The Author’s Corner with Todd M. Kerstetter

Todd M. Kerstetter is Associate Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at Texas Christian University. This interview is based on his new book Inspiration and Innovation: Religion in the American West (Wiley-Blackwell, January 2015).

JF: What led you to write Inspiration and Innovation?

TK: The immediate trigger dates to Carol Higham and Will Katerberg inviting me to write a book on the history of religion for their Western History series. Their book, Conquests and Consequences: The American West from Frontier to Region, anchors the series, which includes books on related themes. In addition to my book on religion, the series contains books on women in the West and African Americans in the West.

More generally, I’ve been studying the roles religion has played in the American West’s history for almost twenty years. My first book, God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West used case studies of Mormons, Lakota Ghost Dancers, and Branch Davidians and their conflicts with the federal government to explore the myth of the West and the boundaries of religious tolerance in the United States. That book led Carol and Will to invite me to write for their series.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Inspiration and Innovation?

TK: Religion has played an important and often unappreciated role in inspiring the lives of people and the course of history in what we know as the American West since the dawn of history, maybe earlier. The region we know as the American West has influenced important innovations in American religious history.
JF: Why do we need to read Inspiration and Innovation​?

TK: Readers interested in the American West will gain a new appreciation of the depth, breadth, and continuity of religious influences on the region’s history. The book aims primarily to tell a history of the American West with religion occupying center stage. Readers interested in American religious history will gain a new appreciation of the West’s influence in the field. In reading American religious history surveys I was surprised to discover a nearly total void with respect to the West. Most include passing mention of Spanish missions, Mormons, and, maybe, American Indian religions. Very few of them brought discussion of even those themes past the late 1800s. That’s fairly typical for US history textbooks, too. Once the “frontier” closes in 1890, that’s it for the West. Inspiration and Innovation carries those narratives into the twentieth century and, in a case or two into the twenty-first century. For example, issues related to Mormonism and plural marriage didn’t end in 1890 when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavowed the practice in the face of withering pressure from the US government as it conquered the West. Polygamist sects set up communities in the remote West and experienced law enforcement raids in the 1950s and again in west Texas just a few years ago. Those conflicts demonstrate the lingering “legacy of conquest,” to use Patricia Limerick’s terminology. For another example, the Native American Church grew out of uniquely western circumstances. Over the course of the twentieth century its members deployed a variety of creative and savvy strategies to secure legal protection for their sacramental use of peyote. Finally, I worked hard to find interesting stories to illustrate the book’s themes. I think my journalism background gave me a good eye for a story and the ability to write engagingly about “Texas theology,” megachurches, Mormons, and more.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

TK: I decided to become an American historian in 1989. I blame my parents, who were both teachers, and especially my dad, who taught US history and AP US history. They exposed me to the wonders of learning and took our family to a lot of museums and historical sites that infected me with a love of history. In 1976 and 1980 we traveled through the West. The landscapes of the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific Coast awed me and those trips made me fall in love with the West and its history. Of all the places we visited, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Yellowstone National Park, and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center did the most to hook me. Even though I loved history, it took me a while to settle on it as a career. For several years after college I experimented with different jobs, none of which satisfied me and none of which had a schedule anywhere near as flexible as teaching. When I took a job writing press releases at a university I realized how much I loved the campus atmosphere and I decided to take a crack at becoming a professor. I also wanted to see if I had what it took to get a PHD.

JF: What is your next project?

TK: My next two projects will be books about the only thing as important as religion: water. One is about flooding on the Great Plains and the other is an environmental history of north Texas focused on water as a critical natural resource.
JF: Sounds interesting, thanks Todd!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner