Thinking About Religion
Volume 6 (2006)

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The Cowboy and the Christian:
Quakers and Christian Pacifism in the Early Western

Diana Pasulka
University of North Carolina – Wilmington

In the wake of the 2001, September 11th attacks President George W. Bush made an unpopular analogy likening the U.S. conflict with Osama Bin Laden to medieval crusades.  Conservatives and liberals alike disliked the reference, and consequently Bush's rhetoric changed considerably in the wake of criticisms.  Instead of invoking a European history, he painted the conflict in cowboy terms.  He wanted Bin Laden "dead or alive." Bin Laden, and later Saddam Hussein, became "outlaws."  Commenting in the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winning author Susan Faludi noted how  “the president's advisers were working hard to embed George W. Bush inside the script of the American Western. Rejecting the widespread European frustration with Mr. Bush's Lone Ranger act, Vice President Dick Cheney used his ‘Meet the Press’ appearance to make clear that the president is ‘a cowboy’ who ‘cuts to the chase.’ Mr. Bush's blunt talk, the vice president told Tim Russert, is ‘exactly what the circumstances require.’”[1] So obvious was the ploy to cast Bush as a cowboy that it created its own discourse—academics discussed the merits of the merging of politics and popular culture, while cowboys from Texas decried Bush’s contrived Texas accent and sloppy appropriation of large belt buckles and ten gallon hats.[2] 

The Bush administration’s casting of George W. as a cowboy possessed moral overtones.[3] The popular understanding of the cowboy as a symbol of strength and morality combined with Bush’s overt Christian self-presentation forged a powerful symbol of a Christian Cowboy, uniquely strong, uniquely American, and morally upright.   The use of the frontier myth and symbolism of the American west by American politicians is not unique to President Bush.  Almost fifty years ago J. F. Kennedy titled his presidential platform "the new frontier." Henry Kissinger often referred to himself as the Lone Ranger.  Significant to Bush’s rhetoric, however, is the conflation of Christianity with a cowboy ethic.  Although in the contemporary mass cultural imagination these symbolic universes coincide, this has not always been the case.  An examination of the history of representations of the Christian in the Western reveals that pacifist Christianity was most often opposed to a cowboy ethic.[4]  The symbolism that Bush draws upon is the result of a transformation where a cowboy ethic of retribution replaces a Christian pacifist ideology.  This is clearly revealed in the case of early dime store Western novels and the classic Western films.[5] 

Two recent analyses have addressed the problematic nature of Christianity in the Western.  Jane Tompkins, in West of Everything: the Inner Life of Western argues that the Western emerged as a defense against the proliferation of women into the public sphere after the civil war.[6]  American women’s entrance into politics was primarily motivated by moral causes like prohibition and slavery, and Christianity legitimated this development.  According to Tompkins, the symbolism of the Western, which posits a feminized, Eastern, Christian townsmen over against a masculine, Western, vigilante gunmen, served to reinforce increasingly unstable gender roles, particularly men’s.  Therefore, the Western served as powerful mythology that restored the old order to the world, and insofar as Christianity was identified with women and women’s power, it was characterized as a threat to this stability.

Peter French’s Cowboy Metaphysics: Ethics and Death in Westerns is an in depth treatment of the moral and ethical universe of the Western, with particular attention paid to Christianity (French, 1997).[7]  French accepts the symbolism identified by Tompkins and others.  However French suggests that the Western is more than a reaction to changing values. He argues that the ethical life of the Western is in alignment with an ancient Greek heroic worldview, and as such is not amoral but different.

The better Westerns …present us with a clash of cares, or worldviews, and ways of life. They display the conflicts that occur when those who care about the existence of God, the immortality of the human soul, obedience to divine moral commands, familial human relationships and the like confront those who could not give a damn about the existence of God, deny the immortality of man, have no interest in whether or how they will get on in a future eternal life, have invested themselves in a moral code that regards the commands of Judeo-Christian ethics as senseless, and care more about friendship relationships than marriage or familial relations.[8] 

French’s Homeric version of the Western portrays it as a subversion of the establishment that is identified with the values of personal gain in the present and afterlife, as well as Capitalism, all values which French suggests the Western conflates with Christianity.  Therefore, for French, the Western hero is one who is an outsider to the dominant worldview of Christian America. 

