Thomas S. “Tom” Bremer, Ph.D.
Thomas S. Bremer writes about American religious history with special interests in religion and tourism, religion and nature, and US national parks. He is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Rhodes College, a selective liberal arts school in Memphis, Tennessee, where he taught courses in religious history for twenty-two years. Author of two books, Blessed with Tourists: The Borderlands of Religion and Tourism in San Antonio (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) and Formed from this Soil: An Introduction to the Diverse History of Religion in America (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), Dr. Bremer’s forthcoming book, Sacred Wonderland: The Story of Religion in Yellowstone is under contract with the University of Nebraska Press. A complete list of publications is available on the Publications page. He also has conducted historical research for the National Park Service as a consultant at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois.
The Personal Story
I started life in Illinois, but my young parents carried me away to California when I was still an infant. Though not exactly a native, my roots were in Orange County, California, which was more rural during my childhood than it is now. I left, however, as a young adult and have rarely returned.
My first real escape from suburban California took me to a summer of seasonal employment in Yellowstone National Park. Long family vacations of camping throughout the American west had instilled an affection for mountains, forests, and wild lands of all sorts, and Yellowstone had been a favorite destination. So at age 21 I traded most of the few possessions I had accumulated in my short life for an opportunity to pump gas (when that was still a thing) at Canyon Village in the heart of my favorite park. The work was not too demanding, and most free time found me in the Yellowstone backcountry, relishing a life far from the numbing routines of suburban southern California.
Late in the season as the Yellowstone autumn settled across the mountains, Melanie and I found each other. We spent a long day together of hiking and touring the park, capped by a magical evening of “hotpotting” in the steaming waters of the Firehole River. The next morning she left to return to her Ohio home, but our subsequent exchange of letters eventually enticed her to California, where I had returned after Yellowstone had closed for the season.
Within a year Melanie and I were working as caretakers of Rancho D’Eleanora, a hundred steep acres of avocados, macadamia nuts, citrus, and just about any other fruit that one could imagine, tucked away high in the Rainbow Heights area of rural Fallbrook in San Diego County, California. The ranch was an Edenic haven that we took care of for a retired couple who had made their fortune with a chain of retail stores in the booming decades following World War II. They used it as a second home retreat, but they came infrequently, so we had paradise to ourselves most of the time. It was an idyllic place to begin our lives together.
Paradise, though, doesn’t promise much of a future for a young couple, as the First Couple of the Abrahamic traditions learned. So like them, we left our little Eden to make our lives elsewhere, which for us meant moving to Melanie’s homeland in Ohio. We somehow were able to purchase an insurance agency in a small Ohio town, a daunting commitment for a pair of twenty-somethings who had never been to college.
We did well there, but the small-town life eventually became too confining for us. When Melanie began taking classes at the branch campus of The Ohio State University, we both realized that our future was not peddling insurance coverage to families and businesses in rural Ohio. We moved closer to Columbus so that Melanie could go to school full-time at the OSU main campus.
After a few more years of insurance, I finally followed Melanie’s lead. My seventeen gap years between high school and college ended when I started studying at The Ohio State University in Columbus at age 35. Beginning with that first class in 1992, my life became absorbed with studying and writing, leading eventually to teaching. I completed a degree at Ohio State in Religious Studies and went directly on to an M.A. and then Ph.D. in Religion at Princeton University, where I finished in 2001.
When I started at Princeton, I thought I would be studying Mesoamerican religions with Davíd Carrasco, so my first two summers I spent in Mexico. My interests gravitated northward, and I ended up doing a dissertation on San Antonio, Texas, an appropriate compromise in the cultural borderlands between Mexico and the US.
Four months of research in San Antonio was my first real introduction to the city, where I benefited immensely from the kind generosity of Fr. Balthasar Janacek, who served as the Catholic diocese’s liaison with the National Park Service at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. The dissertation subsequently became a book, which I dedicated to Fr. Janacek as a gesture of my gratitude.
After finishing graduate school, Melanie and I relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, where I began my teaching career at Rhodes College just two weeks after defending my dissertation and three weeks before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I quickly settled into teaching, which I found was a natural fit for me and was a constant pleasure over the years. I am grateful for the privilege of having guided scores of smart, thoughtful, passionate, motivated learners in their educational pursuits during my more than two decades at Rhodes.
Since leaving the classroom at the end of the 2023 fall semester, I have occupied myself with creative activities, mostly writing, and getting outdoors whenever possible. You can keep up with me by subscribing to my newsletter (click the button below), and I welcome your comments, questions, or just a friendly hello – you can send a message from the Contact page.