Mapping Religious Diversity in Montana (2003)

In a state with a total population of less than one million people, and not exactly known for its diversity, I set out in June 2003 to document the presence of various religious communities and to see how they are interacting with each other. Surprisingly to some, what I found was a considerable amount of established and growing religious diversity. What follows is a brief overview of some of the typical communities in Montana.

Historical Diversity: AnabaptistsAnabaptist is a general term for several Reformation movements that insisted on the baptism of adult believers, as opposed to infant baptism, and who generally rejected the establishment of Protestant state churches. The Schleitheim Confession (1527) also..., Chinese Immigrants, Native AmericansEach of the many Native American nations has its own distinctive life-ways, although there are some widely-shared characteristics. most Native life-ways are primarily transmitted through oral traditions; they are oriented toward living in relation to a sp...

First off, Montana has had a long history of interesting religious communities. Anabaptists came to the United States fleeing religious persecution in Europe, particularly the HutteritesThe Hutterites are a Christian community of Anabaptists origins who acknowledge only the baptism of believers, not infants, and hold property in common. Founded in the 16th century in Moravia (Germany) by Jacob Hutter (d. 1536), they continue to live in s..., who have over 45 communal, agrarian colonies around north central Montana. Chinese immigrants were drawn to towns such as Butte during the mining boom, bringing their religious traditions, holidays, and influence. As in many mining towns, the boom turned to bust and much of the population left when the economy faded. The longest standing traditions in Montana are those of the people now called “Native AmericanEach of the many Native American nations has its own distinctive life-ways, although there are some widely-shared characteristics. most Native life-ways are primarily transmitted through oral traditions; they are oriented toward living in relation to a sp... Native Traditionalists.” The presence of these very diverse practices and “religious” outlooks predate Montana itself. There are currently eleven tribes on seven reservations with countless traditions. (The map below shows the location of the reservations.)

The reservation itself is a fascinating example of a pluralistic environment. There are Traditionalists (a term that constricts and confines vastly individualistic, free, and diverse ways of seeing the world), devout ProtestantProtestant is a term used for the range of reform movements that broke with the Roman Catholic Church during the period called the Reformation. There are many branches of Protestantism, including the Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists... and Catholics, and the Native American ChurchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church .... The lines that are drawn between these distinctions are often sharp and brutal, but at times these distinctions are fuzzy, if they exist at all. There is also the added dynamic of “registered natives” interacting with non-natives who live on the reservation. More recently there has been an increase of PaganThe term “pagan” (from the Latin paganus) originally meant “peasant” or “country dweller.” For many Pagans, the term suggests a life lived close to the land. Today, nature spirituality is an important thread in contemporary Paganism. Some Paga..., Buddhist, Bahá’í, and “New Age” influences on the reservations as well.

Montana’s New Religious Communities

Along with a history of diversity, Montana also has a new and often growing population of religious communities.

  • In the 1970’s after the Vietnam War, HmongAn indigenous people of Southeast Asia. Refugees who had been displaced from their land in Laos began to settle in the Bitterroot Valley near Missoula. This Hmong-Montana connection was due largely to the recruitment of smoke jumpers to fight and work in Laos during Vietnam.
  • Bahá’ís have been in Montana since 1899 and assemblies have been emerging since 1938 to the present.
  • Pagan grovesSacred groves have historically been among the most important sites for Pagan worship. In Druidism, trees are thought to have specific attributes that contribute meaning to the site where they grow. Contemporary Druid groups are often called “groves.”..., covensA coven is a community of Pagan witches (often Wiccans) who gather for ritual. It is usually a small, intimate group of no more than thirteen that meets privately. A coven may also offer open rituals to the public., and open circlesIn some Pagan traditions, a “circle” refers to the people who gather for a ritual. When standing in a circle, all the participants are able to see each other, with no one member elevated over any other. This practice is often felt to encourage egalita... have been fairly low profile, but have also been steadily growing especially, at least publicly, since the 1990s.
  • The University of Montana in Missoula and Montana State University in Bozeman both have Muslim Student Associations. Billings has an Islamic CenterAn Islamic center will typically include a mosque, school, and area for social and cultural activities. When a new Islamic center is being organized in the United States, attention is paid to community needs, including a weekend or full-time school, indic..., which formed in response to Muslim Students at the local college.
  • Since the early 1990s, a number of East Indians were drawn to Helena, supposedly to work in the computer industry. A small Hindu population has developed, although I am not aware of a formal center.
  • A substantial increase in BuddhismBuddhism is a multi-hued tradition of life, thought, and practice that has developed from the teaching and practice of Siddhartha Gautama (6th century BCE) who came to be called the Buddha, the awakened one. The three major streams of the tradition—Ther... has occurred in the past few years. Although there have been sanghasThe Sangha is the community of monks or, more broadly, the community of Buddhists. To formally become a Buddhist, one takes refuge in the Three Treasures: the Buddha, Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings), and Sangha. In its widest sense, “sangha” refers ... in Montana for roughly twenty years, according to my research and conversations with several of the teachers at the centers, there has been an upsurge of Buddhism in Montana in the last five years. To date I am aware of thirteen sanghas that represent ten different traditions with active participants in at least ten different towns.
  • One of the most recent developments has been the establishment of interfaith organizations. This has occurred in the past two years. They are found in Billings, Bozeman, and Helena. There is also interfaith work being done in Kalispell and Missoula.
  • Three of the religious traditions found in Montana require further comment: the Bahá’í Faith, Buddhism, and PaganismThe term “pagan” (from the Latin paganus) originally meant “peasant” or “country dweller.” For many Pagans, the term suggests a life lived close to the land. Today, nature spirituality is an important thread in contemporary Paganism. Some Paga....