Although both analyses, more than any previous works on the subject, identify Christianity as a problem for the Western, each fails to address the Christian religion as historically contingent and complex.  Growing denominationalism in the nineteenth century provided a context in which diverse forms of Christianity were recognized by purveyors of Western stories.  To suggest the uniformity of Christianity for nineteenth and early twentieth century audiences neglects important connections between the cultural reception of violence, the Christian religion, and their symbolic manifestations in Western literature and film.

Attention to the historical complexities and nuances of the specific religions that are held up and criticized by these films reveal that in actuality it is the worldview of the Western that is dominant and aligned with the prevailing establishment.  Contrary to French’s assessment that the Western provides an alternative to the feminized mores entrenched in the fabric of the American moral conscience, quite the opposite is true.  The Western legitimates the scapegoating and ridiculing of those Christian denominations that espouse non-retribution and pacifism.   Members of these Churches, such as the Quakers, Moravians and others, were, at the time of the first Western fictions, specifically prohibited from holding public office and were often the object of social derision, a reality overlooked by both Tompkins and French.[9]  These denominations were not in the majority.  Protestant Christianity remained the dominant religion of U.S. citizens in the nineteenth century, while those denominations that espoused non-violence and pacifism remained a minority.  Within early Western narratives, Christian denominations were not seen as uniform but differentiated.  Most Christians did espouse a form of violence as inevitable, while those denominations that upheld pacifist ideals, such as Quakers, were frequently represented within fiction as the paragons of Christianity.

Before analyzing the specific early cases of representations of Christianity in the Western, it is important to understand the early American legal and social context of retributive justice.  In his fascinating work on the English common law, and adopted American law “the duty to retreat,” Richard Maxwell Brown documents how the idea of homicide as a “public wrong” was held to be valid in all cases of violent altercation, even in instances of self defense.[10]  The actions of citizens in conformity with the duty to retreat in the face of violence was the same as that of Christians who espoused pacifism, although not all Christians were Christian pacifists.[11]  The “duty to retreat” meant that if one was faced with a malicious enemy whose intent was to kill, one had the “duty” to retreat.  This assured that no one would be killed and this law was thought to foster a civil society.  Homicide was never considered justified except in the case of war.  In the American colonies, this common law tradition was upheld until, Brown notes, Americans began to expand westward.  “One of the most important transformations in American legal and social history occurred in the nineteenth century when the nation as a whole repudiated the English common-law tradition in favor of the American theme of no duty to retreat."[12]  Now one was justified in killing for reasons of self-defense.  Brown calls this a crucial change in the American mind, stating that “it was a combination of Eastern legal authorities and Western judges who wrought the legal transformation from an English law that, as they saw it, upheld cowardice, to an American law suited to the bravery of the ‘true man.’”[13]  As Brown states, Americans declared a new tolerance for homicide in situations where killing could have been avoided.

This development occurred during the course of the nineteenth century and significantly, paralleled the inception and popularization of the Western novel.  Brown states “Following the westward movement of settlers from the Appalachians to the Pacific Coast, state after state saw its highest court repudiate the duty to retreat in favor of the doctrine of standing one’s ground."[14]   In 1806 the state court of Massachusetts upheld the duty to retreat, but by 1900 there was not a state left where a man couldn’t kill justifiably in self-defense.  This transformation with respect to violence found its imaginative counterpart in the Western.  The Leatherstocking Tales, written by James Fenimore Cooper between 1823 and 1841, was the first Western novel(s) with identifiable traits such as a structure of stark dualisms and a plot focused on violence, cowboys and Indians.  The violence, which plays a key role in the tales, is portrayed as a moral problem.  The hero, Nathaniel Bumppo, is characterized as a deeply spiritual man, one hesitant to kill even an animal, let alone a man.  "They can't accuse me of killing an animal when there is no occasion for the meat, or the skin. I may be a slayer, it's true, but I'm no slaughterer."[15]   The irony is that he is an Indian fighter and a warrior, yet a man preoccupied by the moral implications of the life he leads.  Although the Tales reveals a restraint with respect to violence, subsequent later imitations parallel the general direction of the culture with respect to retribution and violence.

