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November 5th, 2015

The rugged Pacific Northwest known to the earliest settlers was not for the faint of heart. These settlers had come to work in the mines and forests, but their free time was spent in the saloons, gambling halls and brothels. This was not a place built for families and religious peoples. In his new book Outsiders in a Promised Land Dale Soden writes about how early Protestants, Catholics, and Jews worked together to provide social institutions in the Pacific Northwest. Today Soden shares with us his personal experiences as an undergraduate student during the 70’s and how he became interested in studying religious activists in the Pacific Northwest.

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I first became interested in religious activists when I was an undergraduate student in the early ‘70s.   The civil rights struggles, the anti-war movement as well as the emerging consciousness around environmental issues all provoked thought and action on the part of fellow students in those years.  I remember heated debates among people who believed that their religious convictions were leading them to take action in some form or another.

At the same time, I became increasingly aware of the fact that the Pacific Northwest was and still is considered the most secular part of the country.  As I began studying Northwest history, I became aware that once the missionary movement ended, religious influence on the region quickly slipped from the pages of most historical narratives of the region.

However, my consciousness of the role religiously motivated figures played in Northwest  history increased during my years in graduate school at the University of Washington.   I did a doctoral dissertation that turned into a book about the most influential Protestant minister in the Pacific Northwest during the first half of the 20th century, the Reverend Mark Matthews.  He built First Presbyterian Church in Seattle into the largest congregation in the denomination with close to 10,000 members.  More interestingly, Matthews wielded significant influence in Seattle’s political and cultural life and it’s his story that piqued more of my interest in other figures in the Pacific Northwest.

When I started the research that led to Outsiders, I wanted to cover essentially Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.  But before long it became apparent that there was more than enough material to confine myself to Washington and Oregon.

My interest centered on religious activists who wanted to influence the culture of the Pacific Northwest.  In the late 19th century and generally up to the Depression, activists concerned themselves with issues related to the safety of women and children.  From the establishment of public and private schools, orphanages, rescue homes, YM and YWCAs as well as the fight for the prohibition of alcohol and the regulation of child labor, activists attempted to change a culture that had its roots in the saloon, gambling hall and house of prostitution.   And generally religious activists were mostly united in vision and strategy around how to change the culture.

By the middle decades of the 20th century, the nature of conflict shifted; progressive/liberal Protestants, Catholics, and Jews increasingly found themselves advocating for civil liberties and civil rights of generally oppressed groups, not the least of which were Japanese-American and African American.  Religious conservatives grew more nervous about the perils of communism, labor unions and a fear of the secularism of the public schools.  This divide rooted in mid- 20th century issues became a full blown culture war in the 1970s following the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War.  Reacting to the emergence of radical feminism as well as reacting to the growing public acceptance of abortion and homosexuality, more conservative activists made their positions more public.  On the other hand, liberal activists felt compelled to oppose the deployment of the Trident nuclear submarine, advocate for environmental protection, work for economic justice for the poor, and offer a constant voice for what were perceived to be politically marginalized peoples—African Americans, Hispanics, women, and homosexuals.

Outsiders in a Promised Land  makes the case that religious activists, whether on the right or left have generally believed that they were not alignment with the predominant culture of the Pacific Northwest.  I think this helped motivate them to work harder for cultural change than what may normally be the case.  The Northwest is clearly emerging as a region that is attracting scholarly interest from around the country.  Hopefully this helps fill out a more complex picture in terms of the culture and politics of the region.

October 29th, 2015

Today we welcome Jessica McDonald and Lorraine Anderson, joining them for their interview discussing what it was like working with their contributers and doing hands-on outdoor research for Wild in the Willamette. This is the second post about the newly published book.   If you missed Jessica's background story for the book in the first post, you can find it here.