How the West Was Really Won: From the Editor — Unexpected Heroes

IN A STORY FULL OF COWBOYS, sheriffs, saloon girls, outlaws, gunfighters, prospectors, and stagecoach drivers, the church was, at best, the place where frightened townspeople gathered to sing hymns and await rescue by the all-too-worldly hero . . . ,” writes Patricia Nelson Limerick in a 1996 essay “Believing in the American West.” “If one went in search of the classic heroes in the mythic turf of the Old West, one would not bother to look among the clergy.”

Limerick’s next sentence, though, is the most intriguing: “In the quest for western heroes, there is good reason now to look in unexpected, less explored places.” Good reason indeed, and if you look in this issue of Christian History, you will find some of those unexpected heroes.

The topic—Christianity in the American West—is as big as the region, and as diverse. There is no one overarching narrative like the Puritan story that dominates early New England. There is no single figure whose presence is felt throughout the region, such as George Whitefield in the eighteenth-century colonies. Sheldon Jackson ("Out Yonder, on the Edge of Things") is one of the largest personalities of the West, and as such deserves the attention we give him. But others could have been singled out as well, like Bishop Daniel Tuttle, “Brother Van” Ordsel ("Local Heroes"), and many others.

All in all, local heroes and local stories dominate the West, and unfortunately, we can tell only a few of these stories.

Some stories we've consciously left out for lack of space. Roman Catholic missionaries like Franciscan Marcos de Niza, for example, were already evangelizing the West nearly a century before the Pilgrims landed at Jamestown in 1620. But you won’t find much information on Catholic efforts in this issue.

Be that as it may, what you have in your hand is a pretty fair picture of Protestantism in the trans-Mississippi West from about 1840 to about 1910. Some of the heroes you’ll encounter here are nameless; others are flawed. But overall, you’ll see a diversity of men and women who brought the gospel to the West at considerable personal sacrifice, and who lived out their faith with immense courage—and thus shaped the region more than western mythmakers have led us to believe.

By Mark Galli

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #66 in 2000]

Mark Galli is editor of Christian History.
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