Ferenc Morton Szasz: Historical Pioneer of Religion in the American West


Stories of pioneers blazing trails through the rugged terrain of the American West have been thoroughly integrated into both the actual history as well as the mythology of the West for many years. Although Ferenc Morton Szasz was not even alive at the time when the American West was still a frontier, he was nevertheless a pioneer in a certain sense. Social historians in the last few decades have put forward an enormous amount of excellent scholarship to help readers better understand the American West, but outside of Szasz, very little has been said about the importance of religion. When only Native Americans dwelt in the land, religion was, of course, a very important part of their culture. The Spanish eventually colonized much of the American West, bringing with them a strong background of Roman Catholicism. The American West would later have a variety of other religious components, which helped to create the social fabric of different regions. Szasz, therefore, in his writings on religion in the American West has essentially blazed new trails in historical scholarship. In the following research, several facets will be analyzed in order to gain a stronger awareness and appreciation for what he has accomplished. First, biographical information will be assessed, along with a brief overview of some of Szasz’s articles. Next, several of his books will be examined, particularly his text, The Protestant Clergy in the Great Plains and Mountain West, 1865-1915. Thereafter, and most meticulously, Szasz’s Religion in the Modern American West will be reviewed. Since the latter is one of his better-known books, and examines a rather wide range of information, it will be explored most carefully. Szasz, while having posited many points that remain open to argument, has clearly established himself as the foremost authority on religion in the American West.

Biography of Ferenc Morton Szasz

Ferenc Morton Szasz was born on February 14, 1940 in Davenport, Iowa.[1] His father, Ferenc Paul Szasz, was originally from Budapest, but lived much of his life in Vienna until eventually becoming a naturalized American citizen. His mother, Mary Plummer Szasz, was an Iowan native and a high school English teacher. Ferenc Morton Szasz earned his bachelor’s degree at Oklahoma Wesleyan University, and went on to complete his doctorate at the University of Rochester. In 1968, he began his teaching career at the University of New Mexico, which would endure for 43 years. From 1985-86, Szasz held the honor of being the Fulbright Professor of American Studies at the University of Exeter in Great Britain.[2] It is likely that his time spent in the United Kingdom inspired him, at least in part, to write one of his twelve published books, Scots in the North American West, 1790-1917.[3] According to his wife, Margaret Connell-Szasz, who also taught history at the University of New Mexico, “Over his 43 years of teaching he had more than 20,000 students.”[4] He was not simply a prolific author of nearly one hundred published articles, all in addition to his books, but was pedagogically gifted as well. Richard Etulain considered him the “the most important person in the history of the Department of History.”[5] Likewise, he specialized in both the social and religious history of the American West, making his works appealing to a wide array of historians and historical enthusiasts.

Articles by Ferenc Morton Szasz

Due to the fact that Szasz wrote literally dozens of published articles, insufficient space and time will not permit an exhaustive overview of them all, but a brief sampling of a few will offer some profitable insights into Szasz’s writings. The first article to address was a bit unusual. The History Teacher journal, in August of 1974, issued a series of three articles titled, “The Many Meanings of History.” These entries were simply quotations in history about history. The editors noted, “Mr. Szasz began collecting quotations about history on three-by-five cards almost fifteen years ago.”[6] Even though Szasz, in the journal, did not comment on the three articles that The History Teacher published, these numerous primary source quotations are to this day quite valuable and informative for teachers of history. Another somewhat unusual article was “Homer and the Myth of the American West,” published in the often provocative and controversial journal, The Western Forum. One of his statements from this article was a bit speculative, but intriguing nonetheless: “[T]he two foremost ‘epic poems’ of our day are probably the oldest—Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, from the world of ancient Greece—and the youngest—the saga of the North American West.”[7] After making some interesting parallels between Homer’s myths and the American West’s myths—such as how the former had Callliope and Clio, who presided over epic poetry and history respectively—Szasz pondered why the West became so entrenched in myth. “The answer,” he said, “lay in the concept of…religious pluralism.”[8] Since the American West was composed of so many different denominations, the people could not unify over one religion in particular. “Thus, the epic of the West emerged as the national frame of reference, the way by which many Americans made the complexities of life understandable.”[9] Even when comparing a seemingly bizarre combination of Homer and the American West, Szasz still managed to guide his arguments back to the critical role that religion played in the American West.

