- Faithful Bodies: Performing Religion and Race in the Puritan Atlantic by Heather Miyano Kopelson
The concept of performance now seems indispensable to the study of early America. Introduced by Jay Fliegelman’s Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance (1993), performance took on Atlantic scope in Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996), and since then its consideration has offered new perspectives on oratory, rituals, and even the act of reading. One reason performance has been so appealing to literary scholars is that it enables them to offer readings and interpretations of a wide range of expressions beyond the written word. By viewing behavior as a performance, scholars have been able to apply the tools of literary or theatrical criticism to a broader range of sources. Archives and material cultures previously studied by historians or anthropologists have now come under the scrutiny of literary scholars, and disciplinary boundaries between literary studies [End Page 937] and history have once again blurred. Heather Miyano Kopelson’s Faithful Bodies: Performing Religion and Race in the Puritan Atlantic is a study of the relationship between religious behaviors and racial categories in several Puritan colonies. The book is explicitly a work of historical scholarship, but it will be interesting to a range of disciplines both for its detailed reconstruction of many different kinds of embodied experience and its intriguing use of performance to rethink religion and racial order in the Atlantic world.
The central argument of Faithful Bodies is that religious practices influenced the development of racial categories throughout the Puritan Atlantic. Previous studies on the early history of race have focused on the works of European writers or on colonial laws—indispensable sources certainly, especially given that modern categories of race have their origins in colonial ones. Yet Kopelson argues for a much more complicated history, in which it is difficult to disentangle race, religion, and gender in the drawing of boundaries around and within Puritan Atlantic communities. Kopelson sets out to understand how particular religious identities shaped the construction of race, and in turn how racial identities constituted the body of Christ, or the extended church of Reformed believers. For English Puritans, theories about bodies were linked by analogy to theories of civic and ecclesiastical organization. Seeming differences between English, Irish, Native American, and African bodies challenged evangelical aspirations that the body of Christ might include everyone. For example, while the English in Bermuda and New England initially understood Indian and African bodies as potentially forming part of the body of Christ, events such as King Philip’s War inspired racial explanations for cross-cultural violence and led to restrictive notions of church and community. Yet the effects of such changes were not even; Atlantic systems of labor and worship were only the background for many local variations and negotiations over race and faith in churches, courts, and the commercial sphere.
By focusing on bodies—the ways they worship and labor, the conditions under which they can and cannot reproduce, the punishments they undergo—Kopelson is able to draw persuasive connections between many different sites of racial and religious formation, ranging from the pearl diving performed by Indians and Africans off the coast of Bermuda to the punishments meted out for fornication a century later in North America. [End Page 938] The book is organized around bodily experiences, with eleven chapters ranged under the headings of “Defining,” “Performing,” and “Disciplining.” As the headings suggest, the chapters cluster around concepts. “Defining” treats religious beliefs, with chapters on Bermudian slave labor, Algonquian feasts and dances, and Puritan communal meals. “Performing” considers challenges to Puritan notions of race and religion, portraying the protests of an enslaved man in Massachusetts, Quaker dissent from Puritan notions of military masculinity, Catholic Irish persistence in Puritan colonies, and Praying Indian struggles to reconcile religion and familiar ways of life. The final part, “Disciplining,” is a series of chapters on punishments for sexual crimes in several English colonies. Sometimes Kopelson portrays bodies as active agents of religious...