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Empirical Desire: Conversion, Ethnography, and the New Science of the Praying Indian
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Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4.1 (2006) 16-45

Conversion, Ethnography, and the New Science of the Praying Indian

Sarah Rivett

Washington University in St. Louis

In a 1670 letter to Royal Society President Robert Boyle, Puritan missionary John Eliot describes the "rare work of God" that has recently taken place "in Watertown," where Indians learned a particular "root" that allows them to "read" spiritual phenomena not discernable to the English. Eliot asks for money to recompense those Indians who are able to "bring in a desirable experiment" that would explain the work of God in nature. By the time Eliot made this proposal to Boyle, such experiments were part of the Royal Society's mission "to study Nature rather than Books, and from the Observations made of the phenomena and effects she presents to compose a history of her." Colonial America supplied the Royal Society with material to fulfill this objective, including "accounts of our aboriginal Natives and their customs" and boxes of curiosities that contained "quivers made of an Indian Dogskin" and "arrows headed according to the Indian manner." Eliot's letter participates in this transatlantic exchange by demonstrating the kinds of experiments that were uniquely possible in the New World context, but it also constructs the Praying Indian as an object of ethnological inquiry with peculiar powers of spiritual discernment.

From New England's First Fruits (1643) to A Brief Narrative of the Progress of the Gospel (1671), eleven pamphlets now referred to as the "Eliot tracts" were printed in London as evidence of the "light of grace" among the Pequot, Wampanoag, Mashpee, and Massachusett Indians of southern New England, Massachusetts, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard. Spanning the formative decades of England's "scientific revolution," these tracts inaugurate an effort to catalogue the soul alongside curiosities and natural taxonomies. Through the attempt to translate the evidence of grace produced within the testimonial moment to a scientific text, the tracts record both an inquiry into how grace works upon a non-English soul and the figure of the Praying Indian as a "curiosity" potentially worthy of scientific inquiry. The extended relationship between Eliot and Boyle, who would become both president of the Royal Society and the New England Company's mission to the Indians in 1662, was not merely a philanthropic arrangement. This empirical investigation into the effects of grace upon an Indian soul marks a historical conjuncture between Puritan religion and natural science. Boyle's notes and essays, Eliot's published tracts, and the correspondence between the two demonstrate an emergent theory of Indian testimony as an object of ethnographic inquiry and a resource for knowledge about the divine as well as the natural world. The testimonies of faith spoken and recorded in Praying Towns mark the implementation of the new science through techniques of observation, witnessing, and record-keeping practiced on Native American worshippers. Through such techniques, Eliot, Thomas Mayhew, Thomas Shepard, Henry Whitfield, and the other authorial collaborators of the tracts transformed Indian testimony into communal knowledge for an audience of theologians and natural philosophers struck by the "curiosity" of the phenomenon of grace among the Indians.

The epistemological and political continuities between the New England Company and the Royal Society have not received much critical attention. Nor has Talal Asad's question, "what kind of epistemic structures emerged from the evangelical encounter?" been fully addressed for colonial America. Early Americanist scholarship on Native American literature has focused largely on a project of revising an archive that contains only a paltry sampling of Native American voices, filtered through a Eurocentric ear. Myra Jehlen's theory of locating agency in "semidigested, discordant pieces of reporting" as well as the anthropological work of John and Jean Comaroff and Margaret Jolly offer methods for this revisionist project by investigating a spectrum of colonial encounters as potential sites for tracing the subaltern's voice or agency. Scholars from Stephen Greenblatt to Hillary Wyss identify moments of subversion in colonial texts as records "of the experience and world view of the Native Americans." As important as such efforts have been, it is equally important to consider that we, not unlike Eliot and his cohorts, introduce to these texts...

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