Sacred Wonderland


Thomas S. “Tom” Bremer, Ph.D.

Thomas S. Bremer studies American religious history with special interests in religion and tourism, religion and nature, and US national parks. He has taught courses in religious history for twenty-two years at Rhodes College, a selective liberal arts school in Memphis, Tennessee. He has authored 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). A forthcoming book, Sacred Wonderland: The Story of Religion in Yellowstone is under contract with the University of Nebraska Press, expected to be published in 2024. A complete list of publications is available on the Publications page.

Thomas S. “Tom” Bremer

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 was brought up in a liberal family surrounded by what was one of the most staunchly conservative counties in the country, but I left as a young adult and have rarely returned.

Saddleback Mountain
Saddleback Mountain, Orange County, California (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2014)

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 sold all that I had accumulated in my short life and went off to pump gas 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.

On Mt. Washburn, Yellowstone
Tom and Melanie on Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone National Park, 2006

Melanie and I found ourselves a year later 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 second home for a retired couple who had made their fortune with a chain of retail stores in the booming decades following World War II. They came infrequently, so we had paradise to ourselves most of the time. It was an idyllic place to begin our lives together.

Rancho D'Eleanora
At the lake, Rancho D’Eleanora (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2008)

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 arranged to purchase an insurance agency in a small Ohio town, a brash undertaking for a pair of twenty-somethings who had never been to college. We did well there, but the small town life became too confining, and 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 and 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. Since that first class in 1992, my entire life has been absorbed with academic pursuits, learning, writing, and teaching. I completed my 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.

On campus, Princeton University (Photo by T. S. Bremer, 2007)

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.

Sun fresco at Mission Concepción, San Antonio
Sun fresco on ceiling of convento at Mission Concepción, San Antonio, Texas (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2016)

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 has been 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.

Of all my various experiences in life, I have found that above all I am a teacher.