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Making heroes of church pioneers in the wild west

By the 1920s American historians were including religion, most often characterized as “the church,” in their elaborations on Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier hypothesis. A clear example appears in George Mecklenburg’s The Last of the Old West (1927).

In the foreword to Mecklenburg’s book, Dr. Clarence True Wilson portrays religion as the essential element of the American character. “The most outstanding and native characteristic of America is religion,” he declares.  “A new people we are.  Perhaps Europe does excel us in art and music and literature, but in religion we have been supreme.” Wilson goes on to locate the peculiarity of the American religious character in democratic  pluralism.   “We have revelled [sic] in free religion,” he exclaims.  “Every form and every mood and every tone of religion has had the opportunity of the freest expression under conditions free of tradition and free of religious laws.  American religion grew out in the open.” Wilson then hails the ubiquitous value of the church, ranking institutionalized Christianity as the foremost  structure of American democracy, especially in settling western territories: “No American institution is more universally in evidence than the church.  The church came to the average western city long before the first train.  If not, then the representative of the church came in on the cow-catcher of the first train that entered the city.”  The church brought moral order to these raucous lands. “When life was new, when traditions had not been formed, when the imagination was open, when the heart was hopeful, when social idealism was high, then the church was on the ground ready to proclaim the highest moral precepts.  More than any other one factor in American life the church has made America what it is” (5-6).

This story of church and morality in the wild west involves, according to Mecklenburg, a racially charged effort of transforming savage disorder to settled order. He states in his Introduction, “The resistance of the West to civilization and the final victory of the pioneer make up a story more significant to civilization than any previous migration story of the race.  It is nothing less than the story of the making of the United States of America” (9). And of course religion,  specifically the Christian church, is the hero of the story. 

We now recognize the self-aggrandizing naivete of such heroic portrayals of religion in the west. Later historians have documented the abuses and collusion of well-meaning church people in genocidal campaigns against native peoples as well as in the development of an extractive economy that has devastating environmental effects. But retrospective views of moral compromise do not match the drama of a good hero story.  Pioneering evangelists bravely settling a dangerous frontier still seems a more compelling tale to many readers.

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