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Piety and Dissent

Race, Gender, and Biblical Rhetoric in Early American Autobiography

Eileen Razzari Elrod

Publication Year: 2008

For pious converts to Christianity in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century New England, all reality was shaped by religious devotion and biblical text. It is therefore not surprising that earnest believers who found themselves marginalized by their race or sex relied on their faith to reconcile the tension between the spiritual experience of rebirth and the social ordeal of exclusion and injustice. In Piety and Dissent, Eileen Razzari Elrod examines the religious autobiographies of six early Americans who represented various sorts of marginality: John Marrant, Olaudah Equiano, and Jarena Lee, all of African or African American heritage; Samson Occom (Mohegan) and William Apess (Pequot); and Abigail Abbott Bailey, a white woman who was subjected to extreme domestic violence. Through close readings of these personal narratives, Elrod uncovers the complex rhetorical strategies employed by pious outsiders to challenge the particular kinds of oppression each experienced. She identifies recurrent ideals and images drawn from Scripture and Protestant tradition—parables of liberation, rage, justice, and opposition to authority—that allowed them to see resistance as a religious act and, more than that, imbued them with a sense of agency. What the life stories of these six individuals reveal, according to Elrod, is that conventional Christianity in early America was not the hegemonic force that church leaders at the time imagined, and that many people since have believed it to be. Nor was there a clear distinction between personal piety and religious, social, and political resistance. To understand fully the role of religion in the early period of American letters, we must rethink some of our most fundamental assumptions about the function of Christian faith in the context of individual lives.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Title Page

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p. iii

Copyright Page

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p. iv

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p. v

To Mary Heywood Razzari In Memory of John Serafino Razzari

Table of Contents

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p. vii

List of Illustrations

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p. ix

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pp. xi-xii

Warm thanks to colleagues and friends who have helped me do the work I love to do and complete this project. The questions that energized this study began during a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on Religion and Diversity in American Society at Haverford College, and then took shape during a sabbatical year funded by Santa Clara...

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Chapter 1: Margins and Centers, New and Old Narrations: Biblical Voices, Great Awakening Christianity, and American Autobiographical Traditions

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pp. 1-20

The great subject of thought was, of course, theology; and woman’s nature had never been consulted in theology. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oldtown Folks Where theorists and philosophers tread with sublime assurance, women often follow with bleeding footsteps. Harriet Beecher, Stowe, The Minister’s Wooing In the middle of the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the...

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Chapter 2: “I Did Not Make Myself So . . .” : Samson Occom and American Religious Autobiography

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pp. 21-37

Christians are some times worse than the Savage Indians. Samson Occom In 1772, Samson Occom composed what LaVonne Ruoff calls the “first Indian best-seller”: an execution sermon before the hanging of his fellow Christian Mohegan, Moses Paul (62).¹ The most famous student of Eleazar Wheelock—a New England preacher turned Indian educator—Occom himself...

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Chapter 3: John Marrant, John Smith, Jesus: Borders, Tangles, and Knots in Marrant’s 1785 Narrative

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pp. 38-61

He crosses the fence, which marked the boundary between the wilderness and the cultivated country. William Aldridge, on John Marrant John Marrant’s 1785 autobiographical Narrative was one of the most popular eighteenth-century Indian captivity narratives—the best-selling early American genre that held readers captive for over a century, serving up an irresistible blend of...

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Chapter 4: Moses and the Egyptian: Religious Authority in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative

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pp. 62-84

Without any crime committed . . . without judge or jury . . . I could not by the law get any redress from a white person. Olaudah Equiano From the first image that greeted readers of his book, Olaudah Equiano presented the self of his 1789 autobiographical narrative as a pious Christian, one whose religious conversion meant a kind of freedom as significant as his manumission from slavery.

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Chapter 5: Gender, Christian Suffering, and the Minister’s Voice: Submission and Agency in Abigail Abbot Bailey’s Memoirs

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pp. 85-116

. . . sometimes those who pretend to be our best friends cruelly oppress. Abigail Bailey Abigail Abbott Bailey’s 1815 Memoirs recount years of brutal domestic abuse. Like the other narratives of suffering examined here, her account is embedded in interpretive attempts to determine the spiritual meaning of her experiences. Originally published after her death by her minister,...

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Chapter 6: Devotion and Dissent: Jarena Lee’s Rhetoric of Conversion and Call

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pp. 117-145

Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. 1 Timothy 2.11–12 Denied vision. Excluded, excluded, excluded from council, ritual, activity, learning, language. . . . Religion. When all believed . . . silence in holy places. Tillie Olsen, Silences Jarena Lee’s 1836 autobiography records parallel concerns: her earnest desire...

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Chapter 7: Finding a Way in the Forest: The Religious Discourse of Race and Justice in the Autobiographies of William Apess

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pp. 146-170

. . . this cruel and unnatural conduct was the effect of some cause. I attribute it in a great measure to the whites . . . William Apess Most of what is known about the work of William Apess comes from his own published autobiographical writing. A significant voice in the public conversation about Native American–white relations in the 1830s, Apess was...

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Chapter 8: Religious Imperatives, Democratic Voices, and Autobiographical Preoccupations

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pp. 171-186

Improve your privileges while they stay. Phillis Wheatley Arguably the most prominent eighteenth-century writer of color in early America, certainly the most conventionally “literary,” the poet Phillis Wheatley did not leave behind a prose narrative of her own life story. She documented her self-construction, nonetheless, in the many, presumably more formal and...


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pp. 187-200

Works Cited

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pp. 201-216

Index [Includes About the Author]

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pp. 217-231

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760857
E-ISBN-10: 161376085X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558496286
Print-ISBN-10: 1558496289

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 608952990
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Piety and Dissent

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Church history.
  • Church and minorities.
  • Social integration -- Religious aspects -- Christianity.
  • Christian biography.
  • Race relations -- Religious aspects -- Christianity
  • Sex role -- Religious aspects -- Christianity.
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