Department or Program

Religious Studies


Deserts are a distinct form of “wilderness” within U.S. settler-colonial and religious contexts, characterized specifically by emptiness, aridity, infertility, and suffering. Rather than conceiving of these “wastelands” as a resource to be owned and exploited, settler encounters with deserts are informed by early Christian narratives that configure deserts as spaces for vulnerability, divine encounter, and collective identity formation. These dynamics function in ways that enable settlers to lay claim to these landscapes, authorizing, naturalizing, and sanctifying settler colonialism. My thesis begins with an analysis of selected writings from the “Desert Fathers” that distills an early Christian desert narrative modeled on motifs from the synoptic gospels and the Old Testament. Three distinct case studies follow, in which I explore ways in which the North American landscape is harnessed to enact this ancient Christian narrative: (1) early expansionist and frontier encounters with the “Great American Desert,” (2) the Mormon settlement in the desert landscape of the Great Basin, and (3) the cultural politics of nuclear weapons development in the New Mexico and Nevada deserts. By analyzing the spatial narratives at play in each of these cases through Edward Soja’s theoretical categories of First-, Second-, and Thirdspace, I elucidate the narrative translation of the landscape into an active force that renders settlers at once vulnerable and empowered, subject and sovereign. Finally, I highlight desert counter-spaces—largely from Indigenous sources—that hybridize and/or push back against this dominant, homogenizing Christian/settler-colonial desert space.

Level of Access

Open Access

First Advisor

Baker, Cynthia

Date of Graduation


Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

Number of Pages


Components of Thesis

1 pdf file

Open Access

Available to all.