Cather first conceived Death Comes for the Archbishop in 1912, during a visit to the American Southwest. She had set previous fiction in the region, including the 1909 story "The Enchanted Bluff" and portions of the novels My Ántonia, Song of the Lark, and The Professor's House.
Cather preferred to call Death Comes for the Archbishop a "narrative" rather than a novel. Indeed, the book does not conform to traditional notions of the novel form. Instead, Cather layers vignettes from the lives of her protagonists to build a quiet study of nineteenth-century New Mexico and the religious faith that transformed the peoples of the region.
Cather wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop following two contemporary novels, A Lost Lady and The Professor's House, as well as a novella, My Mortal Enemy. The preceding fiction reveals Cather's perception of the increasing materialism of American society and disillusion with Jazz Age lapses of morality. Similar to other such Modernist writers as T.S. Eliot and David Jones, Cather perceived that "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts," as she wrote in the preface to her 1936 collection of essays Not Under Forty. In another similarity to Eliot and Jones, Cather attempted to counter the relaxed morality of the era through religious faith. Raised Baptist, she converted to the Episcopalian church. It is the belief of some critics that Cather stopped short of converting to Roman Catholicism due to her Protestant roots. Nevertheless, Death Comes for the Archbishop reveals Cather's appreciation for Catholic rituals, self-discipline, and symbolism.
In response to reader queries as to her inspiration for Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather responded in a letter published in the periodical The Commonweal. In the letter, she described a 1912 visit to the Southwest, where she traveled by wagon. On this visit, she had met Father Halterman, a Belgian priest who raised poultry, sheep, vegetables, and flowers. Father Halterman told her many stories about the region's traditions and Indian lore. Cather further elaborated on the sources for her narrative in the Commonweal letter:
I had all my life wanted to do something in the style of legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment. Since I first saw the Puvis de Chavannes frescoes of the life of Saint Genevieve in my student days , I have wished that I could try something a little like that in prose; something without accent, with none of the artificial elements of composition. In the Golden Legend the martyrdoms of the saints are no more dwelt upon than are the trivial incidents of their lives; it is as though all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual experience, were of about the same importance. The essence of such writing is not to hold to note, not to use an incident for all there is in it@ — but to touch and pass on.
Believing that the story of the American Southwest was primarily a story of the Catholic Church in the region, Cather assumed the account should be written by a Catholic. She waited more than fifteen years from her initial inspiration before writing Death Comes for the Archbishop, taking the novel's name from a woodcut by German artist Hans Holbein, The Dance of Death, in which a personified death comes for an archbishop.
Cather was further inspired to write Death Comes for the Archbishop after reading Life of the Right Reverend Joseph Priest Machebeuf, D.D., Pioneer Priest of Ohio, of Colorado, and Utah, and First Bishop of Denver, a short history written by Reverend W.J. Howlett, which was published privately in 1908. Much of Howlett's history features translations of letters Machebeuf wrote between 1839 and 1886 to his sister Philomene, a nun living in Riom, France. Machebeuf served as the inspiration for the character of Father Joseph Vaillant. Father Vaillant assists Father Latour, who is, in turn, modeled after Father Jean Baptiste Lamy, the first archbishop of Santa Fe.
Death Comes for the Archbishop became one of Cather's most critically appreciated works. She was assessed the premier American novelist in a 1929 poll of critics, largely due to the literary success of the narrative, which won praise for the lucidity and economy of the prose.