One article written by Szasz that may epitomize his scholarly contributions to the field of religious history in the American West was his submission, “The Clergy and the Myth of the American West.” While he again talked about the mythologizing of the American West, as referred to in his article from The Western Forum, Szasz here delved much deeper. In “The Clergy and the Myth of the American West,” Szasz investigated why clergy have largely been forgotten while mythical figures like Kit Carson, Annie Oakley, and Wild Bill Hickok have essentially been immortalized. He made the observation, “By any ‘objective’ criteria these categories of fame should be reversed.”[10] Worse yet, he lamented how most popular images of clergy, such as in literature and film, were often caricatures.[11] In such a brief article, Szasz nevertheless made several interesting points. For example, he noted, “Along the eastern seaboard, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians could claim a cultural preeminence over various ‘outsiders’ by simple virtue of being there first. Not so with the West…[There,] no group produced a clerical figure strong enough to carry the national mythology.”[12] Additionally, he posited an interpretation by arguing that the message of the clergy was antithetical to the West’s promise of “freedom.” Christianity called for grace, but it also placed limits on what kind of activities a man or woman of the West could do. “Thus,” Szasz said, “the western clergy have played the role of Aunt Sally to Huck Finn, or the Sheriff of Nottingham to Robin Hood. This is not the material from which great legends are made.”[13]

Szasz was clearly proficient and comfortable in making significant claims pertaining to religious history in the American West from his articles. However, he expanded into other areas as well such as social and intellectual history. His article, “The ‘Scoto-Indian’ as Cultural Broker in the 19th-Century West,” offers proof. These part-Scottish, part-Native American “cultural brokers,” according to Szasz, “[S]erved as a bridge or an intermediary to assist one in understanding the other.”[14] The sources he drew from are quite obscure, and the people mentioned are not very well known. From Scot/Pawnee ethnographer, James R. Murie, to the Scot/Chippewa scout in the U.S. Army, Archie McIntosh, Szasz’s article tells of seemingly normal people, yet they also possessed an admirable sense of endurance and a determination to bridge cultural dissensions.[15] The final cultural broker, James (Scotty) Philip, was unique in a different way, as he helped save many of the buffalo in South Dakota from extinction.[16] While this particular article from Szasz was rather different from his religious history writings, it also demonstrates that he was quite flexible in his research abilities.

Survey of Multiple Works By Ferenc Morton Szasz

Just as in his articles, Szasz has profusely written on religious history in the American West, but he has also spent plenty of time in his books on social and intellectual history. A few of Szasz’s books dealt with the nature of the American West and the nuclear age. In 1984, he wrote The Day the Sun Rose Twice: The Story of the Trinity Site Nuclear Explosion, July 16, 1945.[17] Eight years later, St. Martin’s Press published his concise and similarly related book, British Scientists and the Manhattan Project: The Los Alamos Years.[18] Although it was published posthumously, Atomic Comics: Cartoonists Confront the Nuclear World combined twin passions of Szasz—history and comics—to produce a fascinating and fresh perspective of this time period of the twentieth century American West.[19] Though perhaps overlapping with some of the previously mentioned texts, Szasz also wrote Larger Than Life: New Mexico in the Twentieth Century.[20] Additionally, Szasz could be classified as a scholar of Abraham Lincoln. He completed Abraham Lincoln and Robert Burns: Connected Lives and Legends in 2008, and then he co-authored, alongside his wife, the book published in 2014, Lincoln and Religion.[21] His first strictly religious history was likewise his first book published, The Divided Mind of Protestant America, 1880-1930.[22] His other two religious history works, The Protestant Clergy in the Great Plains and Mountain West, 1865-1915, and Religion in the Modern American West, will provide the bulk of material for which the rest of this research will analyze.[23]

The Protestant Clergy in the Great Plains and Mountain West, 1865-1915 is somewhat of a precursor to Religion in the Modern American West, as the former’s content carries into the latter’s beginning. It is also more geographically limited, as the title suggests. However, the material is slightly more inclusive than the name infers, as chapters six through eight cover the impact of Hispanics of the Southwest, the Mormons, and the Native Americans. Still, a majority of the book does focus on Protestants and their influence on this region of the West. Towards the beginning of his text, Szasz made an intriguing two-fold justification for why the clergy are worthy of being understood. First, “The pioneer clergy devoted countless hours to the needs of their own congregations.”[24] Also, “[The clergy] performed a variety of far-reaching social roles.”[25] Later on, Szasz remarked, “[F]or over two generations the ministers served as the foremost representatives of ‘culture’ in the New West.”[26] Thus, one of the keys to understanding the American West from the end of the Civil War until World War I, according to Szasz, centered on one’s ability to comprehend the Protestant clergy.

Review of Religion in the Modern American West

Among all of Szasz’s writings on religion, Religion in the Modern American West was one of the most comprehensive in terms of geographical and chronological width. However, due to its brevity, with just under 200 pages of text, there was only so much depth that could have been undertaken. Still, Szasz’s text provided a much-needed narrative for how scholars can attempt to understand the religious landscape of the American West. In other words, Religion in the Modern American West was, and still is, a necessity for anyone who desires to become acquainted with how religion has played a major role in the American West for the last century and earlier. The book is divided into three parts, beginning with the 1890s to the 1920s, though it is preceded by a preface. Next, Szasz covered the 1920s to 1960s, which included a chapter on the major religious personalities of the age. Finally, he observed the 1960s to the time of his publication, that is, the year 2000. His epilogue concluded the book, and in it he offered several intriguing interpretations that are very much open to discussion. Understanding the American West as a whole can be a challenge, but Szasz has offered numerous reasons why religion has been an important component throughout the years.

In his preface, Szasz wrote, “A person who reads only recent works might well conclude that the modern American West has evolved into a thoroughly secular society.”[27] Social and environmental history books abound, but specifically religious history texts concerning the American West are not so common. This brings up an important question of why religion has been largely neglected by historians if it has been so influential, as Szasz portrayed. He offered several reasons why this disconnect has been made between the average Westerner and the historian. These would include: the privatization of religion, a restrictive regional focus among past written religious histories, an indifference among many “New Western” historians who focus on other matters such as race, class, and gender, and most plausibly, “The religious history of the modern American West introduces a new cast of characters and often forges its own boundaries.”[28] And although some of religious movements in the East found their way to the American West, Szasz noted, “[W]esterners generally bent these trends along their own trajectories.”[29] Therefore, while a religious history of the American West works in harmony with national trends and issues, it also presents a unique narrative that begs to be told.

Chapter One discussed how the “social gospel” influenced religion and culture in the American West. Although evangelical Christianity was dominant in the East and the Midwest, Szasz believed that evangelicalism was not so overpowering as one traveled further west, so much that evangelicalism was a “decided minority” in some Western pockets.[30] Furthermore, “The (largely southern) idea that the clergyman’s role was simply to ‘preach the old Gospel’ had rarely been accepted in the Victorian West.”[31] Throughout the chapter, Szasz gave multiple examples for how the “social gospelers” acted as both prophets and community servants. However, it is difficult to know whether or not Szasz was overemphasizing the societal emphasis among Western clergy in comparison to those in the East. No cases from churches in the East were given as proof of this “East-West” distinction over word and deed ministry. In fact, Szasz observed how the community of Rock Springs, Wyoming operated as if it was a “New York in miniature,” which implies that the West was inspired by the East.[32] Nevertheless, it does not diminish the fact that the religious leaders in the West were likewise the civic leaders, spreading their reach into matters of faith, but also in education, helping the poor, and social justice.