One of Cooper’s more successful imitators was Robert Montgomery Bird, author of Nick of the Woods, and creator of the ironic hero Nathan Slaughter.  Unlike the serene Bumppo, friend of Indians and animals, Nathan Slaughter is an Indian-killer and a Quaker.  Most scholars interpret this character as a manifestation of the Western dualism of savagery versus civilization.[16]   However, placing each character, Bumppo and Slaughter, within the context of the shifting opinion regarding the duty to retreat reveals that they embody the tensions these two doctrines likely produced. In the early century the country was still beholden to the English practice of restraint with respect to violent situations.  Cooper’s hero practices restraint, even toward animals.  Bird’s Nathan Slaughter, however, literally internalizes two competing views of violence.  He is a Quaker who despises the killing of Indians.   However, as the narrative progresses it is revealed that he is actually a famous Indian-killer whose identity was mysterious, a Jeckyl and Hyde who murders at night.  His alter ego, in fact, displays a love and gusto for killing that frightens even the most committed Indian-killers. “His appearance and demeanor were rather those of a truculent madman than of the simple minded, inoffensive creature he had so long appeared in the eyes of all who knew him."[17]  Slaughter is representative of the progression of nineteenth century attitudes toward fighting in self-defense, and indicates the conflict and unease with which the old, English law of duty to retreat was eventually overturned.  The character of Slaughter, after all, is conflicted in the utmost degree--he is portrayed as a madman.

Bird’s character is important because his inner struggle is a prototype for the central, if not always obvious, conflict of the Western—the tension between Christian pacifism and homicide, or violent retribution.  What justifies Nathan Slaughter in his murder of Indians is vengeance and self-defense, as it is revealed that his wife and children were the victims of an Indian attack, and he needs to prevent this horror from visiting other settlers.  Bird’s use of the Quaker religion, as the paragon of virtue in opposition to the expediencies of the frontier, is a trope that will become paradigmatic.  In nineteenth century fiction, Quakers are portrayed as spiritual virtuosos and the most Christian of Christians.  The most famous of these portrayals is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While showing mercy to a run away slave, Stowe’s character Simeon Halliday in turn instructs his children not to show hatred to the slaveholders, but practice love to all equally. [18]  The character of Nathan Slaughter, however, indicates that this ideal of Christianity is untenable in the Western frontier, but he also indicates something more.  Although killing in self-defense is ultimately portrayed as inevitable, the presence of the Quaker reveals that this is not an easy choice.

By the middle twentieth century the Western ethic was successfully adapted to film, but the problem of the Quaker is no less evident.  In the early portrayals of the western hero, or cowboy, he is portrayed as being simultaneously a Quaker and an Indian killer.  This is not an easy combination, as evidenced by the character of Nathan Slaughter.  In the classical Western film, the Quaker is still a character and still presents a moral problem, but now the problem is externalized and no longer an internal dilemma.

First, the Quaker emerges as a woman, typically the main love interest of the hero.  In addition, although there is never a question that the main hero will pick up his gun, in the end he drops it again to marry his Quaker bride, suggesting that ultimately, the ideal world would be one without violence.  From a pragmatic perspective, however, the cowboy ethic of violent retribution is represented as the most expedient and moral route to take.  Two classic films illustrating this progression are Angel and the Badman (James Edward Grant, 1947) and High Noon (Fred Zinneman, 1952).

As the title suggests, Angel and the Badman is a story involving moral themes.  Quirt Evans (John Wayne) is wounded in a gunfight, and Quaker Penelope Worth (Gail Russell) nurses him back to health.  They fall in love, and Penelope urges Quirt to reconsider his violent ways and take up “an honest life.”  Quirt seriously considers the offer, and the film gives a generous portrayal of the themes that the Quakers are made to represent.  As Quirt lays wounded in the Quaker household, he reads a plaque on the wall that states “A man of integrity cannot be harmed by the actions of another. He can only be harmed by his own actions."  However, when Quirt’s nemesis returns, threatening him and the household, he returns to his gunslinging ways.  The ending of the movie, however, portrays Quirt as embracing a life behind the plow, rather than the gun.  Like Nick of the Woods, Angel and the Badman upholds Quakerism as a preferable life while portraying gunslinging as a necessary evil.  This is not the case with High Noon, even though on the surface the two films appear to have much in common.

