In the fall of 1880, Rutherford B. Hayes became the first sitting U.S. president to tour the U.S. West. While rarely recognized as such in scholarship, Hayes was a culture warrior. His seventy-one-day, 2,500-mile tour of the West traced the spiritual battle lines of the politics of empire in the Gilded Age. On his journey the president explicitly and implicitly championed his answers to the Indian Question, School Question, Mormon Question, and Chinese Question. These Western policy positions established a Republican culture war program with deeply religious overtones that animated U.S. politics for over a decade and continues to resonate today. This article is part of a special issue of Pacific Historical Review, “Religion in the Nineteenth-Century American West.”

In the fall of 1880, Rutherford B. Hayes became the first sitting U.S. president to tour the U.S. West. Most historians note this tour as an interesting but trivial aspect of a mediocre administration known primarily for its inability to protect African American voting rights in the southern states after the Compromise of 1877. However, while rarely recognized as such, Hayes was an influential culture warrior. His historic tour of the West marked a major reconfiguration of Republican politics in the wake of Reconstruction that focused the attention of voters nationwide on western issues with deeply religious overtones. In doing so, Hayes’s itinerary traced the spiritual battle lines of politics in the Gilded Age—contested terrain still relevant today.

How the West should be managed, and therefore what the promise of the West should mean, structured American politics over the nineteenth century. Most U.S. Americans considered the vast federal lands of the public domain a gift from God that should be used to liberate the world.1 Before the Civil War, political conflict over the management of the West hinged on the issue of slavery. When debate over the admission of California in 1850 threatened to disrupt the fragile compromise over slavery in the West, New York Senator William H. Seward argued there was “a higher law than the Constitution” that should regulate the administration of U.S. empire.2 Conscience Whigs like Seward argued that Americans were obligated by divine covenant to devote the lands they settled to the extension of freedom rather than bondage. Once these Conscience Whigs realized the “Slave Power” could never be appeased, they helped form the Republican Party to emancipate the frontier, provoking the Civil War. Many Republicans considered the ensuing conflict a providential reckoning. After saving the Union, they sought to Reconstruct the nation on more explicitly Christian terms to liberate Americans from political and spiritual tyranny.3

When President Ulysses S. Grant’s Reconstruction program fell apart surrounding the 1874 midterms, Hayes helped retool the more ambitious and overtly Protestant politics of Reconstruction into a more implicitly religious campaign to “civilize” the supposedly unruly West. The resulting policy positions proposed to address the seemingly intractable western issues journalists referred to as the Indian Question, the School Question, the Mormon Question, and the Chinese Question. In their attempts to answer these questions, Hayes and Republicans like him sought to assert their moral authority over Western lands and peoples. They did so not only to manage supposedly troublesome populations, but also to appeal to voters far removed from the region who were politically and spiritually invested in its development.

Hayes’s 1880 tour of the West offers a window into the broader religious politics of empire in the Gilded Age. The mobilization of Christian civilizational arguments in pursuit of managing federal territories will not surprise any scholar of the period. However, none has focused on how western policy debate in the Gilded Age was part of a deeper history of religious culture war politics. The few analyses of religion and politics in this period hardly treat Western issues, while regional studies tend not to focus on partisan conflicts, and treatments of specific policy debates do not address how the broader political agenda fit together.4 This article builds on these approaches to reveal how Hayes and his political heirs mobilized spiritually inflected questions about how to consolidate the mythological and material West as the basis of their partisan political strategies. Without this broader analysis, many of these battles have assumed the air of natural byproducts of a settler colonial society, rather than weapons forged in a contingent and contested culture war that continues to shape U.S. politics.

Hayes made western policy especially central to his agenda after the 1878 midterm elections. These contests delivered both houses of Congress to the Democrats for the first time since before the Civil War, revealing the folly of the president’s southern reconciliation plan. Despite the Democrats’ legislative intransigence, Hayes used his executive authority to bring order to an important region. He appointed a slate of new activist territorial governors and administrators to sternly enforce U.S. laws and rationalize the boundaries of Native American reservations, Mexican land grants, and Mormon church properties. He created a new Public Land Commission, Geological Survey, and Bureau of Ethnology. He developed a new assimilationist Indian Policy, proposed expanding federal subsidies to state and territorial school systems, declared war on polygamy, and sought to negotiate a new treaty restricting Chinese immigration.5 Each of these executive initiatives tapped into longstanding western policy debates that had deeply religious connotations.

With Hayes having pledged to serve only one term, his western tour in the fall of 1880 set up fellow Buckeye Republican James Garfield as a worthy successor. While the political mores of the time dictated that neither a sitting president nor presidential candidate should actively campaign, the choreography of Hayes’s tour was full of partisan and religious symbolism. The tour officially began with both Hayes and Garfield addressing a national reunion of Union Civil War veterans in their native Ohio. Then Garfield returned to engaging reporters from the front porch of his farm in Mentor while Hayes departed on a seventy-one-day, 2,500-mile journey west across Nebraska, Wyoming, and Nevada to San Francisco, then up to the Puget Sound, down to San Diego, and back east across Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas.6 As the president in effect surveyed what his successor would ultimately be responsible for, he implicitly reminded voters across the West and the nation of the stakes of the upcoming election.