The next chapter, “Religious Life in the Urban and Rural West,” was especially insightful and offered unique interpretations, perhaps because some of the content that was observed has not been well known. Szasz discussed movements associated with “New Thought” ideologies, as well as groups that were communitarians, like the “Land of Shalam.” This latter group’s “Bible,” Oahspe, is referred to by Szasz as “America’s second indigenous scripture,” with The Book of Mormon being the first.[33] Szasz’s discussions on religious symbols were also quite informative, particularly in regards to religious architecture. Sometimes religious denominations set standards for culture in the West, but sometimes there was religious conformity to the surrounding community. For example, Szasz called to attention how the architecture of the Holy Family Roman Catholic Cathedral reflected more of a “Bible Belt” Catholicism.[34] Additionally, he even went on to say, “[T]he impressive church buildings pointed to the religious equality of much of the urban West,” reflecting the pluralism of religion in the West.[35] While churches, temples, and synagogues were at the heart of religious experience and identity among the urban faithful, western rural religion worried less about architecture and more about community involvement and entertainment.[36] But wherever one might have traveled in the West throughout the Progressive Era, religion would have been a major part of the culture.

Chapter Three discussed the significance of the clergy themselves, but Szasz even branched out to religious leaders were not actually clergymen. According to Szasz, the period from 1890 to 1925 was height of the clerics’ “social powers.”[37] Some of the people mentioned in this chapter included: William Hobart Hare, Alma White, William Judson Boone, Rabbi William S. Friedman. However, Szasz made a somewhat surprising inclusion and subsequently referred to Charles Fletcher Lummis, a writer and son of a Massachusetts clergyman, as well as John Muir, an advocate of the “religion of Nature.” Thanks to Lummis’s popular portrayals of Franciscan missions and John Muir’s bold insistence for conservation, Szasz made the comment, “[I]t is intriguing that two nonclerical figures—Charles F. Lummis and John Muir—probably had more impact on the course of western religious history than all the others put together.”[38] Such a statement is hard to measure, but it is nonetheless a point worth considering, especially with the rise of secularization and the decline of clerical authority in years thereafter.

Chapters Four through Six covered an enormous amount of important religious movements, from the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, to the Great Depression and New Deal, to World War II, and to the early stages of the Cold War. Beginning with Fundamentalism and Modernism, Szasz offered the reminder, “Not all Protestant groups were affected to the same degree,” and some regions like the Catholic/Jewish San Francisco, Mormon Utah, and predominately Catholic New Mexico were barely moved.[39] Another controversy, based on very different points of contention, centered on Pentecostalism, which was a denomination essentially born in the West at a revival in Los Angeles. Pentecostals tended to downplay higher education and some of their methods were unconventional to traditional Protestants. Szasz made a good point in that since Pentecostals “relied on proverbs, jokes, personal testimonies, musical lyrics, and a wide variety of miracle stories, many of which involved spiritual healing,” it made sense that they also utilized radio and, when made available, television to spread their message.[40] Many Americans, on the other hand, likewise viewed Mormons with suspicion since their inception. However, Mormons made some accommodations, as in their revised view of polygamy, and then gained positive publicity with their private welfare actions that attempted to alleviate some of the pains that resulted from the Great Depression.[41]

Chapter Five began with a helpful explanation on the transition between the 1930s and the 1940s: “Relatively ignored during the Depression, western clerics found themselves thrust into renewed positions of leadership after Pearl Harbor.”[42] There was surprisingly very little written on the effects that World War II had on religious experiences in the West, as the narrative quickly moved from a discussion on the Great Depression and New Deal to the post-World War II era. Thomas Bergler, more recently, has thoughtfully argued that The Juvenilization of American Christianity was especially strong in the years following such a dramatic international conflict, as World War II was.[43] And in the American West in particular, religious entities extended much of their efforts towards youth. Mormons constructed many recreational centers, the “drive-in church” was invented, Jewish leaders found ways to educate both the Jew and Gentile, Catholic schools thrived; in short, the impact from World War II on religion seems to have been sown during the war, but was reaped afterwards.[44]

One other topic of importance from the early- to mid-twentieth century concerns the religious personalities in the West. Chapter Six details the lives and influence of three people: Aimee Semple McPherson, Brother Mathias Barrett of the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd, and Rabbi Isadore Budick. McPherson, while certainly scandalous, “[H]as become the most well known figure of early-twentieth century western religious history.”[45] Barrett was especially important for Catholics in Western America, as he was a man who would “do the work nobody wants”—charity work, especially.[46] Possibly one of the most intriguing studies within Religion of the Modern American West, however, concerned Rabbi Budick, a “cultural broker” as a Reform Jew, and the theory of New Mexican Hispanic families having Jewish origins that reach back to 1492, when Jews were expelled from Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain.[47] Overall, however, the Western clergy and other religious leaders, while important to their local communities, never acquired much national attention, except for McPherson.[48]