Like Quirt, Gary Cooper’s character, Will Kane, is in love with a Quaker woman (Grace Kelly as his fiancé Amy).  Unlike Quirt, however, Kane, a retired Marshal, is very willing to leave his life of violence behind to wed the resolutely pacifist Amy.  Events conspire to prevent this from happening, however, as a band of outlaws is coming to town, threatening to kill innocent people.  Kane is faced with a dilemma—if he goes out of retirement to fight the outlaws, he will lose Amy, who is determined to marry a man who upholds her Quaker ideals.  If, however, he does not fight the outlaw, then he will not be able to live with himself.  It is his conscience, ironically, that prevents him from embracing pacifism completely.  As Amy pleads with Kane not to be a hero, he replies “I’m not trying to be a hero.  If you think I like this you’re crazy.”  Kane, of course, doesn’t expect to meet the marauding outlaws alone, so he goes out to look for help from some good Christian men.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t find any.  An important scene in the movie occurs when Kane goes to the town church to find men because he can’t find them in their homes or in the town.  The movie viewer knows that they all went to church to avoid Kane, but he doesn’t yet know it.  In church, he confronts the men, expecting their ready help.  One by one, they offer excuses, some suggesting that it is Kane’s fault that the outlaw’s are coming, and others stating that a gunfight will be bad for town business.  The new marshal, not at all surprised by the cowardice of the men in church, sadly tells Kane “down deep, they don’t care.  They just don’t care.”

Kane is alone in fighting the outlaws, or so it seems.  While Kane was looking for support, Amy was waiting for a train out of town.  In the meantime, she meets with one of Kane’s ex-lovers, Helen, who tells her that if she really loved him, she would be there fighting at his side.  As the fighting hour approaches, which is high noon, Kane sees Amy and Helen board the train.  Silence fills the streets as Kane stands alone in confrontation with the outlaws.  The gang of marauders surrounds Kane, and it appears as if he will surely die.  However, in a last minute change of heart, Amy comes to his rescue.  In a scene rare for a Western, the woman becomes the avenging gunslinger.  More importantly, however, are the religious consequences of this important scene.  More than the fact that Amy, a woman, is defending one she loves, is that she is a Quaker, the paragon of pacifism, following her conscience to embrace what the film portrays as a higher moral law—killing in self-defense.  High Noon is the prototype for what will becomes a typical late Western movie plot, how the cowboy ethic reveals moral failing of pacifist Christianity.

High Noon is the first Western to blatantly critique Christian pacifism, represented by the denomination of Quakerism.  In preceding films and fiction, Christianity and Quakerism are held up as the religious ideal.  High Noon critiques this ideal in several ways.  The most explicit is Amy’s conversion in the end, as she takes up the gun to save her fiance.  Interestingly, Amy and her Quakerism, while shown to be erroneous, is still portrayed in a more favorable light than the other Christians in the town, who cower in church when Kane asks them for help.  Against Kane’s and Amy’s courage, these Christians look pathetic.  As with all Westerns, the killing is made to seem inevitable, if unfortunate, with the character of the Christian (most often a Quaker) functioning like a symbolic place-holder, reminding the audience that in the end the Christian way of non-violence is preferable.  In High Noon, however, a change occurs.  The Christians are made to look morally reprehensible, and the true morally right actions in the story are committed by those who kill.  In subsequent films the Christian is defeated again and again, made to look more ridiculous and cowardly, so that the choice of killing in self-defense or for revenge will appear more than unavoidable, it will appear moral.[19] 

Another important transformation that occurs in High Noon concerns the conflation of Christian pacifism with women. High Noon is one of a number of movies that are created within a span of five years where this occurs.  Nick of the Woods and earlier films portray the typical Quaker as a male, level headed and admirable.  In comparison, High Noon portrays the Quaker as a woman given to emotional outbursts. This is an important shift, as it equates pacifism squarely within the realm of the private sphere (women are associated with the private sphere, the cult of domesticity, while men are associated with the public sphere, the realm of politics).  It also belittles pacifism as unbefitting a “true man."[20]  Unfortunately, the tendency to belittle pacifism, as well as women, occurs in many scholarly treatments of the genre as well.  Scott Simmon’s cultural history of the Western, which covers its inception until the classical period, is one example.  Briefly mentioning the pacifism that is portrayed as an option for the Western hero, he relegates it to an isolated occurrence, mostly with respect to the love dynamics of the hero and his women.  Simmon  writes, “At some point in Hollywood Westerns, a woman will propose, with varying levels of sexual blackmail, the possibility of a pacifist solution."[21]  He notes the repeated theme, specifically with reference to Cooper’s various characters, yet dismisses it as unimportant.  He says, “A quarter –century later Coop is still grimly enduring the lecture in High Noon."[22]   Instead of placing the continued theme of pacifism within a historical context and connecting it to shifting public opinion with regard to English common law, Simmon treats it as anomalous, thus missing a vital, and central, aspect of the genre. The conflation of women with Quakerism, and Christian pacifism, is a literary construction that did not occur until the Western manifested as film.  Therefore it is a relatively recent development.

