Pilgrimage: An American Religious Experience?

Dr. Nathan S. French

Yoshie Vinton, Dr. French, and Dr. Andrew Offenburger discuss road trips and pilgrimage.

A school field trip to Washington, D.C. is a formative rite of passage shared by many U.S. school students across the nation. Often, these are framed as “field trips.” Students may visit the White House, the U.S. Capitol Building, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, Declaration of Independence (housed in the National Archive), the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Jefferson Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, or the Smithsonian Museum – among others. For many students, this is the first time they will connect the histories of their textbooks to items, artifacts, and buildings that they can see and feel.

For those arriving to Washington, D.C. by airplane or bus, the field trip might also seem like a road trip. Road trips, often involving movement across the U.S. from city-to-city and state-to-state are often framed as quintessential American experiences. Americans have taken road trips to follow their favorite bands, to move to universities and new jobs, to visit the hall of fame of their favorite professional or collegiate sport, or sites of family history. As Dr. Andrew Offenberger observes in our interview, road trips have helped American authors, like Kiowa poet N. Scott Momaday, make sense of their identities as Americans.

What if, however, these field trips to Washington, D.C. and road trips across the country might amount to something else? What if we considered them to be pilgrimages? Would that change our understanding of them?

For many Americans, the first word that comes to mind when they hear the word, “pilgrimage,” involves the pilgrims of Plymouth, a community of English Puritans who colonized territory in Massachusetts, at first through a treaty with the Wampanoag peoples, but eventually through their dispossession. For many American communities, the nature of pilgrimage remains a reminder of forced displacement, dispossession, and a loss of home and homeland.

Pilgrimage, as a term, might also suggest a religious experience. There are multiple podcasts, blogs, and videos discussing the Camino de Santiago, a number of pilgrimage paths through northern Spain. Others might think of making a pilgrimage to the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim sacred spaces in Israel and Palestine often referred to as the “Holy Land” collectively – including the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (among others). Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, is a classic example of this experience. Some make pilgrimage to Salem, Massachusetts each October. Others even debate whether the Crusades were a holy war or pilgrimage.

American experiences of pilgrimage have led to substantial transformations in our national history and to our constitutional rights. Pilgrimage, as a movement across state, national, or cultural boundaries, has often been used by Americans to help them make sense of who they are, where they came from, and what it means, to them, to be “an American.”

The word, “pilgrimage,” traces its etymology from the French, pèlerinage and from the Latin, pelegrines, with a general meaning of going through the fields or across lands as a foreigner. As a category used by anthropologists and sociologists in the study of religion, “pilgrimage” is often used as a much broader term, studying anything ranging from visits to Japanese Shinto shrines, the Islamic pilgrimage of Hajj, “birthright” trips to Israel by American Jewish youth, and, yes, even trips to Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee – the home of Elvis Presley.

Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957) defined pilgrimage as one of a number of rites of passage (i.e., a rite du passage) that involves pilgrims separating themselves from broader society, moving themselves into a place of transition, and then re-incorporating their transformed bodies and minds back into their home societies. That moment of transition, which van Gennep called “liminality,” was the moment when one would become something new – perhaps through initiation, ritual observation, or by pushing one’s personal boundaries outside of one’s ordinary experience.

Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), a contemporary of Turner, argued that a pilgrimage helps us to provide a story within which we are able to orient ourselves in the world.

Consider, for example, the role that a trip to Arlington National Cemetery or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier plays in a visit by a high school class to Washington, D.C. If framed and studied as a pilgrimage, Geertz’s theory would suggest that a visit to these sites can be formative to an American’s understanding of national history and, perhaps just as importantly, the visit will reinforce for Americans the importance of national service and remembrance of those who died in service to the defense of the United States. When we return from those school field trips to Washington, D.C., then, we do so with a new sense of who we are and where we fit into our shared American history.

Among the many examples that we could cite from American history, two pilgrimages in particular – those of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X – provide instructive examples.

Held three years after the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1957 “Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom,” led by Dr. King brought together thousands in order to, as he described it, “call upon all who love justice and dignity and liberty, who love their country, and who love mankind …. [to] renew our strength, communicate our unity, and rededicate our efforts, firmly but peaceably, to the attainment of freedom.” Posters for the event promised that it would “arouse the conscience of the nation.” Drawing upon themes from the Christian New Testament, including those related to agape – a love of one’s friends and enemies – King’s speech at the “Prayer Pilgrimage” brought national attention to his civil rights movement and established an essential foundation for his return to Washington, D.C. and his “I Have a Dream Speech,” six years later.

