Christian and Indian in the American Colonies and Republic

27 Feb

As Steve Charleston, Choctaw Episcopalian, said in 1996, “I am an Indian. I am a Christian. Being both hasn’t always been easy.” (“The Old Testament of Native America,” in Native and Christian, ed. James Treat, p. 69.)

Apropos the difficulties of being Indian and Christian historically, Linford D. Fisher has a new book out focusing on the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries in southeastern New England: The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Richard A. Bailey, historian at Canisius College, offers a helpful review of Fisher’s study at Common-Place. The following paragraph from the review provides a sample of what we can learn from Fisher:

First, Fisher rightly insists that Native Americans experienced and engaged European religions as individuals. Gone from his narrative are stock Indian responses—positive or negative—to the various evangelistic efforts of Christian missionaries. As some previous scholars sought to reclaim the responses and actions of Native Americans, they often focused so much on certain well-known persons, such as the Wampanoag leader Metacom or the Mohegan minister Samson Occom, that these stories ended up representing, even if unintentionally, the reactions of most, if not all, other Indians. Fisher works diligently not to let that happen here. Instead, he concentrates on the varied responses of New England’s indigenous population. For example, he begins chapter 4 with the story of Irene Doit, who joined the North Stonington Congregational Church as a partial member in 1742 only to break off her affiliation with the church within the decade following accusations over an illegitimate birth that resulted possibly from her being raped. On another end of the spectrum, as Fisher demonstrates in chapter 5, some Natives like Samuel Niles and Samuel Ashpo opted to affiliate by separating from established congregations in their respective areas only to foster new assemblies of primarily Indian believers. Such a concentration on the range of Native responses, though, does not mean that Fisher necessarily doubts the credibility of the more traditional conversion experiences like those of Occom. But he refuses to interpret either Occom’s adoption of Protestant Christianity or, for that matter, Metacom’s rejection of the presence of these same Protestants as the model for all Native Americans. Perhaps the closest one gets to seeing a uniform Indian reaction is the realization that, as Fisher writes in chapter 2, from “the Natives’ perspective, contestation over land and ideas about religion were inextricably connected” 43. This contestation is illustrated time and again in The Indian Great Awakening throughout all four waves of English evangelism.

For the entire review, go here: Common-place: Review.

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