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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Native Christianity and the Indian Great Awakening

Linford D. Fisher, The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

This rich new monograph began as Fisher’s dissertation at Harvard. (Fisher now teaches at Brown.) It treats engagement with and appropriation of Protestant Christianity by Indians in Connecticut, Rhode Island, western Massachusetts, and Long Island during the long eighteenth century (between the time of King Philip’s War [1675-1676] and the Indian Removal Act [1830]). In keeping with the currents of the new Indian history, Fisher demonstrates that his subjects proved to be much more than victims of colonial persecution. They used Christianity to improve their way of life and protect their land from the English. During the era of New England’s Great Awakening, especially, they asserted themselves as Christians, often founding their own churches, taking control of their own schools, and raising up their own Native Christian leaders.

Previous scholars have suggested that King Philip’s War decimated not only much of New England but also its missions to the Indians, and thus that Native participation in New England’s Great Awakening should be viewed as a total conversion from their earlier ways of life. But as Fisher ably documents, “participation of many southern New England Natives in the Awakening during the 1740s was a continuation of, not a break with, prior religious engagement and strategies of creative cultural and religious adaption and survival. . . . The ‘Indian Great Awakening’ . . . was a logical but not inevitable result of three prior decades of renewed attempts of the English to evangelize their Native neighbors and the Indians’ increasing attempts to procure education, literacy, and acceptance into the larger Euroamerican colonial society” (p. 67).

My only major disappointment with this book is its treatment of Edwards, which is brief and all-too-sketchy given the sources now available. Edwards scholars will want to supplement their reading of Fisher’s book with some of the studies mentioned in our note on David Silverman’s Red Brethren (noting that Fisher disagrees with Silverman’s take on the significance of the Brothertown migration, pp. 181-87):

But on the larger picture of Native Christianity in New England and Long Island during the long eighteenth century, The Indian Great Awakening is clearly now the place to begin. I recommend it most highly to the readers of this blog for the ways in which it fills out our understanding of the context in which Edwards and his colleagues engaged their region’s native inhabitants.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Edwards, the Red Brethren, and the Race Problem

David J. Silverman, Red Brethren: The Brothertown and Stockbridge Indians and the Problem of Race in Early America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010).

This book contains only a few, brief references to Edwards. Nevertheless, Edwards scholars will want to give it careful attention for the ways in which it fleshes out the roles of several friends, disciples, and devotees of Edwards in the Christianization of Native American Indians in what became the northeastern United States.

Readers of this blog already know the Stockbridge Indians, a network of tribes including Mohicans, Housatonics and others tied to the Stockbridge mission. The Brothertown, however, have not received as much attention. Comprised of Narragansetts, Mohegans, Pequots, Miantics, Tunxis, and Montauketts from both the Connecticut and New York shores of Long Island Sound, they migrated to upstate New York in the 1780s, joined forces with the Stockbridge, were forced to pick up stakes and move again with the Stockbridge to Wisconsin, then in the late 1830s became the first group of Indians to obtain full United States citizenship.

Silverman’s study seeks to explain “why and how Indians came to interpret their struggles with colonialism racially. More specifically, it is interested in the ways in which Indian people understood, employed, and constantly redefined the categories of Indian, white, and black” (p. 32). Its focus on racialization and racism yields a typically jaundiced view of Christian Indian missions. But it also yields new insights into the history of what we might well call the Indian Great Awakening. During the 1730s and 40s, northeastern Indians converted in large numbers to Christianity, more than ever before in history, joining white churches at first and often separating later due to prejudicial treatment, forming their own Native American congregations. Their shared experience of revival brought thousands of Indians together across their various tribal boundaries. The vast network that resulted “linked Indian communities from Long Island Sound more firmly to each other and to the Delawares of New Jersey, the Mohicans of the Housatonic River Valley, and the Oneidas of Iroquoia. Historically, these groups were divided by space, politics, and, to a lesser degree, language. Yet the Indians’ shared struggles with colonialism followed by their common Christianity led them to identify with each other as a race of people and to express that solidarity in the language of Protestantism” (p. 32).

This learned study joins a growing list of books on Indian Christians in the age of the Great Awakening whose piety was shaped by Edwards’ evangelical ministry. It is better on people like Samson Occom and Eleazar Wheelock than it is on Edwards himself. But when read together with studies such as the ones listed below, it goes a long way toward helping us appreciate the complicated legacies of Edwards in the world of Native American Christianity. Highly recommended.

A select bibliography on Edwards, the Edwardseans, New England’s Great Awakening, and the emergence of Native American Christianity:

John A. Andrew III, From Revivals to Removal: Jeremiah Evarts, the Cherokee Nation, and the Search for the Soul of America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991)

Denise T. Askin, “‘Strange Providence’: Indigenist Calvinism in the Writings of Mohegan Minister Samson Occom (1723-1792),” in John Calvin’s American Legacy, ed. Thomas J. Davis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Richard A. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, Religion in America Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)

Althea Bass, Cherokee Messenger (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1936)

Linford Fisher, The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

John A. Grigg, The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon, Religion in America Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Joel W. Martin and Mark A. Nicholas, eds., Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010)

Gerald R. McDermott, Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Gerald R. McDermott, “Missions and Native Americans,” in The Princeton Companion to Jonathan Edwards, ed. Sang Hyun Lee (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005)

William G. McLoughlin, Cherokees and Missionaries, 1789-1839 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984)

William G. McLoughlin, “Two Bostonian Missions to the Frontier Indians, 1810-1860,” in Massachusetts and the New Nation, ed. Conrad Edick Wright, Studies in American History and Culture (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1992)

Samson Occom, The Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan: Leadership and Literature in Eighteenth-Century Native America, ed. Joanna Brooks (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)

Rachel M. Wheeler, “Edwards as Missionary,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards, ed. Stephen J. Stein (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Rachel Wheeler, “Lessons from Stockbridge: Jonathan Edwards and the Stockbridge Indians,” in Jonathan Edwards at 300: Essays on the Tercentenary of His Birth, ed. Harry S. Stout, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Caleb J. D. Maskell (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005)

Rachel Wheeler, To Live upon Hope: Mohicans and Missionaries in the Eighteenth-Century Northeast (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008)

See also the articles written against U.S. treatment of the Indians in the heavily Edwardsean The Spirit of the Pilgrims (SP): “Review of an Article in the North American Review,” SP 3 (March 1830): 141-61; “Speeches on the Indian Bill,” SP 3 (September 1830): 492-500, and (October 1830): 517-32; “Review of the Case of the Cherokees against Georgia,” SP 4 (September 1831): 492-513; “Review of Pamphlets on the Death of Jeremiah Evarts, Esq.,” SP 4 (November 1831): 599-613; and “Review of Thatcher’s Lives of the Indians,” SP 6 (January 1833): 41-47.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS