Christianity and the Wild, Wild West

Christianity Today has an interesting article about the role Christians played, especially pastors, in settling the western United States:

Though such signs of spiritual life appeared all over the western landscape, they are completely absent from most people's visions of the nineteenth-century American frontier. Names like Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid, and Wyatt Earp are almost synonymous with the West, while names like William D. Bloys, Daniel S. Tuttle, Charles Sheldon, Sheldon Jackson, and Brother Van Orsdel ring few bells. Yet if one looks at actual accomplishments, the situation might well be reversed. Most western communities owe far more to these unheralded clerics than they do to the high-profile outlaws or icons.

From about 1840 to the end of the century, these largely anonymous ministers shaped the contours of western life in three major ways. They formed the first churches and Sunday schools, which promoted social stability while reining in local violence; they developed a distinctly western style of Christianity that emphasized a non-denominational message of salvation and personal ethics; and they helped lay the institutional foundations—orphanages, hospitals, and schools—for scores of western communities....

Throughout the region, western clergy also helped lay the institutional infrastructure for their communities. Except for the territorial and state governments and the saloons—which received near-universal condemnation—the West lacked permanent institutions of any sort. Thus the ministers found themselves called upon to fill a genuine need by founding orphanages, hospitals, and schools.

Virtually all the early western hospitals (those of the U. S. Army excepted) had some sort of denominational affiliation. The makeshift hospital in the Catholic mining town of Price, Utah, drew its funds from a compulsory donation from every miner. The nursing nuns left only when the ores played out. The Protestant Episcopal Church established a small hospital in Indian territory to aid "Natives," miners, and railroad men, and also set up a larger facility on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. Brother Van led the Methodists in establishing at least nine hospitals in Montana....

Read more about these Christian pioneers here.


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Melinda Penner