Book Review: “Reformation Women” by Rebecca VanDoodewaard


A large majority of the most famous Protestant reformers are, indeed, men. There are many reasons for this, but it would likewise be a mistake to think that the Protestant Reformation was a movement instigated and propagated solely by men. Rebecca VanDoodewaard’s Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth takes on the task of better understanding the role of women in the Reformation. While numerous women could possibly be selected, VanDoodewaard narrows down her research to twelve in particular. Some were fairly well-known, but others were virtually unheard of (to me, at least). At about 115 pages, this was a remarkably quick read. I finished more than half of it during down time on a weeklong missions trip, so it’s certainly not an intimidating size. For those interested in learning about women of the Reformation, who likewise want to be exhorted to Christian godliness, will find this concise book to be delightful.

By far, my favorite chapter was number one, which covered the life of Anna Reinhard. It is refreshing to hear of the personal details of what life was like for Anna and family in sixteenth century Switzerland, as the entire family pressed on to win people over to the Reformation. Many of VanDoodewaard’s citations are drawn from primary sources, though occasional secondary texts are referred to or quoted. VanDoodewaard makes it manifestly clear in her introductory remarks that she is not trying to follow the patterns of modern feminist historians, though she argues there is some good to be found in this recent historiographical movement. One thing that is probably most necessary to know from a historiographical perspective is the underlying motivation that VanDoodewaard seems to have in Reformation Women, namely, that this book is not merely to revise historiographical viewpoints of how women lived during the Reformation (in fact, that generally was not the case). And for that, professional historians might be a little disappointed. More so, this book could be lumped together in the “Christian Living” genre, since a great deal of emphasis is placed on finding these women  to be inspiring role models for Christian women today, and men as well. Furthermore, it is especially geared towards women in the “Reformed” theological camp. That is not to say that non-Reformed readers will find this book valueless, but there are noticeable criticisms of Catholics and Anabaptists that just did not seem to be as equally represented among those in the Reformed traditions. Overall, though, there is much to gain from reading Reformation Women, both for historical enrichment and spiritual encouragement.

***Disclaimer: Special thanks to Cross Focused Reviews for providing a free review copy. All opinions were my own.***


History of Colonial Baptist Church (PowerPoint Presentation)


Click Here to Download PowerPoint

Recently, I had the privilege of teaching a small Sunday school class at my church in Blue Ridge, Virginia. As the picture above denotes, I’m a member of Colonial Baptist Church, an independent Baptist congregation that has existed autonomously for several decades, though its origins lead back to the early 1800s. The topic I spoke on for a few months was “Church History,” beginning with the Early Church and concluding with an overview of North American church history, and even Colonial Baptist itself. To see the PowerPoint slides I used, click on the link above. Unfortunately, this PowerPoint only captures part of what I spoke on in class, but hopefully this will peak the interest of those familiar with this church.








U.S. History Materials

Image result for us history

***Note: this material is available for educational purposes only. It would also be important to note that the material is presented from a Christian worldview, though other ideologies are presented for understanding as well. Due to the importance of keeping content appropriate for high school students that I teach, I have denoted a few symbols, and have done my best to be accurate on skipping/muting specific portions of videos (sk = skip; M = mute). Also, it should be noted that I am constantly updating material. Otherwise, please download and enjoy the content.***

U.S. History Syllabus and Digital Textbook

Introduction & Early Discovery

Colonial America

The Great Awakening & French and Indian War

The American Revolution

The Constitution & Federalist Era

The American West (and Other Stories)

The Antebellum Era (The Texas Revolution, Texas and Oregon, The U.S.-Mexican War, and Slavery & Secession)

The Civil War & Reconstruction

The Late 1800’s (Railroads & the West and the Gilded Age)

The Progressive Era (Late 1800’s Politics & Foreign Policies and The Progressive Era)

World War I

The 20’s and 30’s

World War II

The Cold War Era

Modern U.S. History

World History Materials

Image result for world history

***Note: this material is available for educational purposes only. It would also be important to note that the material is presented from a Christian worldview, though other ideologies are presented for understanding as well. Due to the importance of keeping content appropriate for high school students that I teach, I have denoted a few symbols, and have done my best to be accurate on skipping/muting specific portions of videos (sk = skip; M = mute). Also, it should be noted that I am constantly updating material. Otherwise, please download and enjoy the content.***

World History Syllabus

Ancient World History




Roman Republic

Roman Empire

The Early Church

The Early Middle Ages

The Middle Ages

History of Asia (Overview)

History of Africa (Overview)

The Renaissance

The Age of Discovery

Forerunners of the Reformation

The Reformation

The Age of Reason & Spiritual Awakenings

The Revolutions (American, French, and Industrial)

Expansion & Evangelism

World War I

Europe Between Two World Wars

World War II

The Cold War

Modern World History


Free eBook: Readings in United States History

Readings in US History Cover

I recently compiled and edited a digital textbook for my high school students in U.S. history, Reading in United States History. It is composed of primary sources from throughout America’s existence, but with introductory comments.

