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Native Americans, Conversion, and Christian Practice in Colonial New England, 1640—1730

  • Linford D. Fisher (a1)

Fortunately, the two travelers arrived before sunset. Earlier in the day, on 5 May 1674, John Eliot and Daniel Gookin had set out from Boston for Wamesit, the northernmost of the fourteen Indian “praying towns” within the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the one most subjected to retaliatory attacks from raiding bands of Mohawks in the previous few years. Upon safe arrival, the Englishmen greeted their Pennacook friends and gathered as many as they could at the wigwam of Wannalancet, the head sachem of Wamesit, where Eliot, the aging missionary to the Indians, proceeded to talk about the meaning of the parable of the marriage of the king's son in Matthew 22:1—4. Wannalancet, according to Gookin, was a “sober and grave person, and of years, between fifty and sixty”; he had from the beginning been “loving and friendly to the English,” and in return they had tried to encourage him to embrace Christianity. Although the English missionaries would have desired him to readily accept the gospel message they preached, Wannalancet voluntarily incorporated Christian practices slowly, over time, without necessarily repudiating his native culture and traditional religious practices.1 For four years Wannalancet “had been willing to hear the word of God preached”; when Eliot or other missionaries made their periodic visits to Wamesit, Wannalancet made sure he was there. Over time, Wannalancet adopted the English practices of keeping the Sabbath, learning to go to any available meeting or instruction, fellowshipping, and refraining from various activities proscribed by the town's praying leaders. Despite all that, however, the English missionaries still complained that he “hath stood off” since he had “not yielded up himself personally.”2

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1 Although it is easy to assume too quickly what missionaries in this period did and did not want from their Indian proselytes, the combination of Gookin's commentary on Wannalancet (he “hath stood off” and “not yielded himself up personally”) and Wannalancet's own interpretation of the Englishmen's activity and desires (that they “for four years … [did] exhort, press, and persuade us to pray to God”) provides ample evidence, it seems to me, that the missionary timetable was different than the one Wannalancet chose.

2 Daniel Gookin, Historical Collections of the Indians in New England (ed. Jeffrey H. Fiske; [n.p.]: Towtaid, 1970 [1674]) 75.

3 Ibid., 76.

4 Ibid., 74.

5 Ibid., 74.

6 Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975). James Axtell, The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650—1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

7 The major exception, of course, is Martha's Vineyard, where the Mayhew family has often been seen as the most tolerant and successful of the English missionaries. As part of Plymouth Colony until Massachusetts annexed it in 1691, Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard were under different colonial oversight and largely spared the devastation of King Philip's War. David Silverman's recent work is the best scholarship available for the Island Wampanoag during this time period. See especially David J. Silverman, Faith and Boundaries: Colonists, Christianity, and Community among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha's Vineyard, 1600—1871 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). An older but excellent study is by James P. Ronda, “Generations of Faith: The Christian Indians of Martha's Vineyard,” William and Mary Quarterly 38 (1981). Regarding “failure,” the longer the time frame under consideration for the historian, the more emphatic the pronouncements of failure become; microhistories of specific missions towns might display success, but ultimately they feed into the grand narrative of mission failure. What follows is just a sampling of stances regarding missions failure: William Kellaway takes the sentiments of Josiah Cotton, the son of missionary John Cotton, Jr., to be representative of eighteenth-century missionaries, writing, “Like many of those who preached to the Indians, he believed that little or nothing was being achieved in spite of their exertions.” William Kellaway, The New England Company, 1649-1776: Missionary Society to the American Indians ([London]: Longmans, 1961). Francis Jennings believed the missions to the Indians were a failure numerically, based on Daniel Gookin's estimate that out of 1,100 praying Indians, only 45 were baptized and 70 were in full communion. Jennings, The Invasion of America, 251. Jean Fittz Hankins's dissertation is a large-scale investigation into the self-pronounced failure of the missionaries from four major eighteenth-century missions efforts in New England and New York: the New England Company, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts [SPG], the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, and the Moravians. Jean Fittz Hankins, “Bringing the Good News: Protestant Missionaries to the Indians of New England and New York” (Ph.D. diss., University of Connecticut, 1993) 6. John Frederick Woolverton states of a SPG missionary to the Mohawk, William Andrews, “Like those before him and those who would come after him, Andrews, for all his courage and seriousness, failed.” John Frederick Woolverton, Colonial Anglicanism in North America (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984) 103.

8 “An Attestation by the United Ministers of Boston,” in Experience Mayhew, Indian Converts, or, Some Account of the Lives and Dying Speeches of a Considerable Number of the Christianized Indians of Martha's Vineyard, in New-England (London: 1727) xvii. Kristina Bross states that Eliot believed the “missions enterprise itself had been murdered” in King Philip's War. Kristina Bross, Dry Bones and Indian Sermons: Praying Indians in Colonial America (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004) 199. By many measures, however, neither the missionary program nor Indian churches suffered irreversible losses in King Philip's War. William Kellaway has pointed out that the postKing Philip's War Indian-language publications funded by the New England Company outnumbered those published prior to 1675. Kellaway, The New England Company, 147. Similarly, when Grindal Rawson and Samuel Danforth were sent to Indian communities around Massachusetts in 1698 to count the number of Indian churches and active participants, they reported that there were thirty congregations in Massachusetts, with thirty-seven Indian ministers or schoolmasters and seven or eight English ministers overseeing them. “Account of an Indian Visitation, A.D. 1698,” in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society 10 (Boston: Munroe, Francis, and Parker, 1809) 129—34.

9 David D. Hall, ed., Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997) viii.

10 Ibid., xi.

11 Robert Orsi, “Everyday Miracles: The Study of Lived Religion,” in Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice (ed. David D. Hall; Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997) 8.