Hayes and his retinue presented themselves as effective civilizers, and implicit Christianizers, on their tour of lands only recently brought under U.S. dominion. The president poignantly travelled with First Lady Lucille Webb Hayes and Commanding General of the U.S. Army William Tecumseh Sherman for the entire tour, the three together representing a Republican vision for a powerful trinity of civil, moral, and military authority. The first lady was well-known for banning alcohol at the White House, leading visitors in prayer and hymn singing, and her support for missionary, reform, and other benevolent organizations engaged in taming the frontier. Like the president and General Sherman, the first lady’s moral crusades were a continuation of her Civil War service, when she accompanied her husband to the front to provide humanitarian relief and medical care.7 Sherman was himself a 49er who had returned to the West after saving the Union and liberating the South to pacify the remaining frontier lands.8 He personally arranged the president’s itinerary to highlight thirty years of western development, publicly remarking on how far the region had come at each stop. As the president and his entourage travelled on federally subsidized railroads, coach-lines, and steamers to forts, schools, churches, mines, factories, and farms flourishing on lands only recently opened to U.S. settlement, they celebrated the progress of the region under Republican leadership—and therefore also the potential perils of changing course.

Sherman’s itinerary took the president across contested Indigenous lands at a moment when Hayes was trying to profoundly reorient federal Indian Policy. After brutally forcing the Northern Cheyenne, non-treaty Nez Perce, and Bannock onto reservations in the Northwest, the President acknowledged that “greater reliance must be placed on humane and civilizing agencies for the ultimate solution of what is called the Indian problem.”9 Nevertheless, soon afterward Hayes found himself also authorizing forced removal for the White River Utes, Poncas, and Apache.10 Touring military facilities across the West suggested the president was in control. He even travelled by wagon for two days between railheads in New Mexico across territory still claimed by Apache. At the same time his tour demonstrated the prowess of his army, Hayes’s personal attention to the Indian Question also reinforced the president’s claims that the issue transcended purely military concerns.

At issue was the viability of the reservation system, scantly a decade old. Indigenous leaders like Hinmatóowyalahtqäit (Chief Joseph), Thocmetony (Sarah Winnemucca), Inshta Theamba (Bright Eyes), and Macunajin (Standing Bear) led nationwide campaigns to gain lands back for their peoples in 1879 and 1880. On the battlefield, court room, pulpit, and press they protested the inhumanity and inefficacy of forcing their peoples onto ever smaller and unworkable reservations, often nowhere near their homelands. These criticisms gave Hayes’s political enemies powerful ammunition. Democrats hammered the president’s management of Indian Affairs as further evidence of Republican incompetence and corruption. Rival Republicans jostled over who would serve Native Americans best. Churches challenged federal policies seeking to limit denominational competition on reservations as undermining the sanctity of the separation of church and state.11

Varied criticisms of Hayes’s Indian policy struck at the core of Republican efforts to present themselves as effective Christian civilizers. A large portion of the Republican base supported Native American missions as a central aspect of their Protestant evangelical faith practices. For generations, these voters had criticized the lack of religion and education offered to Native Americans by Democratic administrations and the violence they claimed ensued as a result. However, Grant’s alternative so-called “Peace Policy” of creating reservations managed by civilian administrators in partnership with religious denominations did not fare much better. Continued violent repression, corruption, and mismanagement discredited the program. To regain the moral and political advantage, Hayes vowed to clean up the Bureau of Indian Affairs and reformulate the policy.12

Hayes’s new Indian policy sought to more forcefully break Native Americans’ ties to their lands and religious practices in order to transform them into productive U.S. citizens. The missionary and military architects of this new policy argued that the government should directly assume moral authority over the assimilation of their Indian wards. The largely evangelical leadership of the new Women’s National Indian Association, who helped devise and promote this new orientation, saw traditional and emergent Indigenous religious practices as impediments to progress. They imagined that breaking up reservations would force Native Americans to more quickly accept “Christianization, civilization, and enfranchisement” as the only viable answer to the Indian Question.13

The centerpiece of Hayes’s new Indian Policy was the government assumption of the responsibility to assimilate Native Americans through new boarding schools developed in collaboration between “The Christian General” Oliver Otis Howard and reform crusader Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz. As part of his western tour, the president visited the new government-run Forest Grove Indian School founded by Howard’s attendant Melville C. Wilkinson just outside of Portland, Oregon, which was the short-lived western complement to Richard Henry Pratt’s more influential Carlyle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. On behalf of the nation, Hayes expressed his “wish and prayer” that “Indian boys and girls should become wise, useful, and good citizens,” through civilizing institutions like Forest Grove, which he had repeatedly asked an uninterested Congress to help fund. “Some people seem to think that God has decreed that Indians should die off like wild beasts,” the president scoffed, “we, as good, patriotic, Christian people, should do our best to improve their physical, mental, and moral condition.”14

The issue of Indian education was never popular in the West itself, where a brutal frontier culture and memories of violence prejudiced most settlers against anything seeming to benefit the Indigenous owners of the land. Nationally, however, the promise of Indian education served to rehabilitate the Republicans as good Christians and effective civilizers while also allowing them to extract even more land for U.S. settlement. The promise of government-run Indian education also helped justify the importance of schooling for others as well. If Wilkinson could train even the most savage of peoples for citizenship at Forest Grove, imagine what a national commitment to education could do for Mormons, Mexicans, immigrants, or Freedmen.