Click on the link below to download it for free:

Readings in United States History

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. [accessed April 23, 2016]. Unless otherwise noted, all biographical information has been taken from this source.

[2] Carolyn Gonzalez, “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,” [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.

A Historiographical Evaluation of the Founding of Roanoke, Virginia


In February of 1882, the Virginia General Assembly granted a charter that authorized the small but growing town of Big Lick to officially become Roanoke, Virginia. As Rand Dotson has noted, “In the 1880s, no city in the South grew faster than the railroad hub of Roanoke, Virginia.”[1] In terms of population growth, Roanoke was certainly successful in its foundational years. However, a rise in population is not necessarily the only qualification for judging a city’s vitality. One might look to factors such as the social conditions, educational opportunities, safety, entertainment, or racial equality. Furthermore, when historians have looked at the city of Roanoke’s founding, a variety of interpretations have been made. Each school of thought has offered helpful insights, but all require a critique as well. To keep the discussion precise, only the historiography of Roanoke’s first three decades will be analyzed in this research: 1882-1912. By comparing the different historiographical schools, conclusions can be made as to why the interpreters made their decisions. Such an endeavor can also lead to a more refined understanding of Roanoke’s founding.

Before comparing the historiographical schools of thought on the origins of Roanoke, it will be helpful to first consider United States historiography as a whole so that the arguments from Roanoke’s historians can be placed into a broader context. William Archibald Dunning and his like-minded students focused more on the years in American history just before the founding of Roanoke, but were nevertheless influential in how historians articulated their views in the early twentieth century. According to James S. Humphreys, “The Dunning School portrayed Radical Reconstruction as an abject failure, cast blacks as ill-equipped for the responsibilities of freedom, and described southern whites as hapless victims of the Reconstruction policies of the federal government.”[2] Towards the end of Dunning’s career, some scholars, including Charles A. Beard, began to look at United States history through the lens of economic self-interest.[3] These latter historians have generally been considered as being within the “Progressive” historiographical school of thought.

By the middle of the twentieth century, another historiographical position began to crystallize: the Consensus School. Dwight H. Hoover, writing in 1965, made the following observation: “The core of this interpretation is that Americans are more similar than [dissimilar], that no class struggle in the European sense occurred in the United States and that historians have been deceived by the public arguments used by those disputants in the past to overwhelm their opposition.”[4] Coincidentally, as Daniel Joseph Singal later observed, “Consensus history…reflected the pervasive social and cultural conservatism of the 1950s.”[5] In other words, just as the cultural influences in the early 1900s seemed to have influenced the way Progressive historians interpreted the past, so also did the unified, post-World War II climate of the 1950s affect how Consensus historians made their conclusions.

Following the Civil Rights Era, numerous historians started to focus much more attention on African Americans and their impact on American history. The study of race in the New South is presently a very common topic among historians, and is likewise a very important issue in regards to the origins of Roanoke. However, according to some historians, despite the fact that plenty of injustices occurred during the era of the Jim Crow laws, the South has been treated unfairly in recent years. Edward L. Ayers is one such proponent, and warned, “The South and its people get to play only limited roles in the story of America; they are dragged into the textbooks and movie houses to demonstrate slavery, to cause the Civil War, to suffer in poverty, to inflict and partially overcome injustice. The result is a South that is easily pegged, easily caricatured, easily explained.”[6] Ayers was not denying any of the major problems that existed in the New South. Rather, he was arguing that historians had gone to the opposite extreme of assuming the worst about the South. Furthermore, he asserted that the New South was more complex than as it had been previously branded.[7] Overall, then, historians have approached the history of the United States, and the New South in particular, with different perspectives. Many of which played an important role in influencing the historians of Roanoke.

