Western Theology: Pioneer or Settler?

In 1973, Wes Seeliger, an Episcopal Priest, wrote and illustrated a book called Western Theology. I had never heard of it until another student in my doctoral cohort mentioned it in one of our round table discussions. I was intrigued, so I bought a copy to check it out. After reading it, I’m convinced that its message is as relevant today as it was when it was first published.

The book is satirical. It uses exaggeration and irony to get its point across. With its satire, it calls attention to a deep divide within our churches that can hardly be overlooked. The issues in contemporary Western theology are exposed in figures and characters from the Old West, and the contrast is drawn between the settler spirit and the pioneer spirit.

Seeliger describes the settler spirit as having a lack of faith. It is closed off to change and God’s promises for the future. Meanwhile, the pioneer spirit is full of faith in God’s promises and future. The pioneer “lives with the humility of a man constantly in danger, and the joy of a man who sleeps under the stars and sees a new horizon each morning” (pp. 12-13). These categories can apply to churches as well as individuals.

The Church

In Settler Theology, the church is like a big courthouse in the downtown square. The building is surrounded by signs that read, “Keep off the grass.” In this line of thinking, “The courthouse is the settler’s symbol of law, order, tradition, stability, and, most important, security” (p. 18).

In Pioneer Theology, the church is a caravan of covered wagons. They aren’t necessarily comfortable, pretty, or safe. They’re always on the move. It’s bumpy and even hostile at times, but all of the wagons are moving forward together. “The pioneers gladly trade safety for obedience to the insistent voice of the Trail Boss” (p. 21).


In Settler Theology, God is the mayor. He lives on the second floor of the courthouse and keeps an all-seeing-eye out for strange “movements, thoughts, and actions in Settler City” (p. 26). He is quick to send the Sheriff out to preserve the peace when strangers come to town.

In Pioneer Theology, God is the Trail Boss. He fights both with and for his people. He is concerned with their well-being and does whatever it takes to get through to them. “Where he goes, hope for a new future follows” (p. 32).


In Settler Theology, Jesus is the Sheriff. He is good-looking and has the best six-shooter in town. His job is to preserve the settlers’ sense of security and make sure that nothing disturbs the peace. His tactics include “preventative measures, and punishment for law-breakers” (p. 35).

In Pioneer Theology, Jesus is the Scout, riding ahead to chart the direction for the group. “He is the embodiment of raw courage, love of adventure, obedience to the Trail Boss, strength – you name it” (p. 41). For that reason, the settlers can’t stand him. They think he’s too wild and dangerous. But the Scout is a trailblazer and his spirit is contagious.

The Pastor

In Settler Theology, the pastor is a bank teller. He serves as a “custodian of all the valuables of Settler City” (p. 69). As a highly respected man in town, he stays busy with record-keeping and public relations, making sure the settlers are comfortable, secure, and happy.

In Pioneer Theology, the pastor is a cook. He is out on the frontier with the travelers, testing new recipes from the ingredients on-hand. Some of those recipes have been passed down, while others are made up on the spot. The cook “takes pride in seeing that the pioneers are well fed” because he knows “it’s his job to keep them healthy” (p. 74).


In Settler Theology, Christians are settlers. They don’t explore because they’re not allowed (and too afraid) to go out to the frontier. Their goal is “to keep in good with the Mayor and stay out of the Sheriff’s way” (p. 87).

In Pioneer Theology, Christians are pioneers, people of “risk and daring, boundless curiosity, and wild imagination” (p. 95). Being a pioneer takes a person into unknown territories every day. The work is demanding but satisfying. The pioneer goes where the Trail Boss says to go. At its core, “The Pioneer spirit is a mixture of humility, gratitude, compassion, freedom, and, most important, joy” (p. 98).

So, which spirit do you sense in yourself?
Which spirit do you sense in your church?

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Trevor Hamaker (DMin, McAfee School of Theology) is an author, adjunct professor, and youth ministry coach. He helps youth pastors see their potential, develop their skills, and reach their goals.

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