Hayes used his tour of the West to champion a proposal from Senator Ambrose E. Burnside (R-R.I.) to dedicate all federal land revenue toward aiding schools in the states and territories. At the September 1 address that launched his tour of the West, the president spoke to Union veterans from his former company, explaining that it was “the sacred duty” of the American people to see that “citizens and voters are fitted by education for the grave responsibility which has been cast upon them.” Hayes was specifically referencing the millions of Freedmen and poor Southern Whites who, long denied education and suffrage, now held the balance of power in national elections. However, he also warned that Native Americans, Catholics, and Mormons would gain citizenship and suffrage next, and therefore needed schools just as badly. As he had so many times before, Hayes argued that “ignorant voters are powder and ball for the demagogues,” but that universal education safeguarded liberty and therefore stability. “These advantages,” the president clarified, “are the truths for which we fought in the war for the Union. Let us resolve to do all we can, in our respective places in life, sacredly to guard them, not only for ourselves and our prosperity; but for all mankind.”15

The promise of universal education as an implicitly Protestant civilizing tool was the center of Hayes’s politics and a key weapon in his culture war arsenal. When he was drafted out of political retirement to secure Ohio for the Republicans in 1875, Hayes called on voters to help him fight in “the war which the sectarian wing of the Democratic party is now waging against the public schools.”16 This was a reference to Democrats who supported Catholic communities, including in Ohio, receiving state money to run their own schools. The public school movement was deeply associated with evangelical Protestantism, even though many of the organizers had long embraced non-denominational approaches to education as a way to prevent conflicts with each other. Catholic challenges to the public school curriculum prompted many Republicans like Hayes, long steeped in a political tradition that defined U.S. American liberty against the supposed spiritual and political tyranny of the Catholic church, to consider “non-sectarian” public schools indispensable institutions of an implicitly Protestant American civilization.17

Hayes argued that siphoning off students and money from the public schools would destroy American society, equating such division with disunion and the Catholics with Confederates. When Grant embraced this framing of the issue before veterans of the Army of the Tennessee in Des Moines just before the 1875 elections, he helped Hayes win in Ohio and established the School Question as a central part of the Republican Party platform. Following Grant, Senator James Blaine (R-Maine), led a movement for a Constitutional Amendment forbidding states from establishing religion or funding “sectarian” programs. While the Democrats blocked Blaine’s amendment in the U.S. Senate, Republicans nationwide reaffirmed the principle at the state and local levels. Hayes’s vigorous defense of the public schools in Ohio helped him narrowly secure the Republican nomination and then the Presidency in 1876.18

The School Question transcended state and local conflicts over funding and curriculum. It served as a proxy to portray Democratic calls for small government as divisive, cynical, and antithetical to Christian civilization. Before the war, Republicans had repeatedly called in vain for the Democrats to develop a federal land policy that did “something for peace, good order, and the better support for Christian churches and common schools,” in the words of Senator Justin Morrill (R-Vt.), the author of the Land Grant College Bill.19 After the war, as Republicans sought to reconstruct the nation, Democrats opposed federal education proposals as unwelcome and unwise interference in what should be a state and local matter.20 Before a crowd of five thousand at the railroad depot in Burlington, Iowa, on September 2, the president praised that largely Protestant state’s school system but cautioned that this did not mean its citizens should be unconcerned with the issue. “This country is all tied together,” Hayes warned, “the ignorance of one section is detrimental, or perhaps even dangerous, to the others.”21

The issue of education in the West was especially resonant because of the almost sacred connection between schooling and land. Building on decades of precedent in the original states and territories, in the 1840s Congress began dedicating two lots per township, or 1/18th of Federal land, to support public schools in all the territories west of the Mississippi.22 Many Republicans argued that public schools served as the foundation for spiritual and political liberty, so dedicating the public domain to their maintenance honored God’s Providence. Like Morrill’s Land Grant College Act of 1862, Burnside’s Education Bill tapped into longstanding practices and beliefs connecting the promise of the continent to the spread of knowledge. However, Democrats championed a different vision. They argued that access to cheap land free from government interference would allow communities to liberate themselves from social hierarchies, in part by funding whatever education they wanted however they wanted. Fearing that increased federal funding for education might come with increased federal control, the Democratic majority in Congress blocked Burnside’s Bill in March 1880.23

Hayes’s support for “non-sectarian” public schools complemented criticisms of the overtly sectarian public school systems in majority Mormon Utah and Catholic New Mexico. At a meeting in Chicago in November 1879, Protestant organizers from across the nation associated with the American Home Missionary Society founded the New West Educational Commission to promote “Christian civilization” in the Southwest. Commission founders argued that in Utah and New Mexico “the American free school is an impossibility, and a free ballot becomes hopeless” because those territories maintained religious school systems funded by taxes. To combat these supposedly “fundamentally un-American” faiths in the Southwest, missionary organizers raised money to establish free schools in Utah, New Mexico, and adjacent territories to compete for the alliance of Mormon and Catholic children.24

Both Hayes and missionary leaders cautioned that once Congress admitted western territories as states, voters outside of each new state would have little control over public education within their bounds. To protect “against the influence of secret sectarianism” in any state, Republicans assembled in Chicago in June 1880 put a plank in the national party platform calling for a Constitutional amendment to prohibit state legislatures from the “establishment of religion…and to forbid the appropriation of public funds to the support of sectarian schools.” Unlike the Democrats, Hayes and his party would not let lands bestowed by Providence fund what they considered to be Mormon and Catholic tyranny.25