The Bahá’í Faith

One of the most widespread communities in Montana is the Bahá’í faith. There are assemblies in almost all the larger towns as well as organized groups and individual Bahá’ís all over the state. We should keep in mind that Montana did not become a state until 1889, and as I mentioned earlier, the first Bahá’í settled in Montana in 1899.

The man pictured here is John Willcott. He is locally famous as the “Cowboy Baha’i.” He is reported to have traveled west to Montana in 1901. There is a Bahá’í school that has been established for twenty-five years, located at a mountain camp south of Bozeman and just north of Yellowstone National Park, that is named after him. Members of the Bahá’í faith in Helena, Bozeman, and Billings are active in the Helena Interfaith CircleIn some Pagan traditions, a “circle” refers to the people who gather for a ritual. When standing in a circle, all the participants are able to see each other, with no one member elevated over any other. This practice is often felt to encourage egalita..., Gallatin Valley Interfaith Association, and the Billings Interfaith Circle, respectively.

A community that is particularly unique to Montana is the Bahá’í Under the Provision of the CovenantA covenant (or brit) is a mutual promise or compact between two parties. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, covenant is of deep significance in describing the mutual relationship of God and the people of faith. The major covenants in Jewish scripture.... It is necessary to distinguish between the BUPC and the Bahá’í in general. The discrepancy lies in a disagreement about administrative structure and succession to leadership, especially upon Shoghi Effendi’s death. The BUPC believe that a man named Mason Remey was to succeed Shoghi EffendiShoghi Effendi (1897–1957) succeeded his grandfather, `Abdu’l-Bahá, as the head of the Bahá’í Faith in 1921. In order to give the Bahá’í Faith organization, Shoghi Effendi established the institutional structure of local and national spiritua... as Guardian of the Faith. When this did not happen and many of the responsibilities went to the Hands of the Cause of the Covenant and the guardianship itself was put into the writings, the BUPC claimed the Bahá’ís at large were “covenant Breakers” (people who are actively undermining the faith). The BUPC, among other disagreements, do not acknowledge the International Bahá’í Council (IBC). In correlation with groups in Denver and Alaska, they have established the sIBC, the Second International Bahá’í Council, which is located in Missoula, Montana.

Buddhism

More than any other religious tradition in my research, Buddhism was the most prevalent. There are thirteen sanghas (six of which can be found in Missoula alone). The extent of the research done has illuminated ten different traditions of Buddhism in Montana: Tibetan (Dzogchen, New Kadampa, and NyingmaNyingma is one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug. The Nyingma school was the first to develop, tracing its origins back to the 9th-century tantric practitioner Padmasambhava. Characteristic of the Nyingma teac...), Zen (Rinzai, Soto, and Vietnamese), VipassanaVipassana is a form of Theravada Buddhist meditation, also called “insight mediation.” This method directs the attention toward the moment-to-moment workings of the mind and body, thereby developing “mindfulness” of the contents of consciousness a... Therevadan, MahayanaMahayana, the “Great Vehicle,” is a form of Buddhism the originated in India and spread to Central and East Asia, encompassing schools in Tibet, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Its primary characteristics include a more supernatural view o..., Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), and open eclecticEclectic Pagans bring aspects of many spiritual paths together. Some Pagans pride themselves on the high degree of authority granted to each person to develop his or her own spiritual path. Hence, many practitioners adapt practices from a variety of Pagan... practices.

