How the West Was Really Won: Christian History Interview — Land of Crumbling Myths

So far we've focused primarily on how the Christian church came to the American West in the nineteenth century, but what has it been up to since then? To find out, we talked to Richard Etulain, a historian and literary scholar at the University of New Mexico who wrote on western religious history in The American West: A Twentieth Century History (University of Nebraska, 1989), which he co-authored with Michael P. Malone. He’s also interested in how the West has been perceived, a topic he explored in Reimagining the Modern American West: A Century of Fiction, History, and Art (University of Arizona, 1996). He helped us see how the region has changed during the past decades, often in surprising ways, and how the church has responded.

What forces have been most important in shaping the culture of the West?

It’s been said that if you were to choose two remarkable turning points in western history in the last 200 years, they would be two events a hundred years apart—the Gold Rush and the Second World War, one in the 1840s and one in the 1940s. They each brought large numbers of people into the American West, new people with religious affiliations, new people who could be converted to religious affiliations.

Let me give you an example. I live in Albuquerque. In 1940 it had 30,000 people. In 1950 it had 100,000 people. In 1960 it had 200,000 people. And now it has 500,000. That big boom in population would be the same for Tucson, Phoenix, San Diego, and Seattle. Now Las Vegas is really the growth spot.

This has led to a situation most people are unaware of: the West is the most urban part of the United States. In 1900 California was an urban state, meaning that more than 50 percent of the residents lived in incorporated areas of 2,500 and higher population. The United States as a whole was not urban until 1920. California is still the most urban state, as well as the most populous—one out of nine Americans lives in California.

That doesn’t sound much like the classic “wild West.”

People often imagine the West as an open and individualistic frontier. A lot of western historians say that’s an old-fashioned idea, more myth than reality. But it is at least part of the American intellectual landscape.

In fact, the West is a series of urban oases, meaning that we live in urban centers, but we have all that open space in between. The most excessive example is Nevada, which has a population of nearly two million, almost all of whom—probably 90 percent—live in two urban centers, the gambling towns, Reno and Las Vegas.

Though the West is urban, the open spaces have created a sense of isolation and distance, especially in the first half of the twentieth century and in more agricultural areas, like Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas. Those areas had small populations and few large churches, and it was difficult for them to get pastors. But those populations are a small part of the total, so you have to make a distinction. Isolation and distance are there for the rural areas, but increasing numbers of people are living in cities.

When we think of urban areas, we usually think of ethnic populations. Is this true in the West?

Definitely. The West is the most ethnically diverse region in the country. Americans think of four main groups of minorities: African American, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American, and Native American. Most Hispanics, most Asian Americans, and certainly most Native Americans live in the West. Increasing numbers of African Americans are there, too, especially since the Second World War, when there was a gigantic influx of blacks coming to work at military installations.

How is diversity reflected in western churches?

Churches in the West haven’t been as divided by race as, say, churches in the South, especially in the first 50 years of the twentieth century. For example, large black denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church and some Baptist groups are not very strong west of Texas. That’s in large part because western churches weren’t divided. It’s not that there were no racists in the American West, just that many western churches were started after the divisions of the Civil War period.

Other types of diversity are present in the western church as well. To me, Southern California is probably the most exotic mix of Christianity in the American West, and maybe in the United States. Any kind of Christian group, or group that calls itself Christian, you can find in southern California. And that includes everyone from the most traditional fundamentalists to New Age churches.

Who would you say are some of the most extraordinary Christian leaders of the early twentieth century West?

Of the many I could mention, I’ll focus on just a few—some famous and some lesser-known, but all fitting the mold of larger-than-life figures with diverse and often urban-centered ministries.

Mark Matthews, for example, was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Seattle in the teens and ‘20s, and he built it into the largest Presbyterian church in the United States at the time. The congregation topped 9,000 members, which is very unusual in that denomination. He was also an outspoken reformer, taking on bootleggers and calling for city reform.

Even more sensational was J. Frank Norris, the Baptist pastor in the Fort Worth-Dallas area. He was even too conservative for the Southern Baptists! He was involved in a controversy when he shot a man in his office. They called him the “Texas tornado.”

Bob Shuler (not the Crystal Cathedral Bob Schuller) was another feisty pastor. Somebody referred to him as the “Czar of Christendom” in Los Angeles. He was ministering there as a southern Methodist at the same time Sister Aimee Semple McPherson was there, and she was his main object of criticism.

Sister Aimee represents another tradition, Foursquare Gospel Pentecostalism. She was attractive, vivacious, and controversial, but she first became well-known because she found a wide audience among the people streaming into Los Angeles. She said she was not called to preach to the poor—The Salvation Army was. Her calling was to preach to the people who had moved from Iowa to California and were trying to find themselves in the new urban West. It was the middle class Sister Aimee appealed to, and she did a tremendously good job of it.

William Jennings Bryan was the outstanding fundamentalist layman of the early twentieth century. He was from Nebraska, and his political career reflected a lot of not only his Nebraska background but also a social conscience that evangelicals of his time often didn’t exhibit. People pick on Bryan for the Scopes Trial, when he was not at his best, but they need to think about all of the helpful reforms he sought in the United States.

What were the most significant challenges western churches faced in the twentieth century?

The largest challenge of the twentieth century was trying to keep up with the rapid, persistent change. The West as a whole was predominantly urban from 1930 on, but churches, evangelical and even mainline, tended to be rural in their outlook. A lot of churches kept this focus up to the 1960s, both in the way they preached and the types of churches they formed, even though the majority of westerners were living in cities.

More recently, too many churches have been giving up on inner-city westerners by moving to the suburbs. This is a national problem, but it’s certainly true of the West. The people and the money are in the suburbs, but if we just focus on that culture, we’re going to lose the central cities. With that, we’ll lose most of the minorities, who make up 20 to 30 percent of the American population—perhaps reaching as high as 50 percent, if we project out 50 years.

Ferenc Szasz and others who write about American religious history between about 1880 and 1920 talk a lot about what happened when evangelicals said, “You've got to be born again,” while proponents of the social gospel said, “You've got to deal with these social problems.” From the 1920s to about the 1960s, western evangelicals didn’t make a lot of effort to bridge that divide.

However, I think evangelicals are starting to do better. I've recently seen a lot of churches reaching out to Asian immigrants, particularly those leaving desperate situations in southeast Asia. Many of these immigrants are settling in western cities, and many churches are sponsoring them. It’s a great example of Christians responding to real needs in the diverse, rapidly growing West. CH

By Richard Etulain

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

Richard Etulain is a historian and literary scholar at the University of New Mexico who wrote on western religious history in The American West: A Twentieth Century History (University of Nebraska, 1989).
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