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: Anabaptists, Chinese Immigrants, Native Americans

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 Hutterites, 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 American 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 Protestant and Catholics, and the Native American 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 Pagan, 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, Hmong 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 groves, covens, and open circles 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 Center, 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 Buddhism has occurred in the past few years. Although there have been sanghas 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 Paganism.

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 Circle, 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 Covenant. 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 Effendi 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.


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 Nyingma), Zen (Rinzai, Soto, and Vietnamese), Vipassana Therevadan, Mahayana, Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), and open eclectic 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 Bodhisattva from Mahayana, and incorporate the Pali Cannon as well as chanting in Pali from Therevaden traditions. The Kalinga Buddhist Center (profile) was founded in 1993. The monk, Kelsang Wangden teaches in Eureka, Whitefish, and Bigfork. Namdroling is a temple located on the outskirts of Bozeman. The building’s sole use is as a center. Annually, Tibetan monks, 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. Yoga Dhatta is the teacher and abbot of the Billings Dharma 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 Rinpoche has a very interesting history; he is considered a tulku, 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 Buddha 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.


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 Wicca 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 Sabbats. They also provide outreach, working primarily with Christian organizations on campus.

The priestess from the Wellsprings Grove 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 Equinox. 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 Hutterite and Amish 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 chaplains at Bozeman Deaconess 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.


  • 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, MSA 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.

See also: Research Report