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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):  http://jecteds.org/blog/page/6/

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