Another key element of the Republicans’ agenda for the West was the president’s vow to finally prosecute and disfranchise Mormons for practicing plural marriage. Anti-polygamy had been a central tenant of Republican politics since the party’s first national platform in 1856 included the famous assertion that “it is both the right and the duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism—polygamy and slavery.” Republicans argued that by allowing plural marriage and slavery in the West, the Democrats desecrated the public domain. It was no coincidence that an anti-slavery enator, Morrill, authored both the Land Grant College Act and the Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862 “to punish and prevent the practice of polygamy in the territories.” Both of these were different aspects of the same core political project to use the public domain to establish an implicitly Protestant civilization across the continent.26

While Lincoln, Johnson, and Grant had all decided not to risk alienating Mormon leaders in Utah by enforcing the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, Republicans revived the issue during the 1874 midterms and put an anti-polygamy a plank in their 1876 platform. That prompted Mormon Elder George Reynolds to volunteer to challenge the constitutionality of the act as a violation of his religious liberty in court. After the case made its way through the Territorial Courts, the U.S. Supreme Court finally heard arguments following the Democratic midterm victories in November 1878 and unanimously ruled to uphold the Morrill Act six weeks later. After the Reynolds ruling, missionary organizations across the nation demanded immediate anti-polygamy enforcement, which Hayes readily vowed to use his executive authority to do.27

In his third Annual Message in December 1879 Hayes attacked plural marriage wholeheartedly. The president not only pledged to execute the existing law “firmly and effectively,” he called on Congress to develop “more comprehensive and more searching methods for preventing as well as punishing this crime,” to refuse to consider admitting Utah as a state until the practice was eradicated, and even to strip polygamists of their citizenship if necessary.28 This put the incoming Democratic majorities in Congress in an awkward position. While most U.S. voters opposed the practice of plural marriage, Democrats were loath to support federal marriage legislation of any kind or let Republicans take the lead on such a potent issue. In the meantime, however, Hayes appointed Eli Murray as the new governor for Utah Territory. Murray oversaw the prosecution of prominent practitioners of plural marriage, challenged Mormon Church claims to vast amounts of federal territory, and even recommended disbanding the territorial legislature until the power of the church could be broken. “Slavery having perished in the States,” read the Republican Party platform adopted at Chicago in June 1880, “its twin barbarity, polygamy, must die in the Territories.”29

Sherman only planned for the president to spend one afternoon in Salt Lake City, the center of Utah and Mormon politics and religion. The general picked Sunday, September 5th for this visit, perhaps so that Hayes could avoid having to publicly address the Mormon leaders he was actively seeking to marginalize since the president and first lady refused to give speeches on their Sabbath. Salt Lake City’s Mormon political leaders had already decided not to come meet Hayes to protest his and Murray’s policies. However, LDS President John Taylor and other Mormon spiritual leaders did encourage Mormon schoolchildren to welcome the president and even gave him and his entourage a tour of the Tabernacle. This all suggested the genteel respectability of all involved, but Hayes did not miss the opportunity to demonstrate his priorities. After the tour with Taylor, the president and first lady attended an evening service on “the dangerous sin of polygamy” at the city’s Methodist church. There, the Hayeses met with local Protestant leaders who ran a school explicitly dedicated to pulling Mormons away from their faith and were actively fundraising to build a House of Refuge for those supposedly imprisoned by plural marriage.30

The very fact that the president and first lady came to Utah at all reinforced their commitment to their roles as civilizers and Christianizers of the West. Explicit public comment was hardly necessary. After all, when the Reynolds case was before the Supreme Court, the all-female Anti-Polygamy Society had circulated thirty thousand copies of a public letter to “Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes and the Women of the United States,” calling on them to use their influence over their husbands and pastors to pressure the president, Congress, and the courts to prosecute polygamists and prevent them from holding office. This request tapped into the longstanding tradition of America’s Christian women taking on important issues like civilizing the frontier when the government was unable or unwilling. Many believed the first lady had encouraged the president’s tough anti-polygamy stance, an assumption neither attempted to dispel.31 In San Jose on September 15, members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which was also engaged in anti-polygamy efforts, celebrated the first lady as an exemplar for the nation’s women. They presented her with a silk banner that read “She Hath Done What She Could,” a line from the Gospel of Mark that symbolized the important role of women in the church.32

Similar to his restrained and almost dignified anti-polygamy stance, the president signaled a commitment to reserve the promise of the West for White Christians without resorting to the “sandlot agitations” of California’s new and powerful Workingmen’s Party. While the western states had a long history of limiting opportunities to White settlers, initially western Republicans and their evangelical allies opposed Workingmen’s Party efforts to restrict Chinese immigration as an affront to Christian principles and an impediment to economic development. However, by the late 1870s most Republicans embraced Exclusion as an indispensable element of assuring Christian progress. While Workingmen vigorously and sometimes violently protested what they considered to be the slow pace of anti-Chinese legislation, by the time Hayes departed for the West, Special Commissioner James Angell was already in Beijing negotiating a treaty to restrict Chinese immigration.33

The 15 Passenger Bill put forward in early 1879, so named because it would have limited the number of Chinese passengers on incoming ships to fifteen, suggested how Republicans incorporated Chinese Exclusion into their politics as a religious imperative. In support of the bill, Congressman Horace Page (R-Cal.) warned that Chinese immigrants’ “thoroughly un-American ideas of morals and government suggest dangers to society.” He presented a petition signed by seventeen thousand California workingmen protesting how the “perverted” employment of Chinese laborers on public-domain-subsidized railroads “not only degrade the social status and moral welfare of our producing classes, but arrest the advancement of our civilization.”34 Senator Blaine decried how Chinese competition led to the literal “demoralization” of Whites. He argued that Chinese Exclusion, like the Homestead Act or Protective Tariff, was a mechanism to ensure that White workers benefited from the riches of the continent. For Blaine, the Chinese Question was simply “whether we will have for the Pacific coast the civilization of Christ or the civilization of Confucius.”35

