- Experience Mayhew's "Indian Converts": A Cultural Edition
Among the large body of missionary texts documenting the conversion of Native North American peoples during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Experience Mayhew's Indian Converts (1727) is unique for its attention to the individual lives of Wampanoag people on Martha's Vineyard and for the long history of interaction between the Mayhew family and the Indigenous people they sought to convert. Fluent in the Algonquian language Wôpanâak, Mayhew spent his life, like three generations of his family before him, preaching to the Wampanoag community on the island. His book offers the greatest detail of any written about an Algonquian community during the period, and, given the recent scholarly interest in the literature produced around the efforts to Christianize Native people in North America, Laura Arnold Leibman's edition of this significant book is a timely one.
In her insightful introduction Leibman provides the context to make this the "cultural edition" promised in the title. Her primary focus is to show how Indian Converts reflects two theological shifts in colonial New England, first among the English in the form of the changes in Puritanism leading up to the first Great Awakening, and second among the Wampanoag, who experienced a rapidly changing cultural and religious landscape. In her section on the changing face of Puritanism Leibman notes that during Experience Mayhew's life the Calvinist hegemony of his ancestors was on the wane. Mayhew himself was a "Regular Light," finding a middle ground between the conservative "Old Lights" and the [End Page 118] enthusiastic "New Lights" in the debates surrounding eighteenth-century millenarianism. This more moderate position is reflected in Indian Converts, which, as Leibman asserts repeatedly, combines "orthodoxy and innovation" through its conservative theology, on the one hand, and its innovative approach to Indian biography, on the other (3-4). In addition to important historical information on the Mayhews, who dominated island life beginning in 1641, when Thomas Mayhew acquired Martha's Vineyard, Leibman provides a productive strategy for reading the text not simply as propaganda for missionary efforts but rather as a more nuanced history that incorporates elements of Wampanoag memorates, or oral accounts of personal encounters with the supernatural, alongside Puritan conversion narratives.
While Leibman acknowledges early on that this text was printed in London and intended for a largely British audience, the reasons why a text like this would be printed in Britain and how it was received are missing from the broader contextual materials. The transatlantic nature of this book and the ways in which it participates in the broader affective community described by Laura Stevens in The Poor Indians: British Missionaries, Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibility are not considered in Leibman's introduction, and this somewhat effaces the way in which this and other missionary writings participated in the emerging discourse of "benevolent" British colonialism.
A greater part of the introductory material is devoted to discussing the circumstances of the Wampanoag and their "alternative paths to modernity" (27). Leibman discusses the specific appeal of Calvinism to a people decimated by disease and facing drastic societal changes, including economic changes, shifting political structures, a more restrictive role for women and children, and the introduction of literacy. She notes that while the later popularity of sects such as the Baptists among the Wampanoag and other Native nations has been attributed to the similarities between Native spiritual practices and those of the enthusiastic revivalists, Calvinism's appeal rested in its profound difference from traditional beliefs. Through Calvinist values, such as the asceticism of daily life and subordination and obedience to patriarchal authority, many Wampanoag were able to make sense of their changing circumstances and enter into the colonial political structures imposed upon them. Of course, not all chose to become Puritans, or "Saints" as they were known by the white people, and Leibman describes the other major religious groups on the island, namely, Traditionalists, Baptists, and those without a religious group, whom she calls "Goats" in reference to the...