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  • The Poor Indians: British Missionaries, Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibility
  • Phillip H. Round (bio)
The Poor Indians: British Missionaries, Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibility. Laura Stevens. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. 259 pp.

Among the many cryptic statements to be found in early American texts, two stand out as symptomatic of the problems readers face in trying to interpret just how Native peoples were viewed by the English and what it means for British cultural history. The first is Edward Winslow's famous aphoristic summation of the way the Plymouth Colony was funded and administered—and the way it went about its relations with Native communities. "Religion and profit jump together," Winslow said. The second appears a century later as the concluding statement to Samson Occom's manuscript Personal Narrative. "They have used me thus," Occom complains of the New England missionary society, "because I am a poor Indian." Worse still, Occom protests, "I did not make myself so."

Laura Stevens's fascinating study of the emergence of English Protestant missionary discourse during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries goes a long way toward clarifying what both men meant, explaining how such utterances made a good deal of sense in the colonial worlds each inhabited. The Poor Indians makes it clear that from the beginning profit and religion did indeed "jump together" in the North American British missionary enterprise and that "missionary writings often equated financial transactions with spiritual ones" (7). In the process, "an optimistic moral philosophy intertwined with a culture of sensibility" to found "a benevolent imperialist rhetoric" (33) that served as a "justification for colonialism" (43). Her book also shows that Occom was right. He had not made himself a "poor Indian." He had been cast in that role by more than a century [End Page 145] of missionary writings that strove to represent Native peoples in Britain's own sentimental image.

Stevens's study focuses on the period 1642–1776, when the English missionary movement in America was most influential and the majority of its texts were focused on North America. Defining missionary writing broadly—including not only "journals, letters, and reports . . . but also . . . sermons, letters, and genres usually marked as literary, written by people raising money for, or merely thinking about, missionary work" (22)—The Poor Indians traces the rise of several important early modern British cultural phenomena to the development of a "discourse of associated philanthropy" (83). The first, and most important to Stevens's work, is the "culture of sensibility," which most histories of the period date to around 1740. Stevens offers two important revisions of our previous understanding of British sensibility. Judging from the missionary texts, it began much earlier, and underwent significant refinement as it engaged both the relative "failure" of Indian missionization, and a contradictory, corresponding outpouring of sympathy for a "vanishing race."

Stevens also finds that missionary writings about American Indians also fostered the development of an imagined British national community. Missionary texts reveal "the complex discursive process by which the promoters of missions in America made readers in Britain care about distant projects" (12). Acting much like the newspapers, periodicals, and novels that have been put forward as central to "the civilizing process," missionary writings and the voluntary philanthropic organizations that promoted them "encourag[ed] readers to imagine themselves linked to others in collective act" (73).

British missionary texts also demonstrate that this imagined community was transatlantic, and Stevens's perspective is emphatically so. Missionary tracts, she argues, "evoked and peddled a transatlantic sense of togetherness" (14) and a "sense of transatlantic simultaneity" (66). Her study is especially good at backing up this claim in two chapters that deal with the predominance of tropes concerned with husbandry and trade in missionary writings, and the transatlantic epistolary modes these tracts modeled and the discursive circuits within which most of them circulated.

Two other chapters—" 'The Reservoir of National Charity': The Role of the Missionary Society," and "Indians, Deists, and the Anglican Quest for Compassion"—address issues more central to the metropolis. In "The [End Page 146] Reservoir of National Charity," Stevens makes a good case for viewing missionary societies as social clubs, purified by their efforts at transparency...


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