Although Hayes vetoed the 15 Passenger Bill in March 1879, he did not oppose Exclusion. Allowing the bill to pass gave Republicans the chance to go on record against Chinese immigration even though the president did not want to actually violate the existing Burlingame Treaty of 1868 with China. In his veto message Hayes clarified that “the very grave discontents” of westerners deserved “the most serious attention” and pledged to restrict Chinese immigration by diplomatic means.36 Although western Republicans were harangued by their opponents, the 15 Passenger Bill veto did not prevent them from successfully incorporating Chinese Exclusion into their broader moral and political agendas. Republican gubernatorial candidate George Perkins wrested control of California from the Workingmen’s Party in the fall of 1879 by championing secular public schooling and Chinese Exclusion as ways to unite voters around a common civilizational goal that was clearly coded Protestant.

At his inaugural address in Sacramento, Perkins vowed to dedicate his every effort to “the advancement of Christian civilization.” The incoming governor argued that to “attain that ‘righteousness which exalteth a nation,’ and avoid that ‘sin which is a reproach to any people,’ we must become, in its best and truest sense, an educated people.” To do so, Perkins pledged to expand the State School Fund and form a new state university. He also reiterated his belief that “immigrants from China are a curse to this country” and called on the state legislature to do whatever they could to limit Chinese immigration until a new treaty could be negotiated.37 To underscore both points, the governor invited Rev. O. C. Wheeler, founder of the first Protestant church in California, in San Francisco in 1849, to address the state legislature. This pioneer missionary warned that Chinese immigration was “more destructive of moral virtue, more poisonous to a pure Christianity, more threatening to the life of the American Republic than all other evil influences that ever brooded over our land.” Only after excluding the Chinese, Wheeler warned, could the nation “safely contemplate a future full of greatness, a greatness full of glory.”38

One of the mechanisms for restricting Chinese immigration that Perkins and other western Republicans endorsed was the suppression of Chinese religious practices.39 In theory, the California Constitution and Burlingame Treaty guaranteed Chinese immigrants religious liberty. Nevertheless, state legislatures in California, Oregon, and Nevada imposed special taxes on the exhumation and export of human remains to discourage Chinese immigrants from settling in those states. It was important to many Chinese immigrants to have themselves or their loved ones buried in their ancestral villages, so Chinese Exclusionists sought to make this practice prohibitively expensive. Wong Yung Quy challenged one of these laws in California as impeding his “free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession” after he exhumed the body of his cousin without paying the tax. However, the Federal Circuit Court ruled against him on May 24, 1880 without addressing his religious claims at all.40

Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s logic in the Reynolds decision, Circuit Judge Justice Lorenzo Sawyer’s ruling in Wong Yung Quy was not surprising. Many Californians recognized that the anti-Chinese “cadaver bill” was by its “very essence” an unconstitutional “assault upon the religious faith of the Chinese.”41 However, in this period religious liberty rhetoric and rulings mainly served to protect Protestant practices from the supposed threats of rival minority faiths. Advocates for this version of religious liberty argued the state should not only support Protestant religious practice, but in some cases actually suppress spiritual practices such as Indigenous rituals, Catholic refusals to read school-assigned biblical passages, Mormon plural marriages, and Chinese second burials that many Protestants believed jeopardized the moral and material health of U.S. society. Because many Protestant Americans considered these minority religions to be inherently tyrannical, they saw using the government to repress them as way to bolster religious liberty and the separation of church and state.42

Hayes spent weeks in the Golden State with Perkins and other prominent Republicans endorsing their vision for the West. The president did not deign to meet with San Francisco’s Workingmen’s Party mayor Isaac Kalloch or any Chinese American leaders. However, Hayes did march triumphally down Van Ness Avenue with California’s new Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction and the city’s twenty thousand public school students. The president’s actions suggested that unlike the Workingmen, the Republicans could deliver Chinese Exclusion while upholding normative U.S. American ideals. Hayes’s support for Perkins underscored how the Republican governor embodied that promise. In an address to thousands of Californians at the State Fair, the president celebrated the political and spiritual development of the region. “We are looking to you as the vanguard of progress,” Hayes cheered, “and I believe you may safely be trusted with that destiny.”43

After a brief tour of Los Angeles, a weekend in Tucson, and a day in Santa Fe at the end of October, Hayes travelled straight back to Ohio in a record three days. The president arrived at his farm in Fremont just in time to cast his vote for Republican politicians he could trust to continue stewarding the important destiny of the West. Having performatively returned to the domestic tranquility from whence their morals sprung, the Hayeses could then continue on to Washington to celebrate Garfield’s narrow victory.44

