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The Poor Indians

British Missionaries, Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibility

By Laura M. Stevens

Publication Year: 2006

Between the English Civil War of 1642 and the American Revolution, countless British missionaries announced their intention to "spread the gospel" among the native North American population. Despite the scope of their endeavors, they converted only a handful of American Indians to Christianity. Their attempts to secure moral and financial support at home proved much more successful.

In The Poor Indians, Laura Stevens delves deeply into the language and ideology British missionaries used to gain support, and she examines their wider cultural significance. Invoking pity and compassion for "the poor Indian"—a purely fictional construct—British missionaries used the Black Legend of cruelties perpetrated by Spanish conquistadors to contrast their own projects with those of Catholic missionaries, whose methods were often brutal and deceitful. They also tapped into a remarkably effective means of swaying British Christians by connecting the latter's feelings of religious superiority with moral obligation. Describing mission work through metaphors of commerce, missionaries asked their readers in England to invest, financially and emotionally, in the cultivation of Indian souls. As they saved Indians from afar, supporters renewed their own faith, strengthened the empire against the corrosive effects of paganism, and invested in British Christianity with philanthropic fervor.

The Poor Indians thus uncovers the importance of religious feeling and commercial metaphor in strengthening imperial identity and colonial ties, and it shows how missionary writings helped fashion British subjects who were self-consciously transatlantic and imperial because they were religious, sentimental, and actively charitable.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies


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Introduction: "The Common Bowels of Pity to the Miserable"

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pp. 1-33

In Daniel Defoe's Life and Strange and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe tells us that in his eighteenth year as a castaway he stumbled across the remnants of a cannibalistic feast. Repulsed by "this horrid Spectacle," he "gave God Thanks that had cast my first Lot in a Part of the World, where I was distinguish'd from such dreadful Creatures as these." He then spent several weeks plotting "how I might destroy some of these Monsters in their cruel bloody Entertainment." After ...

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1 Gold for Glass, Seeds to Fruit: Husbandry and Trade in Missionary Writings

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pp. 34-61

In July 1649, a few months after the execution of King Charles I, Parliament established the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England to subsidize the efforts of John Eliot, Thomas Mayhew, and other Puritan ministers to convert the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Massachusetts and Martha's Vineyard.1 By 1655, the society had received several thousand ...

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2 "I Have Received Your Christian and Very Loving Letter": Epistolarity and Transatlantic Community

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pp. 62-83

Early British missionary writings encompass an eclectic corpus of narratives, dictionaries, biographies, and journals, but one of the most prominent genres is the letter. The British hardly set precedent here, as the vast collection of letters making up The Jesuit Relations testifies. The earliest English effort at fund-raising for a mission in America was organized through letters from James I to the archbishops, and then from the archbishops to their church wardens, who raised money at the parish level.1...

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3 "The Reservoir of National Charity": The Role of the Missionary Society

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pp. 84-110

While the Anglo-Dutch collaboration envisioned by Jessey's Of the Conversion of Five Thousand was unusual when it was published in 1650, the inclusion of a Dutch readership in The Conquests and Triumphs of Grace marked a nascent internationalism of the late seventeenth century expressed through references to evangelical endeavor. Over the next three decades Increase and then Cotton Mather published letters to and from Dutch, Danish, and Prussian ministers....

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4 Indians, Deists, and the Anglican Quest for Compassion: The Sermons of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts

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pp. 111-137

Among British groups who attempted to convert Indians during the colonial period, the Church of England's Society for the Propagation of the Gospel was the least successful. A few Anglican ministers had preached to Indians since Alexander Whitaker's and George Thorpe's efforts in Jamestown before the massacre of 1622, and Morgan Godwyn, a minister of Barbados and Virginia, had published texts stressing the church's duty to convert Indians and African slaves, but the church otherwise...

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5 The Sacrifice of Self: Emotional Expenditure and Transatlantic Ties in Brainerd's and Sergeant's Biographies

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pp. 138-159

One of the ironies of early British missionary writings is that the priority of eliciting readers' pity for Indians and closeness with distant missionaries resulted in some erasure of the missionaries. This erasure is distinct from that of the Indians, who are vividly portrayed within the texts but who often are more present as stereotypes than as real people. Missionaries, on the other hand, are not portrayed...

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6 "Like Snow Against the Sun": The Christian Origins of the Vanishing Indian

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pp. 160-194

One of the most uncertain aspects of missionary writings was their influence. Clearly they intersected in important ways with the discourses of colonialism and sensibility, but did they actually shape how the British thought about and treated Indians? The donations these projects received indicate some influence, but it is not always clear that it reached beyond the religious networks that supported missionaries in the first place....

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pp. 195-202

By the second half of the eighteenth century British missionary writings exhibited a preoccupation with what had become a necessary task: explaining the failure of most efforts to convert Indians. From this anatomy of defeat a familiar catalog of blame emerged: writers in Britain accused colonists of alienating or corrupting Indians, and Nonconformists, especially in the...


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pp. 203-247


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pp. 249-259

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pp. 261-264

I cannot help thinking that many years of studying the circulation of affect in missionary writings should have left me better able to ex- press my gratitude to the institutions and people who have helped me write this book. I find myself unable to do more than compose the usual acknowledgments, however, and I hope the recipients will understand that ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812203080
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812219678

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: Early American Studies