounter of Black and White,” in African-American Religion: Interpretive Essays in History and Culture, ed. Timothy Earl Fulop and Albert J. Raboteau (New York: Routledge, 1997), 7–20.


Thomas A. Tweed, ed., Retelling U.S. Religious History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Maffly-Kipp, Religion and Society in Frontier California.


I was part of the organizing group and served for several years on the steering committee for this unit. Works by scholars involved in the group include: Fay Botham and Sarah Patterson, eds., Race, Religion, Region: Landscapes of Encounter in the American West (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006); Quincy D. Newell, Constructing Lives at Mission San Francisco: Native Californians and Hispanic Colonists, 17761821 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009); Wenger, We Have a Religion; Quincy D. Newell, “Religion and the American West,” Religion Compass 6, no. 11 (2012): 488–99,; Kathleen Holscher, Religious Lessons: Catholic Sisters and the Captured Schools Crisis in New Mexico (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Brett Hendrickson, Border Medicine: A Transcultural History of Mexican American Curanderismo, North American Religions (New York University Press, 2014); Angela Tarango, Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Brandi Denison, Ute Land Religion in the American West, 1879–2009 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017); Jennifer Graber, The Gods of Indian Country: Religion and the Struggle for the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); Seth Schermerhorn, Walking to Magdalena: Personhood and Place in Tohono O’odham Songs, Sticks, and Stories (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019); David Walker, Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit of the West (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019); Konden Smith Hansen, Frontier Religion: Mormons and America, 1857–1907 (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2019).


See for example Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006); Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); Susan Sleeper-Smith et al., eds., Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Kathleen DuVal, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (New York: Random House, 2015); Pekka Hämäläinen, Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019); Manu Karuka, Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).


For lively discussions around these themes, see essays by Alex Trimble Young and Erik Altenbernd, Jodi Byrd, John Mack Faragher, Margaret Jacobs, and Mark Rifkin in the roundtable “The Significance of the Frontier in an Age of Transnational History,” Settler Colonial Studies 4, no. 2 (2014); and essays by Jeffrey Ostler, Nancy Shoemaker, Michael Witgen, Samuel Truett, and Tiya Miles in a special forum on settler colonialism in early American history, in The William and Mary Quarterly 76, no. 3 (July 2019),


Wenger, We Have a Religion; Tisa Wenger, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).


Ashon T. Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016).


Thanks to Susan Yohn, Project Historian for the N-YHS exhibition “Acts of Faith” and Professor Emerita at Hofstra University, for her help with this organizational scheme.


Joseph Blankholm, “Secularism and Secular People,” Public Culture 30, no. 2 (2018): 245–68,; David Chidester, Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).


Rosemary R. Corbett, Making Moderate Islam: Sufism, Service, and the “Ground Zero Mosque” Controversy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).


Kathryn Lofton, Consuming Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017); Cody Musselman, “Spiritual Exercises: Fitness and Religion in Modern America” (Ph.D. diss., New Haven, Yale University, 2022).