The final few chapters described how religion confronted the modern world in the American West. Intriguingly, Szasz argued, “Many of these political/social events—Vietnam, civil rights, and issues involving sexuality—intersected with the world of organized religion at numerous points,” and he then proceeded to cite the work of Robert S. Ellwood, who believed these things were “spiritual” at their core.[49] However, the West also seemed to have experienced a significant increase in secularism. From a survey conducted in 1990, it was determined that out of the ten highest states of those who answered “no religion” in polls, nine were in the West.[50] New Faiths and New Age movements also increased.[51] At the same time, while liberal theology “collapsed,” according to Szasz, conservative evangelicalism held its own, and even grew exponentially in some regions.[52] Perhaps this polarization between conservative Christianity and secular religion was the main cause for the “bumper sticker war.”[53] Furthermore, as Szasz described, “For the last quarter of the twentieth century, western religion found itself much in the news but seldom for reasons that would please the theologians.”[54] Some of the controversies were simply because of theological or methodological differences between groups, such as in the case of the “Jesus Freaks” or over the teaching of evolution versus creationism and intelligent design, but others were much more serious in that they involved scandal and sometimes even death, as in the cases of the Divine Light Mission, Jonestown, and Rafneeshpuram.

The modern American West also brought issues related to minorities and religion to the forefront in some regions. Kwanzaa, for example, began in 1966 from the influence of the Cal State University professor, Maulana Karenga.[55] Asian faiths such as Buddhism also progressed in importance, and while many Christians and Jews did not convert to an Asian religion, plenty embraced the practice of meditation.[56] Some ministers also adapted their teaching, such as Robert Schuller, who emphasized ideas such as self-esteem. Although those more critical of Schuller would probably disagree, Szasz commented about him, “Although he has left his inherited Calvinism far behind, by grounding his self-esteem theology in ‘service to others,’ Schuller reflects much of the original Christian message.”[57] Recently, then, religion in the American West has been both controversial and dynamic. Such complexity is hard to simplify into a few chapters, but Szasz has compiled some of the most important features leading up to the turn of the new century.

Szasz’s epilogue offered a summarization of his text, as well as a few final points to consider for the future of religion in the American West. First of all, “[I]t does seem clear that traditional forms of Judeo-Christian morality no longer hold the same cultural dominance over national life.”[58] Borrowing from Simon Weil’s theory that evil is often fascinating in film, while goodness is less appealing, Szasz believed that, as the twentieth century came to a close, it was “hard to find a common spiritual frame of reference in the dominant forms of storytelling.”[59] He even concluded that “most organized religious groups will probably assume the roles historically played by the Mennonites, Jews, ethnic churches, and Mormons of an earlier day: they will all become ‘outsiders,’” though he also clarified, “Even if the churches have become outsiders, they are the most important outsiders that any western community can have.”[60] His prediction is certainly plausible, but time will tell of his accuracy. Religion is still important in the American West, which is a seemingly ever-changing place.


Many people loved Ferenc Morton Szasz in his life and career, and he was known to have had a vibrant personality. However, his historical scholarship was just as exemplary. By referring to Szasz as a “historical pioneer of religion in the American West,” this is to say that he paved the way for future scholarship in a largely undiscovered topic. There are two reasons why Szasz deserves this title. First, by observing the sources utilized by Szasz, it is clear that he infrequently draws secondary sources. Theoretically, it could mean that he was simply lazy and did not bother to look at what other authors have written. But this cannot be further from the truth. For example, in Religion in the Modern West he compiled over thirty pages of endnotes, and the majority of them were primary sources. Therefore, while he did cite numerous secondary works as well in a selected bibliography, many of the interpretations were his own. Secondly, Szasz is also a “historical pioneer of religion in the American West” to the degree that his interpretations will likely be debated for years to come. Studies on a more localized scholar should especially prove beneficial, and will confirm, contradict, or refine what Szasz has written. Just as the New Testament records Jesus’ words to his disciples in a context of winning converts that “the fields are ripe for harvesting,” religion and history scholars of the American West also have an enormous field of study that needs to be “harvested.”[61] Szasz has started the work, and has done a wonderful job in his scholarship, but more can also be done both now and in the future.

[1] “Obituary,” Albuquerque Journal, June 27, 2010. http://obits.abqjournal.com/obits/show/207078 [accessed April 23, 2016]. Unless otherwise noted, all biographical information has been taken from this source.

[2] Carolyn Gonzalez, “History Professor Ferenc Szasz Dies,” http://news.unm.edu/news/history-professor-ferenc-szasz-dies [accessed April 23, 2016].

[3] Ferenc Morton Szasz, Scots in the North American West, 1790-1917 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000).

[4] Quoted in Carolyn Gonzalez, “History Professor Ferenc Szasz Dies,” http://news.unm.edu/news/history-professor-ferenc-szasz-dies [accessed April 23, 2016].

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ferenc M. Szasz, “The Many Meanings of History, Part 1” The History Teacher 7:4 (August 1974), 552-563.

[7] Ferenc M. Szasz, “Homer and the Myth of the American West” The Western Forum 35:3 (July 1996), 3.

[8] Ibid., 4.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ferenc M. Szasz, “The Clergy and the Myth of the American West” Church History 59:4 (December 1990), 500.

[11] Ibid., 502.

[12] Ibid., 503.

[13] Ferenc M. Szasz, “The Clergy and the Myth of the American West” Church History 59:4 (December 1990), 506.

[14] Ferenc M. Szasz, “The ‘Scoto-Indian’ as Cultural Broker in the 19th-Century West,” Journal of the West 40:1 (Winter 2001), 31.

[15] Ibid., 32-33.

[16] Ibid., 34.

[17] Ferenc Morton Szasz, The Day the Sun Rose Twice: The Story of the Trinity Site Nuclear Explosion, July 16, 1945 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984).

[18] Ferenc Morton Szasz, British Scientists and the Manhattan Project: The Los Alamos Years (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).

[19] Ferenc Morton Szasz, Atomic Comics: Cartoonists Confront the Nuclear World (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2012).

[20] Ferenc Morton Szasz, Larger Than Life: New Mexico in the Twentieth Century (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006).

[21] Ferenc Morton Szasz, Abraham Lincoln and Robert Burns: Connected Lives and Legends (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008); Ferenc Morton Szasz and Margaret Connell Szasz, Lincoln and Religion (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2014).

[22] Ferenc Morton Szasz, The Divided Mind of Protestant America, 1880-1930 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1982).

[23] Ferenc Morton Szasz, The Protestant Clergy in the Great Plains and Mountain West, 1865-1915 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988); Ferenc Morton Szasz, Religion in the Modern American West (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002).

[24] Szasz, The Protestant Clergy in the Great Plains and Mountain West, 1865-1915, 8.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 209.

[27] Szasz, Religion in the Modern American West, xii.

[28] Ibid., xiii.

[29] Ibid., xv.

[30] Ibid., 4.

[31] Ibid., 7.

[32] Ibid., 11.

[33] Ibid., 24.

[34] Ibid., 27.

[35] Ibid., 32.

[36] Ibid., 41.

[37] Ibid., 50.

[38] Ibid., 68.

[39] Ibid., 72.

[40] Ibid., 84.

[41] Ibid., 93-94.

[42] Ibid., 95.

[43] Thomas Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

[44] Szasz, Religion in the Modern American West, 102-106.

[45] Ibid., 116.

[46] Ibid., 117.

[47] Ibid., 122.

[48] Ibid., 124.

[49] Ibid., 127.

[50] Ibid., 132.

[51] Ibid., 132-135.

[52] Ibid., 139.

[53] Ibid., 144.

[54] Ibid., 147.

[55] Ibid., 176.

[56] Ibid., 178.

[57] Ibid., 191.

[58] Ibid., 193.

[59] Ibid., 194.

[60] Ibid., 194.

[61] John 4:35, New Revised Standard Version.


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