In his final annual message in December 1880, Hayes outlined a culture war agenda for the incoming administration and new slim Republican majorities in Congress. He called for breaking up the reservation system, sending Indigenous children to boarding schools run by the federal government, and extending U.S. citizenship to Native Americans as way to exercise “a wholesome moral influence” and encourage “civilized life” among the tribes. He proposed dedicating federal land revenue to subsidize public education in the states and territories, especially where the “grave duties of citizenship” fell or would soon fall on “uneducated peoples,” to bolster “virtue and social order” and secure “civil and religious liberty.” He proposed “taking away the political power” of the Mormon church to preserve the “family relation” he claimed was “the corner stone of our American society and civilization,” even suggesting dissolving the territorial government of Utah and disfranchising those practicing plural marriage. He celebrated the new Angell Treaty that would allow the United States to limit the immigration of Chinese laborers.45

The program Hayes outlined in December 1880 structured U.S. politics for over a decade. The Garfield and Chester A. Arthur administrations and their allies in Congress continued the politics of civilizing and Christianizing the West that Hayes and his tour had helped codify. New Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller, previously U.S. senator from Colorado, developed a Code of Indian Offences that criminalized many Indigenous religious practices and expanded the operations of the government boarding schools.46 Republican Senator William Henry Blair of New Hampshire continued to call for federal subsidies for the nation’s common schools.47 Republican Senator George F. Edmunds of Vermont pushed through an expanded Anti-Polygamy Act in March 1882 that barred those convicted from voting, running for office, or serving on juries.48 In May 1882 Republicans successfully excluded Chinese laborers from entering the United States for ten years.49

While Republican presidential nominee Blaine deemphasized religious issues in his 1884 campaign in order to appeal to Catholics, he could not avoid the pull of culture war politics. A few weeks before the election, New York City minister Samuel Burchard reminded the nation that whatever Blaine said, the contest really came down to a choice between civilization and “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” Many observers believed this quip cost Blaine the election, sending New York Governor Grover Cleveland to the White House, the first Democrat since before the Civil War.50

Cleveland initially avoided overt cultural politics to distinguish himself from the Republicans. He did not outright oppose Republican civilizing initiatives so much as seek to quietly defund them under the guise of lowering taxes. He championed a limited role for national government that supposedly left religious and cultural issues in the private sphere. This was one of the reasons Cleveland fathering a child out of wedlock did not derail his political career despite Republicans’ best efforts. He never purported to be anything more than an able administrator. As chief executive he appointed new secretaries, administrators, territorial governors, and judges opposed to Republican civilizing and Christianizing agendas. Many of these appointees resisted calls for federal enforcement of civil and voting rights and supported allocating state money to minority religious schools. Cleveland tried and failed to find a way to declare the polygamy problem solved so he could get Utah admitted as a Democratic-leaning state. But he was in no rush to admit other western territories whose voters leaned Republican.51

Cleveland’s election prompted the Republicans to even more deeply embrace culture war politics, inspiring some of the most intense efforts to implement the civilizing and Christianizing agenda Hayes had laid out. These included the Dawes Act breaking many reservations into individual allotments; Blair’s proposed Education and Sunday Rest Bills supporting schools and Sabbath observance in the federal territories; the Edmunds-Tucker Act dissolving the Mormon church; ever-more vicious enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Acts; and endless petitions from the Indian Rights Association, National Reform Association, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. “The progress of Christ’s kingdom in the world for centuries to come depends on the next few years in the United States” warned Rev. Josiah Strong of the American Home Missionary Society and Evangelical Alliance in his widely popular Our Country: Its Possible Future and Present Crisis published just a few months into Cleveland’s term. Strong warned that without wresting back control of the West from Catholics, Mormons, and scheming eastern politicians, the nation would lose its spiritual bearing, thus depriving the world of the greatest engine of the cause of Christ.52

Opposition to Cleveland in the late 1880s represented the apex of the religious politics of empire that Hayes had helped inaugurate. Such organizing helped the Republican Benjamin Harrison—a senator from Indiana and former Civil War general—to unseat Cleveland in 1888 and deliver Republican majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time in sixteen years. So empowered, Harrison and the Republicans tried to deliver on the civilizing and Christianizing promises of the past decade, provoking culture war confrontations across the West.53 Harrison and the Republican majority’s more aggressive assimilation policy fueled the crises that made the promise of the Ghost Dance movement among Native Americans on the Plains so meaningful and the confrontation at Wounded Knee so deadly.54 Harrison and the Republican majority admitted six western territories as states—North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming—each with constitutions expressly prohibiting government funding for any church or “sectarian purpose.”55 Harrison and the Republican majority threatened to dissolve the Mormon church and impose federal schools on Utah, forcing Mormon leaders to publicly denounce plural marriages and embrace secular public schools.56 Harrison signed an extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act designed to further harass Chinese Americans by forcing them to register with the government, provoking the Fong Yue Ting test case that upended U.S. immigration law.57

Harrison’s brutal answers to the national questions that animated U.S. politics in the Gilded Age alienated many voters in an increasingly diverse electorate. To appeal to the broadest possible base, the Democratic platform included an opposition to “interference with parental rights and rights of conscience in the education of children,” an essential element of Democrats’ efforts to deny Harrison a second term.58 At the same time, the Populist Party offered many Protestant voters in the new western states a more compelling developmental agenda. Religious political organizing remained and remains a potent force in U.S. politics and culture, but it substantially changed after voters returned Cleveland to the Presidency in 1892. As the nineteenth century came to a close, Native Americans continued to be subject to assimilating and extractive programs, Catholics remained alienated from the public schools outside of New Mexico, Mormons were still maligned outside of Utah, and Chinese Americans were pushed into smaller and smaller Chinatowns. However, these issues no longer animated voters like they had before, prompting partisan organizers to search for alternatives.