High Noon is a transitional film.  Cooper’s Kane is a liminal figure—he is not an outlaw, but he isn’t a lawman either.  He is, instead, a retired marshal, one on the verge of the civil life of a Quaker. The movie itself is positioned historically between the classic Western and a new interpretation of the genre, one where the character of the cowboy is opposed to Christian pacifism and to Christian weakness.  Kane is the prototype for this character, as his heroism, humility and fighting on behalf of undeserving innocents are opposed to cowardly, greedy, self-preserving Christians.  His moral superiority is self-evident.  Westerns after the classical period are marked by the figure of a cowboy who is often also an outlaw, whose ethics are glorified in explicit opposition to Christianity.   According to Simmon, it is the cold war that definitively puts and end to the pacifism of the classical Westerns.  At the end of Angel and the Badman, as John Wayne gives up his life of violence for married life to a Quaker woman, a voiceover comments “Only a man who carries a gun ever needs one.” According to Simmon, “If this seems a stunningly pacifist argument against the classic Western’s assumptions…it may be partly a function of its production early in 1946, before the cold war finally kicked in."[23]   In any event it is true that the end of the classical Western also brings an end to a respectable treatment of the Christian pacifism.




[1] Faludi, Susan, “An American Myth Rides Into the Sunset,” New York Times, (March 30, 2003).

[2] For academic treatments of George Bush’s cowboy façade, see “From the Center: The Cowboy Myth, George Bush, and the War with Iraq,” by Karen Dodwell, 2004 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture; “Frontier Justice: Cowboy Ethics and the Doctrine of Preemption,” Masters Thesis by Holiday Dmitri (University of Chicago: August 2003).  For criticisms of Bush’s “false” Texas persona, see or, “cartoons,” or ,
Accessed on August 19, 2006.

[3] The specific conflation of Christian morality with the cowboy ethic is elaborated in Frontier Justice: Cowboy Ethics and the Doctrine of Preemption, by Holiday Dmitri.  The author also suggests that the Bush Administration is using this symbolism as a way to promote the political strategy “preemptive strike.”

[4] There are some movies that present cowboys adopting Christian ethics, such as John Ford’s Three Bad Men (1926), later remade as Three Godfathers (1940, 1949).  However, these are anomalous compared with the formula I reveal to be in place in early dime store Westerns and classics of the genre. Thanks to Dr. Jim McLachlan for his input regarding this point. Although there is some variation as to what constitutes a “classical” Western, a general consensus of scholars suggests that the classical era of the Western movie is thought to commence with John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach and end with Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 High Noon.  For discussion on what constitutes the classical Western, see the following: Scott Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre's First Half Century. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Richard Slotkin,Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. (New York: Atheneum, 1992).

[5] The nineteenth century novels under consideration are the works of James Fenimore Cooper and Robert Montgomery Bird, considered to be progenitors of the popular Western novel; see A Literary History of the American West, Taylor and Lyon, eds. (Texas Christian University Press: 1987).

[6] Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[7] French, Peter. Cowboy Metaphysics (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).

[8] French, 11.

[9] Govert, Gary R. Govert, “Something There Is That Doesn’t Love A Wall: Reflections on the History of North Carolina’s Religious Test for Public Office,” North Carolina Law Review 64 (1986): 1074-1079.

[10] Brown, Richard Maxwell, No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[11] The duty to retreat, as outlined by Brown, was a law that most American citizens obeyed.  Although research does not indicated that it is a law inspired by Quaker pacifism, the consequence of abiding by the law was, for all practical purposes, the same as that of abiding by principles of Christian pacifism. 

[12] Brown, 11.

[13] Brown, 5.

[14] Brown, 8.

[15] Cooper, Fenimore, The Deerslayer a Tale.3 Vols. (London: Richard Bentley, 1841) 8.

[16] Bold.

[17] Bird, Montgomery, Nick of the Woods: A Story of Kentucky (London: Richard Bentley, 1837) 386.

[18] Beecher-Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly (New York: Penguin Books, 1986) 192.

[19] See particularly Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, made prior to his more self-consciously critical Unforgiven (1992).

[20] Brown, 20.

[21] Simmon, Scott, The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre's First Half Century. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 112.

[22] Simmon, 112.

[23] Simmon, 268.



Thinking About Religion, Volume 6
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