From the Desk of Michael McKenzie: Geography Matters

Michael C. McKenzie is an associate professor of philosophy and religion at Keuka College. He is the author of The Ethics of Paul Ramsey: The Triumph of Agape in a Postmodern World and Jehovah’s Witnesses: Understanding Their Faith and Teachings. His newest book, A Country Strange and Far (Nebraska, 2022), is now available.

How the Pacific Northwest Thwarted the most Powerful Religion in the Country

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I didn’t take religion all that seriously. Truth be told, neither did most of my friends, themselves largely mainline Protestants or moderate Roman Catholics. So how did I end up writing a book on geography’s effects on religion in the Pacific Northwest? Good question. I started out writing a straightforward biography on a Methodist preacher, one James H. Wilbur, a charismatic Indian Agent who watched over the Yakama Indian Reservation from 1864-1882. But it wasn’t long before I discovered the real subject was conflict—partially between various ideas of religion, but mostly between religion and the region itself. Although this same drama would play out with one tradition after the other, I focused on the Methodists, since they were the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful denomination at the time. But despite all their wealth, power, and prestige, the early accounts of northwest circuit riders and preachers were all about failure—whether it was regarding efforts to convert the Native peoples, get the earliest settlers into pews, or convince the later waves of northwest immigrants to accept the Methodist gospel.    

But this discovery just raised more questions. What had happened to the powerful Methodists? Why weren’t they able to duplicate the successes they had enjoyed on the other side of the Mississippi River? And why did so many people in the Pacific Northwest seem to share the same lukewarm attitude toward religion that I had known as a boy? The early Methodist missionaries were preaching the same subjects with the same fervor as they had back East, so why weren’t people responding? The puzzle seemed to have only two possible answers: first, the western audience was somehow different than their eastern brethren, or second, the region itself was somehow to blame. But what exactly had happened to these people on the Oregon Trail? How was the land such a powerful actor in all this?  What does sagebrush have to do with Scripture, or mountains with Methodists? It didn’t take long for me to discover that these two influences—immigration and northwest geography—were hugely significant on how people responded to religion in general, and Methodism in particular.

The Oregon Trail developed a reputation as a “faith killer.” Its six-month grueling marathon over prairies and mountains killed one out of ten who tried it, and survivors began to reassess their worldviews. The weary and wounded immigrants who stumbled into Oregon City were shadows of their former selves, and upon arrival had no time to recover, as they were under the gun to find a claim, build a cabin, and get a crop in the ground before winter set in. There was little time to worry about church. As missionary Narcissa Whitman lamented about the Trail’s effects: “Every Christian has learned to swear by the end of the Oregon Trail.” I had been weaned on tales of pioneer hardship and took pride in ancestors who fought to carve out homesteads amongst the lava rock and gnarled junipers of the Oregon High Desert. Nobody had to tell me that we were all immigrants in the Pacific Northwest, and so it was just one more step to examine how immigration affected the faith of all those thousands who first settled the region

But this book is largely about how northwest geography—the total package of land and climate—affected the effectiveness of how Methodists sold their message. The geographies that greeted circuit riders and missionaries were like nothing they had ever seen. Whether it was the aridity of the lands east of the Cascades or the steep terrain on the west side, geography was causing settlements to bunch up, the famous “oasis settlements” so prevalent in the Intermountain West. But instead of adapting their methods of evangelizing to match these new geographic realities, they tried to use the same techniques which had proven so successful in the well-watered and gentle lands east of the Mississippi. But the people would have none of it. The result was a region that started off with significant religious apathy and just kept adding more tepid layers over the years. 

But nonetheless, if you or I had been watching the first Methodist missionaries depart the Missouri bottomlands for the far Northwest in 1834, we likely would have put our money on the Methodists. They had been a seemingly unstoppable religious juggernaut. But this book is the story about how one region became the immovable object that actually stopped the irresistible force. And neither the region nor the Methodists would ever be the same after this encounter.

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