In 1912, E.B. Jacobs wrote the first book on the history of Roanoke. Eight years before History of Roanoke City was published, Jacobs helped found the Roanoke Chamber of Commerce.[8] Thus, Jacobs held a high position in society, which was also influential for the economic prosperity of the city. Despite his prominent role, Jacobs pledged in his book, “While it is not possible at all times to describe in detail the factors which helped to give impetus to the city’s upbuilding, what is set forth has been written with due regard for accuracy, and is based on information compiled from sources deemed reliable and authentic.”[9] However unbiased Jacobs claimed to have been, the book presents a strikingly different image of Roanoke compared to modern interpretations, and leaves out certain issues that were undoubtedly newsworthy at the time. If Roanoke was a person, then History of Roanoke City could be considered “hagiography” in the sense of idealizing its origins. Jacobs wrote, “The story of the growth of Roanoke from a cross-roads village to the city’s present proportions is not only picturesque, but it contains a lesson of dramatic force.”[10] He went on to state, “It portrays the confidence and determination of a people possessing supreme faith in their city’s future, and exemplifies a spirit that enabled them to surmount obstacles which were encountered during the city’s development.”[11] Roanoke, according to Jacobs’ interpretation, was a city of unwavering progress with virtually no problems.

To be fair to Jacobs, plenty of what he presented was meticulously researched.[12] Still, his interpretations of the data require a critical evaluation. Although Jacobs conceded, “[T]here was a feeling of uncertainty and a lack of confidence in the stability of Roanoke institutions that interfered in some degree with substantial progress of the city” in the late 1880s, he assures his readers propagandistically, “Values are now permanent, and the financial condition of the city and the stability of its institutions are a guaranty that investments in Roanoke property are safe, and a satisfactory income assured.”[13] Most of what had taken place in Roanoke, from its inception to the date of Jacobs’ publication, had been for the city’s betterment. Whether it was the Roanoke & Southern Railroad workers, the ladies of the Women’s Civic Betterment Club, or owners of local businesses, Roanoke citizens all appeared to be contributors and happy recipients of Roanoke’s progress.[14] Yet, there is a noticeable aspect of Roanoke’s origins that is missing from Jacobs’ book, namely, the issue of race. Jacobs never mentioned anything about the racial tensions that were experienced in the 1890s, and with just a couple of minor exceptions, he made no mention of African Americans.[15] Therefore, while Jacobs’ interpretation of Roanoke’s early history has some value to it, there are numerous weaknesses. It is possible that the Dunning and Progressive historiographical schools had a modest impact on Jacobs’ views, but most of all, he clearly had an agenda for expanding Roanoke’s economic growth, which had a much greater role in influencing his interpretations.

Raymond P. Barnes wrote A History of Roanoke in 1968, a voluminous work that covers each year of Roanoke’s history from its origins to World War II. In his preface, Barnes stated, “The History of Roanoke is not devoted to individuals or families but instead reflects the gradual growth of a heavily populated community on what were farm lands in 1881.”[16] By looking to the community as a whole, Barnes, whether he was conscious of it or not, seems to have been influenced by Consensus historians, or at the very least, Barnes interpreted the history of Roanoke in similar ways to how Consensus historians view United States history. While there are certainly differences between Barnes’ book and Jacobs’ earlier sketch of Roanoke, similarities can also be seen. Generally speaking, Barnes, as Jacobs did, had a very positive outlook on Roanoke’s past and its hope for a prosperous future. Despite the challenges that had come to the city in 1893, such as economic struggles and social unrest, Barnes wrote concerning the outlook in 1898, “Roanoke was still young, a badly mauled infant, recovering fast.”[17] He later stated, “In spite of the tragedies and sorrows, 1912 will long be remembered as a happy and successful year and once of those reflecting the far off days when nations were not at each others throats. Roanoke City was sound as a rock!”[18] Therefore, while Barnes was much more transparent than Jacobs on some of the problems that existed in the community, both historians of Roanoke viewed their city as a beacon of progress and prosperity.[19]

Not all was well in Roanoke, however. For example, Barnes, unlike Jacobs, discussed the issue of race relations. The interpretations of Barnes, nevertheless, reflected an attitude of racial superiority towards black citizens of Roanoke’s early years. Perhaps the clearest example of this mindset is demonstrated in the following comment:

