- Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape
Native Americans, Missionaries, Christianity
The story of Native Americans and Christianity has come a long way since the days when words like conquest and invasion dominated the literature. Recently, scholars have argued that this narrative is overly simplistic. Native peoples had complicated reactions to Christianity and missionaries, and most used faith for their own purposes.
This effort to move beyond binary understandings is at the heart of this new collection of essays. The editors, Joel Martin and Mark Nicholas, have assembled a wide-ranging selection of pieces from historians, [End Page 729] anthropologists, ethnographers, and literary theorists. Their aim is to include essays looking at the myriad ways and places Native Americans interacted with missionaries. These exchanges occurred in person and in print for opposing and converging reasons. What is clear from these essays is how recent scholarly developments, especially in literary theory, have enabled scholars to reconsider natives' engagement with Christianity.
The editors have placed the pieces into four sections: Negotiating Conversion, Practicing Religion, Circulating Texts, and Creating Communities. The editors correctly note the placement of some essays is arbitrary, as many could have appeared in other parts of the collection because of the interdisciplinary qualities. This categorization accomplishes the encapsulation of recent historiographical trends and places essays in conversation with one another.
"Negotiating Conversion" refers to the ways Native Christians were autonomous religious brokers. They appropriated chosen Christian beliefs and practices, and what missionaries thought was a complete religious transformation was anything but; Natives adopted and modified Christianity within their own religious imaginations. Joanna Brooks shows how Calvinism shaped the way Samson Occom processed physical and spiritual traumas in the late eighteenth century. In response, he invented new rituals of confession and forgiveness, combining Reformed understandings of sin with Native rituals. Similarly, Daniel Mandell and Joel Martin tease out how Natives and European missionaries modified religious teachings to meet native spiritual exigencies. Mandell describes Frederick Baylies, a minister for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and how his evangelical preaching resonated with declining southern New England Native communities. This emotional sensibility gave indigenous peoples a language to rebuild their community institutions and to push for reforms. David Brown, a Cherokee convert, performs a similar function in Martin's essay. Brown went on a national speaking tour to enlist missionaries and the non-Native public to defend the rights of Cherokees. Martin highlights how Brown used Christian tropes to invert American notions of Natives as savage and ungodly. Brown forced his listeners to consider the consequences of European violence on indigenous communities. Thus, conversion worked multiple ways: Brown adopted the language of Christianity, and his listeners converted to the preservation of Cherokees.
The editors have also collected a number of essays concerned with [End Page 730] religious practice. These authors use material objects, folk beliefs, and narrative accounts to detail popular forms of Native Christianity. Tracy Leavelle describes how a Christian Illinois community appropriated red rosaries in an amalgamation of Christian and Native practices to challenge the myriad attacks they faced. Douglas Winiarski also highlights how an Indianized Christianity promoted stability in Wampanoag communities. What is interesting for him are not the differences between Native and provincial religious imaginations, but how both groups inhabited a fluid, spiritual world. Through an analysis of Wampanoag preaching, Winiarski suggests that these folk beliefs interacted with one another. While Winiarski underscores similarities, Emma Anderson looks at how three groups narrated a single event—the death of Jean de Brebeuf—in different ways. Each group—French Catholics, the Haudenosaunee, and ex-Christian, ex-Wendats—understood the death in contrasting ways because of their diverse spiritual histories and differing purposes.
Anderson and Leavelle's essays focus on how Native Americans, missionaries, and Christianity interacted in print. Likewise, the third section of essays includes several works responding to the expanding field of print culture. One of the main concerns of this literature is how...