In April 1964, Malcolm X departed to observe the Muslim pilgrimage ritual of Hajj in the city of Mecca in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Hajj is an obligation upon all Muslims, across the globe, and involves rituals meant to remind them of their responsibilities to God, to their fellow Muslims, and of their relationship to Ibrahim and Ismail (i.e., Abraham and Ishamel) as found in the Qur’an. Before his trip, Malcolm X had expressed skepticism about building broader ties to American civil rights groups. His experience on Hajj, he wrote, was transformational. “The holy city of Mecca had been the first time I had ever stood before the creator of all and felt like a complete human being,” he wrote, “People were hugging, they were embracing, they were of all complexions …. The feeling hit me that there really wasn’t what he called a color problem, a conflict between racial identities here.” His experience on Hajj was transformative. The result? Upon return to the United States, Malcolm X pledged to work with anyone – regardless of faith and race – who would work to change civil rights in the United States. His experiences continue to resonate with Americans.

These are but two stories that contribute to American pilgrimage experiences. Today, Americans go on pilgrimages to the Ganges in India, to Masada in Israel, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and to Bethlehem in Palestine, and to cities along the Trail of Tears and along the migration of the Latter-Day Saints church westward. Yet, they also go on pilgrimages and road trips to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to the baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown, to the national parks, and to sites of family and community importance. In these travels, they step outside of the ordinary and, in encountering the diversities of the U.S., sometimes experience the extraordinary changing themselves, and the country, in the process.

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Questions for Class Discussion

What is a “pilgrimage”? What is a road trip? Are they similar? Different? Why?

Must a pilgrimage only be religious or spiritual? Why or why not?

How has movement – from city to city, or place to place, or around the world – changed U.S. history and the self-understanding of Americans? What if those movements had never occurred? How would the U.S. be different?

Have you been on a pilgrimage? Have members of your family? How has it changed your sense of self? How did it change that of your family members?

If you were to design a pilgrimage, what would it be? Where would it take place? Would it involve special rituals or types of dress? Why? What would the purpose of your pilgrimage be?

How do other communities understand their pilgrimages? Do other cultures have “road trips” like the United States?

Additional Sources:

Ohio History and Pilgrimage

Fort Ancient Earthworks & Nature Preserve, Ohio History Connection (link).

  • National Geographic Society, “Intriguing Interactions [Hopewell],” Grades 9-12 (link)

Documentary Podcasts & Films

“In the Light of Reverence,” 2001 (link)

An examination of Lakota, Hopi, and Wintu ties to and continued usages of their homelands and a question of how movement through land may be considered sacred by some and profane by others.

Melvin Bragg, “Medieval Pilgrimage,” BBC: In our Time, February 2021 (link)

Bruce Feiler: Sacred Journeys (Pilgrimage). PBS Films (link) along with educator resources (link).

The American Pilgrimage Project. Berkley Center, Georgetown University (link).

Arranged by StoryCorps, a collection of video and audio interviews with Americans of diverse backgrounds discussing their religious and spiritual identities and their intersections with American life.

Dave Whitson, “The Camino Podcast,” (link) on Spotify (link), Apple (link)

A collection of interviews with those of varying faiths and spiritualities discussing pilgrimage experiences.

Popular Media & Websites

“Dreamland: American Travelers to the Holy Land in the 19th Century,” Shapell (link)

A curated digital museum gallery cataloguing American experiences of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Israel, and Palestine.

LaPier, Rosalyn R. “How Standing Rock Became a Site of Pilgrimage.” The Conversation, December 7, 2016 (link).

Talamo, Lex. Pilgrimage for the Soul. South Dakota Magazine, May/June 2019. (link).


Grades K-6

Murdoch, Catherine Gilbert. The Book of Boy. New York: Harper Collins, 2020 (link).

Wolk, Lauren. Beyond the Bright Sea. New York: Puffin Books, 2018 (link).

Grades 7-12

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. New York: Penguin Books, 2003 (link).

Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992 (link).

Melville, Herman. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. New York: Library of America, n.d. (link).

Murray, Pauli. Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage. New York: Liveright, 1987 (link).

Reader, Ian. Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015 (link).

Twain, Mark. The Innocents Abroad. New York: Modern Library, 2003 (link).


Bell, Catherine. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Bloechl, Jeffrey, and André Brouillette, eds. Pilgrimage as Spiritual Practice: A Handbook for Teachers, Wayfarers, and Guides. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2022.

Frey, Nancy Louise Louise. Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago, Journeys Along an Ancient Way in Modern Spain. First Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude

Patterson, Sara M., “Traveling Zions: Pilgrimage in Modern Mormonism,” in Pioneers in the Attic: Place and Memory along the Mormon Trail. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020 (link).

Pazos, Antón. Redefining Pilgrimage: New Perspectives on Historical and Contemporary Pilgrimages. London: Routledge, 2014 (link).

Reader, Ian. Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015 (link).

Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Translated by Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960 (link)

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