The majority of the centers, such as Osel Shen Phen Ling (website), which is one of the older Sanghas in Missoula, founded in 1987, are found in residential sections of town. Centers are also found in buildings with multiple other businesses, such as the newly acquired space of Two Rivers Zen Center (profile), which is located on the Fort Missoula Military Base. The Rocky Mountain Buddhist Center (RMBC) (profile), which is FWBO, integrates symbolic elements from Tibetan traditions, notions of the BodhisattvaA bodhisattva is one who has dedicated his or her life to the attainment of enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. The bodhisattva vows to postpone enlightenment in order to help all sentient beings realize liberation. In some cases, the bo... from Mahayana, and incorporate the PaliPali is an early middle-Indic language in which Buddhist texts were written. The group of Theravada Buddhist texts is collectively referred to as the Pali Canon. Cannon as well as chanting in Pali from Therevaden traditions. The Kalinga Buddhist Center (profile) was founded in 1993. The monkA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord..., Kelsang Wangden teaches in Eureka, Whitefish, and Bigfork. Namdroling is a templeA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... located on the outskirts of Bozeman. The building’s sole use is as a center. Annually, Tibetan monksA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord..., often the official teachers and founders of Namdroling, visit Montana. The monks love Bozeman for the mountains (and open, laid-back atmosphere) and the community of Bozeman loves the monks who provide retreats, presentations, and teach at Namdroling. YogaYoga is a Sanskrit word, deriving from a verb meaning “to yoke” or “to join.” Body and consciousness are joined together in the discipline of yoga. Yoga practice involves ethical restraints, the mastery of bodily postures (called asanas), the cont... Dhatta is the teacher and abbotAn abbot or abbess is the title of the superior of a monastery or convent. Some scholars and practitioners have used these titles to apply to the ranking monk or nun of a Buddhist monastic community as well. of the Billings DharmaDharma means religion, religious duty, religious teaching. The word dharma comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to uphold, support, bear,” thus dharma is that order of things which informs the whole world, from the laws of nature to the inner workings ... Center (profile), which is just a couple of bocks outside of downtown Billings in a residential section of town. He is also the coordinator of the Billings Interfaith Circle, and the dharma center hosts a monthly interfaith breakfast.

Ewam Sang Gnag Ling (profile) is a center located in the very small town of Arlee, which is just north of Missoula on the Flathead Reservation. It is a beautiful area, at the foot of the Mission Mountains. The RinpocheIn Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, rinpoche, meaning “precious jewel,” is the honorific title for highly respected lamas (teachers), especially tulkus (enlightened teachers who have consciously taken rebirth for the benefit of others). has a very interesting history; he is considered a tulkuTulku is the Tibetan term for nirmanakaya, the “Transformation Body of the Buddhas,” manifestations of which appear in whatever form necessary to aid others. In Vajrayana Buddhism, the term is reserved for those lamas (enlightened teachers) who have c..., spent ten years in a Chinese prison after teaching Buddhism in Tibet, and then taught in India and back in Tibet. He has since set up centers all over the world. In the United States he has established centers in Montana and California. Currently, he lives at the center in Arlee. The seclusion of Ewam Sang Gnag Ling makes it ideal for retreat. One of the current activities is a traditional three-year retreat at the Three Yoga Center, which is located on the Ewam Land. The Rinpoche currently has plans and has started production on the 1000 BuddhaBuddha means “awakened one” and specifically refers to Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama (traditional date, sixth c. BCE), the historical founder of the tradition that became known as Buddhism. All Buddhist traditions agree that ther... Garden. The garden will be on the Ewam Land in Arlee and among other things, will have a thousand statues of the Buddha in a specially designed garden.

Paganism

Along with the Baha’i faith, and Buddhism, the Pagan communities contribute a noteworthy element of religion in Montana. The Pagan communities I visited were understandably a little standoffish at first. Along with the Native American Native Traditionalists, although in different ways, the Pagan groups have probably suffered the most prejudice. This is due largely to the negative perception of words like “Pagan” and “Witch.” In response to this, a student organization in Missoula has developed, called POWERS: Pagan or WiccaWicca is the name of one of the major streams of contemporary American Paganism. It is a form of religious witchcraft, sometimes simply called the Craft. Many Wiccans in America today call themselves “witches,” claiming the name under which women and ... Education Resources and Support. They bring in lectures to try to raise awareness about Wicca and Paganism as well as offer public rituals and open circles on the eight SabbatsThe term “sabbat” usually refers to the eight seasonal celebrations observed by many Pagan traditions, but can also refer to any formal gathering of witches or Wiccans. The seasonal celebrations include the winter and summer solstices, the spring and .... They also provide outreach, working primarily with Christian organizations on campus.

