Nature religion in the Pacific Northwest

Have residents of the Northwest practiced nature religion? If so, how do we track it and study it?

Project Abstract

Nature religion in the Northwest has long been noted by scholars, but little studied. In this project, we conducted research at four archives in Portland, Oregon (the Special Collections Department at Lewis & Clark College, the Oregon Historical Society, Oregon Jewish Museum, and the Special Collections Department of Portland State University). In our research, we found primary source documents that give historical and cultural context to the nature religion that is so prevalent in the private lives and public discourse of residents of this region. In our research we discovered a religious interest in nature in the earliest Oregon literature, especially in the poetry of Ella Higginson, Belle W. Cooke, Abigail Scott Duniway, Frances Fuller Victor, Joaquin Miller, and Samuel L. Simpson. In mainstream Christianity, we found evidence of continued interest in nature religion in, for instance, the records from the mid-twentieth-century of the YWCA retreat camp on the Oregon Coast. We also found an interesting dynamic with nature religion in "outsider" groups of the region. Those groups that were self-consciously trying to assimilate into the regional culture--Reform Jews and Japanese-Americans--adopted elements of nature religion, while groups that were more critical of dominant cultural norms--Orthodox Jews and African Americans--were not as engaged with nature religion. From these findings, we surmise that nature religion was and continues to be a marker of regional identity in public discourse. While produced within Protestant Anglo-American culture, it has become a way for individuals and groups to identify with or distinguish themselves from this dominant cultural discourse and expression.

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