Gospel of Gold: Unearthing Religious Spaces in Nineteenth-Century Montana

This article uses the case of nineteenth-century placer miners in southwestern Montana to argue for the significance of physical and human geography in shaping the history of religion in the United States. Building on recent work at the intersection of religion, region, and capitalism, it explores the physical and social impact of natural resource extraction on religious life and the overlapping grids of local and trans-regional identities. Like most of the American West, Montana’s religious past is only beginning to be unearthed. In nineteenth-century Montana, patterns of religious encounter, conflict, and exchange played out in especially intensified forms, making it a particularly useful place to study how religions are constantly being made and remade, mixing and fusing in specific spaces and in relation to larger structural forces. Integral to this story were the efforts of Protestant home missionaries. Missionaries were faced with the task of negotiating the mythic images of the West formed at home and the realities of the roughshod, male-dominated boomtowns. New strategies and denominational adaptations had to be implemented as they crossed the uncertain border into the western landscape. The materiality of Montana mines and their physical toil on the body acted as the framework on which the sociospatial world was built and it was the missionaries who spoke to this reality that had the greatest success in attracting adherents. Situated at the nexus of natural resource extraction and missionary resistance and appropriation, this article reflects on the ways in which religion in the United States develops across borders and through the practical engagement with regional landscapes.

Forthcoming. Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation