Author Dale E. Soden explores the role religion played in the history of this 'least-churched' part of the country
In October 1942, a billboard went up in Hood River, Oregon, bearing the name of all the local residents who were serving in the war. Sixteen of them were of Japanese descent, and hatred of the Japanese prompted the local American Legion chapter to remove their names.
A local Methodist minister, Reverend William Burgoyne, objected, and complained to the newspaper. City bigwigs responded by taking out huge ads in the local paper attacking him and saying, “So Sorry, Please, Japs Are Not Wanted in Hood River.” Burgoyne was appalled, and founded a local organization, the League for Liberty, which succeeded in getting the names back up on the billboard, and helped local Japanese Americans ease back into life in Hood River at the end of the war. Burgoyne received national recognition for his work, but not long afterwards, he was forced out of his church.
Burgoyne is the kind of person author Dale E. Soden refers to as an “outsider,” even though he was a minister in a prosperous church and a member of a mainstream religious denomination. Such people have been outsiders in the Pacific Northwest, Soden maintains, for two reasons: The Northwest has long been the least-churched region in the country in terms of church affiliation, with “none” being the largest religious preference in the area, and because deep faith can drive people to agitate for political or social reform that the society at large doesn’t want.
In other ways, the people he describes don’t seem like outsiders. Some of them, like Burgoyne, were ministers in large, influential churches, some were women of wealth and education, others were leaders of labor unions or other community organizations. They took stands against lawlessness, prostitution, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, racial intolerance and war in ways that have shaped the society of Washington and Oregon ever since White people first started moving in.
The cities of the Northwest built much of their early economies on the spending of young men who worked as lumberjacks, miners or sailors, and who came to the city with plenty of money to spend on women, guns, alcohol and cheap shows.
Business people were generally eager to help them do that. When reformers moved in, they wanted people to attend school and church. They were voices crying in the wilderness. But they persisted, and they prevailed, founding schools, colleges and civic organizations.
Soden devotes a whole early chapter to the women who came to the Pacific Northwest in the 19th century, founding hospitals, running rescue houses for prostitutes and victims of domestic violence, and providing safe, inexpensive places for women to live. He tells dozens of stories such as that of Valentine Prichard, who founded The People’s Institute in Portland, a settlement house that provided an employment bureau for women, Portland’s first free medical clinic, and an array of classes designed to help poor people and those recently arrived. She also developed and supervised Portland’s first kindergartens, visiting more than 500 homes to find the students.
One often-ignored part of American history is the fact that many children, probably numbering in the hundreds of thousands, were orphaned or abandoned and left to fend for themselves. Many of them were put on the “orphan trains” and shipped to the Midwest and West, perhaps more than the adult population could absorb. Many more children were abandoned in the West Coast cities in the California Gold Rush in 1848, and especially in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897.
Soden tells the stories of Reverend Harrison Brown and his wife, Libbie Beach Brown, who believed strongly that abandoned children should be placed in homes. They encountered resistance to their ideas in Portland, but were more successful in Seattle, placing hundreds of children before the sheer numbers overwhelmed the number of possible homes. Also included are the stories of Olive and Noble Ryther, who worked and cared for more than 3,000 children in 50 years of service, and Anna Clise, whose own child’s illness drove her to research the idea of a children’s hospital, and to establish one, which became Children’s Orthopedic Hospital.
Soden compiles so many stories that much of the first half of the book seems that it is simply a compilation. It lacks the life that history can be given with primary sources, people’s own words in their letters, journals or interviews.
The part of “Outsiders” that comes to life covers World War II, and on up into the 2000s, and so he is covering the issues of internment of Japanese Americans, the Civil Rights and anti-war movements and conservative religious reaction to many of the social changes those times brought. His account becomes more vivid here, when he uses more personal accounts of such things as the Central Area Civil Rights Committee negotiating school integration in 1967, and an interview with one of the activists who pushed for the Boldt decision, which ruled that Native Americans were actually to be given the fishing rights granted them under an 1855 treaty.
Overall, “Outsiders in a Promised Land” is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive treatment of the power of religion in Pacific Northwest life. It can be a sobering reminder that society is often comfortable with injustice, and indeed will prefer to perpetuate injustice rather than change.
It is also a reminder that a passion for doing what is right can make a difference and is often the only thing that does.