One would think that the negro, who was fast learning to become a better citizen, would appreciate the fact that he was educated by tax money furnished by the whites. All public utilities and conveniences and charities were maintained by white people. The negro had contributed very little financially to the public weal. Instead of taking a cooperative attitude, many of the people remained bitter and antagonistic to the prevailing political sentiment and tried in every way to obstruct harmony between the races. This attitude was costly to the negro and in no small way held back the progress of the race.[20]

There were several alleged acts of violence that took place between white and black citizens, but one of the most significant instances, according to Barnes, concerned the attack of a white man named Thomas Massie by a black perpetrator. After discussing the outrage in the town that resulted from this episode, Barnes wrote, “Back in those days a negro in the white section, or a white man in the negro section, where neither had any business to be was a sure sign of proposed rascality.”[21] However, Barnes also suspected that the Massie incident, “[C]ontributed much to the widening gap between the whites and negroes.”[22] In many, if not most, of the discussions that pertained to race, Barnes displayed an insensitive view towards African Americans, an outlook that likely reflected cultural ideologies from others in Roanoke during his lifetime as well.

Recent historians of Roanoke’s origins have built upon what previous authors left them, but new interpretations have also been made. Carolyn Hale Bruce, in her book, Roanoke: Past and Present, published in 1982, was much more sensitive to the black citizens of Roanoke. She interpreted the riot of 1983 as having resulted, “Perhaps [from] declining fortunes and the threat of worsening times.”[23] Bruce condemned the lynch mobs from this incident, but also highlighted the bravery of Dr. William Creighton Campbell, who “single-handedly put an end to the riot of 1893 with his personal courage and sense of right.”[24] Although that might be a bit of an exaggeration, overall, Bruce’s interpretations of Roanoke’s origins were transparent, yet they also focused on positive features, even when not everything appeared to be altogether pleasant.

In 2007, The University of Tennessee Press published Roanoke, Virginia, 1882-1912: Magic City of the New South by Rand Dotson, which is by far the most well researched of any text on Roanoke’s founding.[25] It was the “heavily revised doctoral dissertation” that Dotson completed at Louisiana State University.[26] Dotson, towards the beginning of his book, wrote, “Rather than simply viewing the city as a static entity, this study also considers Roanoke and its people as part of an ongoing process—one laden with a multiplicity of unintended consequences, uncertain outcomes, and ambiguous conclusions.”[27] Similar to Bruce, Dotson was sympathetic to black citizens of Roanoke, and believed that racial tensions “surfaced as the result of a growing belief among whites that African Americans were largely responsible for a fantastic increase in crime.”[28]

Contrary to all previous interpretations, however, Dotson presented a much less sanguine view of Roanoke’s origins. While previous interpretations praised Roanoke for its progressive spirit, Dotson critically stated, “[P]rogressivism in Roanoke mirrored the regional variant of the movement: it was paradoxical, hierarchical, undemocratic, racist, paternalistic, and won only through coercion of those being ‘reformed.’”[29] He also said the following:

The results of the quest for a New South, especially when measured in terms of gaining economic equality with the North, were by the early twentieth century a colossal failure. Roanoke, which exemplified what southern boosters claimed the region needed most, was the prototypical New South city—an extreme version of everything that was supposed to remedy the South’s torpid post-Civil War economy.[30]

Although he conceded, “Whether or not it met this promise is ambiguous,” Dotson presented a much different understanding of Roanoke than what previous authors had given.[31] In a somewhat dreary fashion, Dotson concluded, “While Roanoke took only eighteen years to become Virginia’s third largest municipality in 1900, over the course of the next hundred years, it fell to ninth, and it will likely tumble further still since the town is steadily declining in population while the rest of urban Virginia is increasing.”[32]

Multiple historians have recounted the origins of Roanoke, and in each portrayal, something unique was offered. E.B. Jacobs, despite having left out important information about the city, provided a strong case for why Roanoke was a place of progress, in many ways at least. Raymond P. Barnes left behind an impressive 844-page text, though his interpretations at times were highly questionable. Carolyn Hale Bruce managed to balance optimism with sensitivity towards African Americans.[33] Finally, Rand Dotson’s scholarly treatment of Roanoke’s origins supplied a necessary critique of some of the exaggerated promises propagated by local leaders. At the same time, Dotson went perhaps too far in his evaluation. While Roanoke did go from the third to the ninth largest municipality in Virginia, Dotson failed to analyze this change in light of two world wars and the Cold War, which brought forth new industries to Northern Virginia and along the coast. An arguably better way to approach Roanoke’s origins is to simply admit that it was a city of complexities and contradictions, reflected both in primary sources and in its historiography, and that while it was truly a city of progress in many ways from 1882-1912, Roanoke was not a utopia, nor were all promises fulfilled.[34]

[1] Rand Dotson, Roanoke, Virginia, 1882-1912: Magic City of the New South (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2007), xv.

