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Reviewed by:
  • Inspiration and Innovation: Religion in the American West by Todd M. Kerstetter
  • Luke Ritter
Inspiration and Innovation: Religion in the American West. By Todd M. Kerstetter. (Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2015. Pp. 286. Illustrations, map, index).

Wiley Blackwell’s new addition to its Western History Series, Inspiration and Innovation: Religion in the American West, is perfectly suited to classroom use. Todd Kerstetter, an associate professor at Texas Christian University, has carefully constructed a readable survey of religion in the American West from pre-contact to the present. This reviewer, as an instructor of both the history of the American West and the history of religion, most certainly agrees with Kerstetter: too few works on the American West sufficiently focus on religion, and religious histories rarely give adequate attention to western influences. Kerstetter deftly examines the role religion played in the Trans-Mississippi and Far West, especially the topics that popular textbook histories of the American West have downplayed: indigenous religion on the West Coast, the Russian Orthodox Church in Oregon, Mormonism in Utah, Hispanic Catholicism in the Southwest, and Reform Judaism in San Francisco. He also convincingly shows how the historical development of the West shaped uniquely American religious innovations.

Before there was an “American West,” the places that it would come to include deeply influenced the religions of indigenous tribes. During the colonial era, these religions creatively adapted to the influences of missionaries, soldiers, traders, and government agents. Religion was thus a vital function of the process of colonialism. During the nineteenth century, American missionaries pushed westward and established settlements in remote areas like Oregon and even Hawaii with more speed and effectiveness than government agencies. Kerstetter is especially adept at explaining the American Indian religious perspective on American westward expansion and how conflicting ideas about religion fueled the ensuing violent conflicts. Religious competition within Christian sects also characterized the West. Various Protestant Christians had competing missions, as did the Catholics. After the war between the United States and Mexico, for example, the newly appointed Bishop of Santa Fe, French-born Jean Baptiste Lamy, alienated Hispanic priests in New Mexico.

Religion became a dynamic part of the U.S. government’s attempt to [End Page 431] bring the West into conformity with American values. While Protestants and Catholics worked hand-in-hand with federal agencies, other religious groups clashed with them—like the Mormons, whose practice of plural marriage provoked a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1879 outlawing the practice. Not until Mormon leader Wilford Woodruff announced that Mormons would comply with the federal law against polygamy in 1890 did the U.S. government end its anti-Mormon crusade. Also that year, a resurgence of Pan-Indian revitalization religious movements, like the Ghost Dance, culminated in the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre. The Ghost Dance fizzled after that, but Kerstetter describes a return to traditional Indian spirituality through the early twentieth century accompanied by an increase in the ritual use of peyote.

Christian groups in the West also experimented with communal innovations, like the Bloys Camp Meeting for Cowboys in West Texas. Christian fundamentalism (and resistance to evolutionary theory) became one of the biggest motivators for religious innovation in the West. The so-called Okies carried their “Texas Theology” with them to California in the 1930s and 1940s. California became an “evangelical powerhouse,” Kerstetter explains, that fueled the rise of conservative politics and the likes of Ronald Reagan. Religion in the West after 1965 became ever more varied as the U.S. lifted immigration restrictions. The West remains the home of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints and numerous indigenous religions, but it has also produced some of America’s most recent religious innovators, from Area 52 to Heaven’s Gate Founder (and Texan) Marshall Applewhite, to Joel Osteen and the Lakewood mega-church of Houston. I commend the author for producing an excellent classroom resource, and I intend to assign this book in my course on the history of the American West.

Luke Ritter
Troy University