April 20, 2004
Professor Challenges Northwest's Non-Religious Image
When the Yukon gold rush lured scores of rough-and-tumble young men to the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s, religious leaders and institutions helped moderate vices such as drinking, gambling and prostitution that typically accompanied frontier life in the West. Such religious influence is woven throughout the history of the Northwest, despite the region's non-religious image, says Dale Soden, professor of history and director of the Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith and Learning at Whitworth College.
Soden outlines the ways in which mainline Catholics, Protestants and Jews have shaped the culture of the region in a chapter of a new book, Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone (Altamira Press, 2004), edited by Pacific Lutheran University Religion Professor Patricia Killen. Soden and Killen also will deliver a public lecture, "Lay of the Land and Salt of the Earth: The Religious Landscape of the Pacific Northwest," at 7 p.m. on April 29 in Seeley G. Mudd Chapel on the Whitworth campus. Admission is free. For more information, contact Michelle Seefried at (509) 777-3275.
While Killen's book documents the relatively high number of Pacific Northwest residents who don't identify themselves with any religious tradition (25 percent in Washington), Soden says that the numbers fail to capture a larger and more complicated story about religious influence on the region.
"For 30 years, I've been looking for ways to tell the largely untold stories of religiously convicted people and their impact on life in the Northwest," he says. "There's been an assumption on the part of historians that due to the relatively low numbers of self-identified religious people in the Northwest, there's not much point to investigate the influence of religion in the region. But I would argue that the influence of religion has been significant in the Northwest, albeit different than in other parts of the country."
In his chapter, "Contesting for the Soul of an Unlikely Land: Mainline Catholics, Protestants and Jews Who Have Shaped the Pacific Northwest," Soden documents the sustained influence of Christian and Jewish leaders dating back to the earliest Anglo-European settlers in the region. Though fewer in number than in other parts of the country, Soden says, Christians and Jews in the Northwest have shaped the region through engaging in politics, providing social services, establishing educational and health-care institutions and myriad other ways.
For example, George F. Whitworth, one of the first Protestant pastors to come to the Northwest in 1853, founded 20 churches, became superintendent of public schools in Thurston County and Seattle, served as chief clerk of the Indian Department, participated in several business ventures, and was twice named president of the University of Washington before founding the college in 1890 that now bears his name.
Mother Joseph and the Sisters of Providence established the first Catholic hospital in Portland in 1875 and in Spokane in 1886. And the Rev. Samuel McKinney, longtime pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Seattle, was a prominent civil-rights leader who helped bring the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the city.
Killen says that Soden's case for religious influence in the Northwest is particularly intriguing because "it raises the important question for religious leaders of just how to be effective in having an impact in a region where members of religious communities are a numerical minority. And it invites exploration of how the context of low church adherence rates contributes to innovation within religious communities."
Soden believes the history of religion in the Pacific Northwest potentially offers a window into studying and, perhaps, charting the future of religion in other parts of the country where membership is declining in most mainline Christian and Jewish denominations. What emerges in these other regions, Soden says, may parallel what has always existed in the Northwest, where churches and synagogues have never been the dominant institutions in society and have had to be more competitive and more cooperative in order to make an impact on culture.
The declining memberships of mainline denominations in the Northwest and in other parts of the country are offset by the rapid growth of entrepreneurial churches - both inside and outside of mainline denominations. These churches represent the fastest-growing facets of the religious landscape, according to Killen's book. Entrepreneurial churches are attracting adherents from mainline denominations as well as from outside the church. Nonetheless, Soden isn't ready to write off the mainline denominations.
"The institutional legacy of mainline Catholics, Protestants and Jews is nearly omnipresent in the region, from colleges and universities to social service agencies, to lobbying efforts and grassroots movements," Soden says. "Mainline denominations also have a history of being adaptable and of engaging the culture through institutions that are thriving today. So, I think it's early to write them off."
Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The college enrolls more than 2,200 students in 50 undergraduate and graduate programs.
Dale Soden, professor of history and director of the Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith and Learning at Whitworth College, (509) 777-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patricia Killen, professor of religion at Pacific Lutheran University, (253) 535-7776 or email@example.com.
Greg Orwig, director of communications at Whitworth College, (509) 777-4580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.