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Reviewed by:
  • Cowboy Christians by Marie W. Dallam
  • Randall Balmer
Cowboy Christians. By Marie W. Dallam. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xiv, 234. $34.95, ISBN 978-0-19-085656-4.)

The mythology surrounding the Anglo cowboy is robust and enduring, occupying cultural forms ranging from film and fashion to recreation and popular entertainment. According to Marie W. Dallam, professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, that mythology also suffuses a relatively new expression of evangelicalism, the cowboy church.

Cowboy Christians explores this subculture of the evangelical subculture. Located primarily and predictably in the Southwest, cowboy churches have flourished in recent years, along with evangelical chaplaincies to racetracks and the Professional Bull Riders circuit. Dallam defines a cowboy church "as an evangelical Protestant Christian church in which everything is western heritage [End Page 490] flavor, almost like a cowboy-themed church" (p. 3). The author spends a good deal of time adjudicating what is and is not authentically "cowboy," an exercise that apparently preoccupies many of those associated with cowboy churches.

After a brief historical survey of such cowboy preachers as John W. Anderson, Will S. James, and Ralph J. Hall, Dallam examines organizations including the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, and Cowboys for Christ. She records her visits to various cowboy congregations and debunks the notion that cowboy preachers deliver their sermons from horseback. The services themselves appear to follow the boilerplate megachurch model—praise music followed by a sermon, albeit one sprinkled with references to horsemanship, the West, and the cowboy ethos. Though Dallam glances over it, one of the most intriguing passages is her description of Christian horse whisperers who invite audiences to watch them train wild horses, all the while exhorting their auditors about the importance of submitting to God, just as the horse must submit to the discipline of the trainer.

Dallam locates cowboy Christians within the tradition of muscular Christianity, the British-born, mid-nineteenth-century movement that sought to make the faith more palatable to men by emphasizing athleticism and other "masculine" virtues. Still, the author seems surprised at the extent of patriarchalism that permeates cowboy churches and ministries.

Because of cowboy Christianity's radically decentralized character (not unusual among evangelicals), Dallam classifies it as a movement, one akin to the Jesus movement of the early 1970s. The Jesus movement, though dismissed as a passing fad by many evangelical leaders at the time, utterly transformed evangelicalism, especially its music and its emphasis on religious affections. "What most clearly distinguishes cowboy church from mainstream Protestantism is how it feels as a place of worship and as an organization," Dallam writes; "It offers a relational approach to church, rather than striving to engage people on intellectual or emotional levels" (p. 187).

Cowboy Christians provides a useful window into what might be called niche evangelicalism, demonstrating yet again evangelicals' uncanny ability to speak the idiom of the culture.

Randall Balmer
Dartmouth College


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pp. 490-491
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