Tumacacori Mission Remains 1908
The remains of the Tumacacori Mission near Tucson, AZ. Photographed ca. 1908

Lots of people get credit for settling the west—trappers, explorers, miners, the military, ranchers, homesteaders, even gunslingers—but religious leaders are never on the list. In fact, one could read countless history books and never realize Jesus immigrated West, too. But as Christian History Magazine put it: “Though history has all but forgotten them, it was Christian preachers and teachers who really tamed the West.” Historian Ferenc Morton Szasz of the University of New Mexico said, “Most western communities owe far more to these unheralded clerics than they do to the high-profile outlaws or icons.”

Protestants of all persuasions rushed to the new territories west of the Mississippi River for a very clear reason: “Americans saw the untamed wilderness as immoral and irreligious, and men and women alike decried the lack of churches and other suitable moral and religious institutions,” explained Susan Myres in Westering Women. Besides, the Catholics were already there and had been since the Spanish started colonizing the west, long before the Pilgrims even landed at Jamestown. That provided an extra incentive, for Protestants despised Catholicism and feared its spread was a “threat” to the nation. Jews helped settle the west too, especially through the “Galveston Plan” that brought 10,000 Russian and European Jews through the Texas port. And of course, the migration of Mormons played a significant role throughout the west—or as one historian put it, trying to write the story of the West without the Mormons is ignoring the hole in the doughnut. The religions that didn’t count to any of these groups were the nature-based religions of Native Americans—Gods like Ussen and White Painted Woman. They were not recognized nor respected by traditional groups, who mistakenly saw Indians as “heathens.”


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