Recognizing the place of religious culture war politics in the Gilded Age helps clarify how many of the signature religious developments in the West in this period were direct responses to the partisan persecution of religious minorities. Government suppression of Indigenous religious practices reshaped many traditional organizations and spawned new forms of faith. Catholic separatism kept those communities more distinct than they might have otherwise been. Forcing Mormons into accommodating U.S. governance changed many of the social and communal aspects of that faith, bringing it more in line with other Christianities. Chinese Exclusion set the political and legal precedent for restricting immigration based on supposed cultural qualities, profoundly shaping the religious demography of the nation. The threat of Exclusion likely encouraged some non-Christian communities to feel even more pressure to assimilate, while inspiring others to preserve their traditions more vigorously. For Chinese Americans in particular, religious persecution made practicing their faiths far more difficult, but also likely far more precious.

The intensity of religious politics in the Gilded Age reshaped religious practice among the persecuting plurality as well. The political and demographic dominance of Protestantism likely deprived those sects of some of the religious competition and creativity that had typified their resurgence or emergence during the Second Great Awakening half a century prior. Republican efforts to weaponize religious liberty as a proxy for Protestant superiority offered a way to participate in culture war campaigns increasingly detached from denominational organizing. This secularization of culture war politics likely contributed to U.S. American settlers in the West forming and joining Protestant churches in comparatively fewer numbers compared to other regions.

The irony of the culture war Hayes helped wage is that while it demonstrated a flagrant lack of political or legal commitment to the free exercise of religion, it also helped further establish the tradition of separating of church and state to the advantage of minority faiths. Using religious liberty as both an offensive and defensive weapon strengthened the principle. The brutal assaults on Indigenous, Catholic, Mormon, and Chinese religious practices also led these groups to more fully embrace the goal and rhetoric of separating church and state as a way to defend themselves. In doing so, these adherents transformed religious liberty’s meaning in practice. However, unlike most Protestants in this period, embracing the promise and power of religious liberty led these embattled religious groups to more forcefully commit to their respective faith practices as a form of resistance and defiance, the painful compromises they made to survive notwithstanding. This underrecognized legacy of the religious politics of empire in the Gilded Age should serve as both a warning and a source of hope as we navigate the culture wars of our own time.

Special thanks to Miles Grier for thoughtful comments and support on this article.


See for instance: Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).


U.S. Senate, Congressional Globe, 31st Cong., 1st sess. (March 11, 1850), Appendix, 260–69.


See for instance: George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).


The main treatments of religion and politics in the Gilded Age are Richard J. Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888–1896 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), esp. 58–88; Robert T. Handy, Undermined Establishment: Church-State Relations in America, 1880–1920 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991); Gaines M. Foster, Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Edward Blum, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865–1898 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005); Joshua Paddison, American Heathens: Religion, Race, and Reconstruction in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).


Ari Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1995), 338–44, 383–91, 421–23. See also Howard R. Lamar, The Far Southwest, 18461912 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1966), 121–50, 329–60.


Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes, 440–46; Charles Richard Williams, The Life of Rutherford Birchard Hayes v. 2 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914), 293–96; Kenneth E. Davison, The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972), 213–23.


Emily Apt Geer, First Lady: The Life of Lucy Webb Hayes (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1984), 144–55, 167–69, 175–76, 220–30.


Robert G. Athearn, William Tecumseh Sherman and the Settlement of the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956).


President’s Annual Message to Congress, December 2, 1878,


Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes, 338–44.


Francis Paul Prucha, American Indian Policy in Crisis: Christian Reformer and the Indian, 18651900 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), 58–102; Frederick E. Hoxie, A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880–1920 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 1–40.


R. Pierce Beaver, Church, State, and the American Indians: Two and a Half Centuries of Partnership in Missions between Protestant Churches and Government (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1966), esp. 177–206; Robert H. Keller, American Protestantism and United States Indian Policy, 18691882 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983); Peggy Pascoe, Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874–1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 3–72.


Davison, The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, 182–93; Prucha, American Indian Policy in Crisis, 103–68, 234–48; Hoxie, A Final Promise, 41–82.


Prucha, American Indian Policy in Crisis, 265–91; David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 18751928 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1995), 7–64; Presidential Western Tour, Forest Grove, Oregon, October 2, 1880,


Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes, 436–37; Reunion of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Canton, Ohio, September 1, 1880,


William Dean Howells, Sketch of the Life and Character of Rutherford B. Hayes (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1876), 148–55; Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes, 257–58; Opening of 1875 Gubernatorial Campaign, Marion, Ohio, July 31, 1875,


John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York: Norton, 2003), 91–126; Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 287–34; Tracy Fessenden, “The Nineteenth-Century Bible Wars and the Separation of Church and State,” Church History 74 (2005): 784–811.


Davison, The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, 10–49, esp. 15–16; Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes, 268–71.


Speech of Hon. Justin S. Morrill of Vermont, April 20, 1858 (Washington: Congressional Globe, 1858), 14; Ward M. McAfee, Religion, Race, and Reconstruction: The Public School in the Politics of the 1870s (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998); Steven K. Green, The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash that Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 138–78.


Gordon Canfield Lee, The Struggle for Federal Aid, First Phase: A History of the Attempts to Obtain Federal Aid for the Common Schools, 1870–1890 (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1949).


Presidential Western Tour (“Free Schools”) Speech, Burlington, Iowa, September 2, 1880,


Howard Cromwell Taylor, The Educational Significance of the Early Federal Land Ordinances (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1922).