[2] James S. Humphreys, “William Archibald Dunning: Flawed Colossus of American Letters” in John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery, eds., The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013), 77-78.

[3] John R. Richard, “Turner, Beard, Chandler: Progressive Historians” The Business History Review 82:2 (Summer 2008), 227-240.

[4] Dwight W. Hoover, “Some Comments on Recent United States Historiography” American Quarterly 17:2 (Summer 1965), 299.

[5] Daniel Joseph Singal, “Beyond Consensus: Richard Hofstadter and American Historiography” The American Historical Review 89:4 (October 1984), 977.

[6] Edward L. Ayers, “Narrating the New South” The Journal of Southern History 61:3 (August 1995), 564.

[7] Ayers wrote, “The planters ran their plantations but were neglected by the town-based politicians; politicians ran the state house but were sneered at by the railroad companies; preachers guided large congregations but were detested by many profane people; women supervised their households but could always be overruled by their husbands; rural merchants held their customers’ futures in their hands but saw their own futures controlled by town-based wholesalers; white people assumed themselves superior to the blacks among whom they lived but blacks laughed at white pretension.” Ibid., 562-563.

[8] Dotson, Roanoke, Virginia, 300 (Note 80).

[9] E.B. Jacobs, History of Roanoke City (Roanoke: Stone Publishing Company, 1912), 91.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. Jacobs was even so bold to say the following: “Proud of her past accomplishments, conscious of her natural advantages, resourceful and vigorous in her undertakings, she is the embodiment of energy and progress—a queenly municipality, crowned with the well-earned prestige of notable achievements, and destined to occupy a commanding position among the progressive cities of the land.” Ibid., 99.

[12] For example, he listed the names of those involved in the meeting concerning the Shenandoah Valley Railroad’s construction in Big Lick/Roanoke, which included forty-one people. Ibid., 94.

[13] Ibid., 96.

[14] Ibid., 98-99.

[15] When he was discussing the churches that existed in Roanoke, he first recorded, “The white churches are composed of the following denominations:—Presbyterian, four; Methodist, seven; Baptist, five; Roman Catholic, one, Reformed, one.” But when he talked about the black churches, he was much less specific: “The ten colored churches are divided among the Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and Christian denominations.” Ibid., 104.

[16] Raymond P. Barnes, A History of Roanoke (Radford: Commonwealth Press, Inc., 1968), vii.

[17] Ibid., 232.

[18] Ibid., 496.

[19] For a description on the level of crime, see Ibid., 142. Barnes even stated elsewhere, “It may be commented here that the death rate in Roanoke as of June 1885 was fixed at 30.20 per thousand – 20.4 for the whites and 40 for the negroes! Such a high death rate makes a researcher wonder if health conditions were not as bad as reported.” Ibid., 149.

[20] Ibid., 312.

[21] Ibid., 219.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Carolyn Hale Bruce, Roanoke: Past and Present (Norfolk: Donning Company/Publishers, 1982), 32.

[24] Ibid., 34.

[25] David Goldfield affirms, “This is a crisply written, well-researched study confirming that the urban South was where New South experiments became the southern way of life for the twentieth century.” “Review” The Journal of American History 95:2 (September 2008), 555.

[26] “Editor, Author, and Historian Rand Dotson Offers Advice to Historians Looking to Be Published,” [accessed November 28, 2015].

[27] Dotson, Roanoke Virginia, xvi.

[28] Ibid., 57.

[29] Ibid., 237.

[30] Ibid., 240.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., 241.

[33] Another work that shares the same positive spirit, but also emphasizes the significance of the role of African Americans in Roanoke’s history is Sheree Scarborough’s African American Railroad Workers of Roanoke: Oral Histories of the Norfolk & Western (Charleston: The History Press, 2014). However, since Scarborough’s work is composed of oral histories, and was recently published, the material does not quite reach back to Roanoke’s founding years.

[34] This view is strongly influenced by Edward Ayers’ article on the New South, cited above.