The priestessA priestess is a female leader of a religious community, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Pagan traditions have many forms of priestesses. The ma... from the Wellsprings GroveSacred groves have historically been among the most important sites for Pagan worship. In Druidism, trees are thought to have specific attributes that contribute meaning to the site where they grow. Contemporary Druid groups are often called “groves.”... in the Flathead Valley has coordinated Pagan Pride Day in Montana annually since 2000. It is held on a weekend around the Maybon celebrations at the Autumn EquinoxThe equinoxes, which happen twice a year, are days when night and day are of equal duration. For many Pagans, these holidays signify balance. Although practices vary according to region and climate, many Pagans celebrate the birth of spring on March 21 (t.... It is dedicated to educating the public. Workshops are held, lectures are provided, and pamphlets are made available. Lately they have also done fundraisers and food drives. Covens, groves, and open circles from all over the state come to participate. Because of Maybon, there are also on-going rituals and ceremonies.

Interaction Between Religious Groups

With diversity comes interaction. Aside from a few instances, the overall message received from the various religious communities has been very positive. The majority of people interviewed for the research this summer have felt accepted into the community or felt nothing at all – people have tended to be left alone. This may be because of the large size of the state and small population. People can be fairly secluded; for example the Three Yoga Retreat Center, the forty-five HutteriteThe Hutterites are a Christian community of Anabaptists origins who acknowledge only the baptism of believers, not infants, and hold property in common. Founded in the 16th century in Moravia (Germany) by Jacob Hutter (d. 1536), they continue to live in s... and AmishThe Amish are Protestant Christians of Anabaptist origin, beginning in Europe in the late 16th century with commitment to the adult “believer’s” baptism and to pacifism. In the U.S., the Amish in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other parts of the Midwest ha... Colonies, and other less known communitites are often considered “obscure groups” out in the back roads of Montana. An overall positive interaction, with a few exceptions, has occurred in the larger towns of Montana where people must interact with each other.

Recently there has even been the development of formal interfaith dialogue. After the Helena Interfaith Circle came into existence, it inspired the Billings Dharma Center to establish the Billings Interfaith Circle, which occurred in 2002. In Bozeman the Gallatin Valley Interfaith Association developed out of an ecumenical Christian organization. Upon the urgings of the chaplainsA chaplain is a member of the clergy who serves in a prison, a hospital, a college, or some other institution outside the context of the normal congregational life of a religious community. at Bozeman DeaconessA nun is a woman who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully or... Hospital they voted to include all religions. The vote passed and they are now working to provide collegial support, leadership to address social and spiritual issues and to establish and utilizing a forum to share in the life of each other’s traditions.

What the research into Montana has done is scratch the surface a little. It has revealed a wealth, or at least an unexpected wealth, of religious diversity in Montana that seems to be interacting overall, on a very positive level.

Statistics

  • 11 Indian Tribes living on 7 Reservations
    • Black Feet – Black Feet
    • Crow – Crow
    • Flathead – Confederated Salish and Kootenai (Salish, Pend d’Oreille, Kootenai)
    • Fort Peck – Souix, Assiniboine
    • Fort Belknap – Assiniboine, Gros Ventre
    • Little Shell – Band of the Chippewa Tribe (without a reservation)
    • Northern Cheyenne – Northern Cheyene
    • Rocky Boy’s – Chippewa-Cree
  • 45 Hutterite Colonies
  • 13 Buddhist Sanghas, 10 Sects of Buddhism: Missoula, Arlee, Thompson Falls, Flathead Valley (Kalispell, Eureka, Whitefish, and Bigfork), Helena, Deerlodge, Bozeman, Billings
  • 225 Individual Bahá’ís, Assemblies in Billings, Helena, Missoula, Kalispell, Butte, Great Falls; Organized groups in Bozeman, Livingston, Browning, Havre
  • 3 Muslim Communities: Billings Islamic Center, MSAIn 1963, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) was organized to promote religious unity, through education and mutual aid, among Muslim international students at North American colleges. The MSA laid the groundwork for numerous national organizations, inc... Bozeman, and MSA Missoula
  • 14 Pagan groups
  • 3 Interfaith Associations: Gallatin Valley Interfaith Association, Helena Interfaith Circle, Billings Interfaith Circle

—Scott Hyslop, Student Affiliate

Presented at the October 15, 2003 Pluralism Project Fall Research Conference, held at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School.