- Denominated “SAVAGE”: Methodism, Writing, and Identity in the Works of William Apess, A Pequot
In 1829, a thirty-one year old Pequot preacher named William Apess gained notoriety with the publication of his memoir. Titled A Son of the Forest, it was the first full-length autobiography published by a Native American. 1 Like African Americans, it was through the genre of autobiography that Indians effected their first significant interventions in Euro-American print culture. 2 As numerous critics have noted, this is paradoxical, as the production and publication of an autobiography assumes at least three conditions, none of which automatically apply to those on the margins of society: an appreciation of the importance of one’s experience; an interested, literate audience; and access to resources for printing and distribution. 3 This essay begins by asking how an impoverished Pequot could presume to publish his autobiography, let alone numerous caustic polemics against white racism. The answer is found in a place that may seem unlikely to many: Apess’s Methodism.
Apess’s work is admired today for the modern tone of its attack on the Puritans’ providential conception of history and the brand of racism that it sanctioned. But Apess was no anachronism; the upheavals of his day were the enabling condition of his voice. He wrote at the intersection of three highly-charged controversies of the 1820s and 1830s: Andrew Jackson’s plan to expel Indians from the southeast, immediatist-abolitionism, and the Second Great Awakening. Apess played on Euro-Americans’ temporarily heightened interest in Indians [End Page 653] to gain a hearing and broadened the appeal of his message further through the manipulation of abolitionist rhetoric, which some women of that period also used to assume a public voice. But if the general public would suffer a woman’s opinion of abolition, that of a Native still seemed impertinent. Even in the debate over the Indian Removal Act, Native voices were largely displaced by those of white missionaries and politicians. These rhetorics were crucial, but not quite sufficient, to make Apess’s claim to a voice before a Euro-American audience stick.
However, Apess’s life (1798–1839) also coincides roughly with the years of the great spiritual revival that transformed the American religious landscape. The dislocations of the market revolution had promoted a state of exceptional religious ferment, and the Methodists were at the forefront of a proliferation of sects that underwrote dissenting voices. It was by speaking and writing within the discourse of an existing Euro-American religious movement whose primary appeal was to lower-class youths like himself that Apess managed to articulate to a broad audience a critique of the dominant culture and a vindication of the indigenous one. Moreover, it was precisely his sectarian perspective that brought the role of the Puritan clergy in legitimating white domination over the continent into such sharp focus.
Apess’s sectarian analysis of the Puritan practice of Indian-white relations points to the fusion of his racial and sectarian identities. This essay argues that Methodism was, in fact, crucial to his self-conception as a Pequot. Apess’s personal identity was fashioned during the years of fiercest combat between rival denominations in New England. Defining itself as a religion of outsiders pitted against a reprobate elite, early Methodism’s delegitmation of the hierarchies that structured New England life validated Apess’s class and racial identities simultaneously. His association of Methodist and Indian was further reinforced by the relative success of Methodist Indian missions and his experiences in New England Native communities where evangelical Christianity served as a resource for revitalization, as it did among African Americans and poor whites. During the nineteenth century, as larger numbers of Indians moved off their reservations into the dominant culture, they shared with increasingly disaffected whites and blacks a quotidian existence as wage laborers, servants, and whalers. Methodism, like Baptism and other “enthusiastic” varieties of Christianity, articulated [End Page 654] the grievances they all shared against the classes responsible for their situation and promoted understanding across racial lines.
Although revivalism did gain a large following among the middle class as a result of its effectiveness in cultivating...