- The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America by Linford D. Fisher
Linford Fisher opens his important study of natives and Christianity in southern New England with a fascinating archaeological discovery. Archaeologists working on behalf of the Mashantucket Pequot Nation relocated a number of colonial-era graves in 1990. In one of the graves, they found the remains of a young girl buried with a variety of funerary objects. A medicine bundle from the site contained both the bones of a bear paw and a page ripped from a small Bible. The paper preserved verses from Psalm 98 that celebrated salvation for the heathen. The find perhaps poses more questions than it answers, but it does provide a nice illustration of the fluid boundaries between native and English Christian cultures. Fisher writes, "the medicine bundle seems like a broadly inclusive approach to the question of efficacious oversight in the afterlife" (7).
Fisher offers this example to support his argument that native responses to Christianity took place in a messy social, cultural, and political context. The process and the results of religious change were ambiguous and remain difficult to interpret. The concept of conversion as traditionally applied—a movement from one religious state to another—seems inadequate to deal with colonial complexities and interpretive challenges. Indeed, as Fisher writes, in this book "the words 'religious engagement' and 'affiliation' are used to capture this dynamism and inherent instability, rather than 'conversion' " (8). Fisher's work reflects recent trends in the study of religious encounters in northeastern North America. Scholars like Emma Anderson, Kristina Bross, Allan Greer, David Silverman, and Rachel Wheeler—to name only a few—have moved well beyond the stereotypes and straw men of the saintly native convert or the cultural traitor with the colonized mind. This scholarship presents significantly more sophisticated interpretations of religious change that emphasize process, contingency, and lived experience over simple notions of conversion.
Fisher contends that native communities in southern New England experimented with and sometimes adopted or appropriated Christianity in [End Page 247] a multigenerational process that addressed the twin pressures of land loss and decreasing autonomy. The opening chapter provides the seventeenth-century background for this history: the first English efforts at evangelization, the establishment of praying towns, and the violence of King Philip's War. The rest of the book tracks the influence of Christianity in native communities from the late seventeenth century through the series of religious awakenings that occurred in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
It was early in the eighteenth century, in fact, that communities in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and eastern Long Island became intensely engaged with Christianity. English colonists increased their evangelical activity in southern New England in the first decades of the eighteenth century. Native interest in Christianity centered on education, an attractive benefit of contact with the English during troubled times. According to Fisher, this experience with English ministers, Christian practice, and educational opportunities made the transformations of the First Great Awakening possible. In contrast to the narrative of rapid conversion among native peoples like the Mohegans—a narrative based largely on the writings of the native preacher Samson Occom—Fisher argues that native participation in the revivals was a continuation of their previous engagement and part of their ongoing attempt to survive as viable independent native communities.
Furthermore, native affiliation with churches was not as common as the standard narrative would suggest. And where Christianity took root, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century, it often persisted in separate Indian churches away from the prying eyes of English ecclesiastical authorities. Fisher examines the work of Indian ministers Samuel Niles (Narragansett) and Samuel Ashpo and Samson Occom (Mohegan) to demonstrate how these separate churches came into being. As Fisher shows, the desire for native-led congregations extended to schools, where many native parents insisted on having Indian teachers. These local schools served many more students and probably had a more profound and lasting effect than the...