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  • Conversion, Identity, and the Indian Missionary
  • Keely McCarthy (bio)

Narratives recounting the efforts to convert Indians were ubiquitous in the eighteenth century.1 Missionary tracts, as Hilary Wyss terms such texts, were published by missionary societies, such as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, by churches, and by missionaries themselves, and they appeared as journals, letters, memos, and essays. They often recounted the difficulties involved in missions, speculated about missionary method, and looked hopefully toward the conversion of the "heathen." Indians, the objects of these proselytizing efforts, were not silent while missionaries attempted to convert them or while the debate over the social and legal status of Christian and non-Christian Indians raged in British America. Numerous Indians spoke out against conversion, and Indian resistance was the major barrier to Protestant missionary work.2 But some Indians responded by embracing rather than rejecting Christianity, and a number even became missionaries, some officially ordained, others practicing as lay preachers.3 As Harold W. Van Lonkhuyzen has observed, scholarship on Indian conversion still largely assumes that such conversions were forced (397). The figure of the Indian missionary, however, helps us to look at conversion from the perspective of the convert and to see conversion as more than a tool of assimilation. It forces us to grapple with the category of belief, as Gauri Viswanathan calls for in Outside the Fold. While the scant written records from Indian converts offer no definitive statement of belief, by looking at the figure of the Indian missionary, we can approach a better understanding of the role converts played in altering the religion they adopted, and we can better understand the competing desires within colonialism that would lead an Indian to choose the religion of the colonizer in the first place. The life and writings of the Reverend Samson Occom (1723–1792), New England missionary and teacher, Mohegan leader, and author, provide such an opportunity. [End Page 353]

Occom's white contemporaries were proud of his accomplishments as a Christian preacher but were uneasy with his Indianness. The terms they used to describe Occom—"Pious Mohegan," "Indian preacher," "Red Christian," and "Praying Indian"—reveal the tensions between his two identities. On one hand, eighteenth-century British Americans found it unusual for an Indian to be pious, so the sometimes-mocking titles separate Occom from his Indian brethren. On the other hand, the names separate Occom from his Christian brethren—he could convert to Christianity, but in the eyes of whites he would always remain Indian. In either case, the titles reveal the prejudice Indians faced even when they tried to work within colonial systems. Moreover, they reflect the uncertainty whites felt over Indian conversion. In the seventeenth century, missionaries were generally optimistic about Indian conversion and assimilation. While there were abundant theories about the nature and cause of differences between Indians and Europeans, missionaries felt that "savagery was . . . a temporary condition," one that could be easily "overcome" with education and conversion to Christianity (Cheyfitz 114). Countless failed missions, Indian/colonist wars, and political propaganda that demonized Indians in order to promote land grabs and support military action against Indians led British Americans of the next century to see assimilation as a failure and even an impossibility. To many British Americans of the eighteenth century, differences between Indians and Europeans seemed insurmountable. This perceived gap in the fundamental nature of Indians and Europeans conflicted with missionary teachings about the universality of God's message, as well as with a Protestant missionary tradition that held that religious conversion was complete only if it was accompanied by cultural transformation (assimilation); in other words, if assimilation was impossible, so was true conversion. Eventually, even a converted Indian like the "Pious Mohegan" was seen as unable to be fully within Christianity. Occom's works, particularly "A Short Narrative of My Life," expose this trend toward racialization, countering it by privileging the dual identities of the Christian Indian. Occom demonstrates that there need be no contradiction between his Christian and Indian identities. In so doing, he rejects dominant British-American notions that there were necessary links between race and culture and between culture and religion.

Even as assimilation was called into...


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