Lee, The Struggle for Federal Aid, 84–86.


First Annual Report of the New West Educational Commission (Chicago: C. E. Southard, 1881), 6. See also E. Lyman Hood, The New West Education Commission, 1880–1893 (Jacksonville: The H. & W. B. Drew Company, 1905); Joe P. Dunn, “A Mission on the Frontier: Edward P. Tenney, Colorado College, the New West Education Commission, and the School Movement for Mormons and ‘Mexicans,’” History of Education Quarterly 52, no. 4 (November 2012): 535–58.


Republican Party Platform of 1880, See also: Susan Yohn, A Contest of Faiths: Missionary Women and Pluralism in the American Southwest (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995); Ferenc Morton Szasz, The Protestant Clergy in the Great Plains and Mountain West, 1865–1915 (Santa Fe: University of New Mexico Press, 1988); Matthew J. Smith, “Settler Colonialism and U.S. Home Missions,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, Feb. 2018.


Foster, Moral Reconstruction, 54–68; Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 55–84.


Pascoe, Relations of Rescue, 21–68; Gordon, The Mormon Question, 147–82; Robert Joseph Dwyer, The Gentile Comes to Utah: A Study in Religious and Social Conflict, 1862–1890 (Salt Lake City: Western Epics, 1971); Edward Leo Lyman, Political Deliverance: The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1986), 9–22.


President’s Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1879,


Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes, 421–23; Dwyer, The Gentile Comes to Utah, 122–146; Republican Party Platform of 1880,


Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes, 441; Dwyer, The Gentile Comes to Utah, 139, 194–95.


Dwyer, The Gentile Comes to Utah, 171, 194–95, 209.


Williams, The Life of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, 295–96.


Elemer Clarenece Sandmeyer, The Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973); John Kuo Wei Tchen, New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776–1882 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 260–83; Najia Aarim-Heriot, Chinese Immigrants, African Americans, and Racial Anxiety in the United States, 1848–82 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003); Liping Zhu, The Road to Chinese Exclusion: The Denver Riot, 1880 Election, and Rise of the West (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013); Kathryn Gin Lum, Heathen: Religion and Race in American History (Harvard University Press, 2022), 151–74.


Congressional Record 8, v. 1, 795–96, January 28, 1879.


Congressional Record 8, v. 2, 1303, February 14, 1879.


Williams, The Life of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, 211–18; Davison, The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, 205–6; Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes, 387–91; Veto Message, March 1, 1879,


Governor George Perkins, Inaugural Address, January 8, 1880,


Rev. O. C. Wheeler, The Chinese in America: A National Question (Oakland, Cal.: Times Publishing Co., 1880), 24, 27.


Laurie Maffly-Kipp, “Engaging Habits and Besotted Idolatry: Viewing Chinese Religions in the American West,” in Race, Religion, Region: Landscapes of Encounter in the American West, eds. Fay Botham and Sarah M. Patterson (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006), 60–88; Yucheng Qin, The Cultural Clash: Chinese Traditional Native-Place Sentiment and the Anti-Chinese Movement (Lanham: University Press of America, 2016), 77–85.


Charles J. McClean, In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 95–97.


“An Injudicious Measure,” Sacramento Daily Union, April 1 1876, p 4.


Gordon, The Mormon Question, 119–45, 221–38; Lum, Heathen, 161–67; Tisa Wenger, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 3–10.


Presidential Western Tour, Sacramento, California, September 22, 1880.


Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes, 444–46.


Ibid, 447–54; President’s Annual Message to Congress, December 6, 1880,


Prucha, American Indian Policy in Crisis, 234–48, 265–91; Hoxie, A Final Promise, 41–82; Adams, Education for Extinction, 7–64; Justus D. Doenecke, The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1981), 85–91.


Lee, The Struggle for Federal Aid, 140–59; Gordon B. McKinney, Henry W. Blair’s Campaign to Reform America: From the Civil War to the U.S. Senate (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013), 81–89.


Gordon, The Mormon Question, 151–55; Doenecke, The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur, 84–85.


Doenecke, The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur, 81–84.


Mark Wahlgren Summers, Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion: The Making of a President, 1884 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).


Geoffrey Blodgett, “The Emergence of Grover Cleveland: A Fresh Appraisal,” New York History 73, no. 2 (April 1992): 133–68; Robert Kelley, “Presbyterianism, Jacksonianism and Grover Cleveland,” American Quarterly 18, no. 4 (Winter 1966): 615–36; Allan Nevins, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1964), 170–230; Lyman, Political Deliverance, 41–68.


Rev. Josiah Strong, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Present Crisis (New York: American Home Missionary Society, 1885), viii.


Homer E. Socolofsky, “Benjamin Harrison and the American West,” Great Plains Quarterly 5, no. 4 (Fall 1985): 249–58.


Louis S. Warren, God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of America (New York: Basic Books, 2017).


Green, The Bible, the School, and the Constitution, 285.


Dwyer, The Gentile Comes to Utah, 240–49; Gordon, The Mormon Question, 180–220.


Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War against Chinese Americans (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 291–302.


Democratic Party Platform 1892,; Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest, 122–53; Lee, The Struggle for Federal Aid, 118–23; Daniel F. Reilly, The School Controversy, 1891–1893 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1943); John Whitney Evans, “Catholics and the Blair Education Bill,” The Catholic Historical Review 46, n. 3 (Oct. 1960): 273–98.