12 Michael D. McNally, “The Practice of Native American Christianity,” Church History 69 (2000). See also David J. Silverman, “Indians, Missionaries, and Religious Translation: Creating Wampanoag Christianity in Seventeenth-Century Martha's Vineyard,” William and Mary Quarterly 62 (2005). Silverman, Faith and Boundaries. Rachel M. Wheeler, “Women and Christian Practice in a Mahican Village,” Religion and American Culture 13 (2003) 27—67. Christopher Bilodeau, “‘They Honor Our Lord among Themselves in Their Own Way': Colonial Christianity and the Illinois Indians,” American Indian Quarterly 25 (2001) 352—77.

13 See, for example, the two volumes edited by Kenneth Mills and Anthony Grafton on conversion throughout the history of Christianity. Kenneth Mills and Anthony Grafton, eds., Conversion in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Seeing and Believing (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2003). Kenneth Mills and Anthony Grafton, eds., Conversion: Old Worlds and New (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2003). Allan Greer's essay in the second of these volumes addresses these questions in the Native American context, specifically among the Mohawks. See Allan Greer, “Conversion and Identity,” in Conversion: Old Worlds and New. Other classic discussions of conversion among American Indians include: William S. Simmons, “Conversion from Indian to Puritan,” New England Quarterly 52 (1979) 197—218. James Axtell, “Were Indian Conversions Bona Fide?,” in After Columbus: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). More recent discussions include Charles L. Cohen, “Conversion among Puritans and Amerindians: A Theological and Cultural Perspective,” in Puritanism: Transatlantic Perspectives on a Seventeenth-Century Anglo-American Faith (ed. Francis Bremer; Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1993). Keely McCarthy, “Conversion, Identity, and the Indian Missionary,” Early American Literature (2001).

14 Kenneth Morrison challenges the ethnocentrism of historians with regard to the concepts of “religion” and “conversion” in Kenneth M. Morrison, The Solidarity of Kin: Ethnohistory, Religious Studies, and the Algonkian-French Religious Encounter (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002).

15 McNally, “The Practice of Native American Christianity,” 836—37.

16 “Introduction,” Mills and Grafton, eds., Conversion: Old Worlds and New, xi.

17 Neal Salisbury, “Embracing Ambiguity: Native Peoples and Christianity in Seventeenth-Century North America,” Ethnohistory 50 (2003) 247—59.

18 Morrison, The Solidarity of Kin, 161.

19 Jace Weaver calls the coexistence of Native and Christian practice “dimorphism,” and says it has long been a characteristic of Native religious practice. Jace Weaver, That the People Might Live: Native American Literatures and Native American Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) vii—viii. Reference taken from Wheeler, “Women and Christian Practice in a Mahican Village,” 48 n. 6. Lamin Sanneh is in favor of dropping words like “syncretism” and “hybridity” from the vocabulary of scholarship completely since they are terms of “otherness” intended to imply disapproval. Lamin O. Sanneh, Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003) 44.

20 Harold W. Van Lonkhuyzen helpfully raised some of these questions about the nature of conversion in his study of Christian Indians at Natick. See Harold W. Van Lonkhuyzen, “A Reappraisal of the Praying Indians: Acculturation, Conversion, and Identity at Natick, Massachusetts, 1646—1730,” The New England Quarterly 63 (1990).

21 William Hart, in his analysis of the Mohawk's response to the missionaries of the eighteenth-century Anglican missions society, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG; founded 1701), found that there was a range of responses to the missionaries's overtures, from outright rejection to full acceptance and everything in between. William Bryan Hart, “ ‘ For the Good of Our Souls': Mohawk Authority, Accommodation, and Resistance to Protestant Evangelism, 1700-1780” (Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1998) 36.

22 John Eliot and Thomas Mayhew, “Tears of Repentance,” in The Eliot Tracts (ed. Michael Clark; Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003) 269. Waban similarly described pre-missionary encounters with the English—all of which somewhat complicates the notion that no missionary activity took place in the Massachusetts Bay before the efforts of Thomas Mayhew and John Eliot. Waban recounts that “When the English came hither, they said, when I came to the English houses, that I loved the Devil: then I was very angry, and my words were, You know the Devil: I do not know the Devil, and presently I would go out of the house. Sometime they spake meekly to me, and would say, God is in heaven, and he is a good God: yet I regarded not these words, but strongly I loved my sins: it was hard for me to believe what the English said: after many yeares, I sometime[s] believed a word, but I left not my sin. When I began to understand more, I began to doubt, but I desired not Conversion from sin. Afterward, when the English taught me, I would sit still, because they would give me good victuals; then I sometimes thought, certainly God is in heaven.” Only after this does Waban mention his conversation with “Mr Jackson,” which occurred in October 1646 when Eliot and the rest first preached to Waban and his fellow Indians. The other encounters undoubtedly happened prior to these official missionary outreaches—years, if not many years before. John Eliot, “A Further Account of the Progress of the Gospel,” in The Eliot Tracts.

23 John Eliot, “The Day Breaking, If Not the Sun Rising,” in The Eliot Tracts, 85.

24 Eliot and Mayhew, “Tears of Repentance,” 284.

25 Eliot, “A Further Account of the Progress of the Gospel,” 365.

26 Mayhew, Indian Converts, 12.

27 Ibid., 278.

28 Ibid., 92.

29 Kathleen Joan Bragdon, “Native Christianity in Eighteenth Century Massachusetts: Ritual as Cultural Reaffirmation,” in New Dimensions in Ethnohistory: Papers of the Second Laurier Conference on Ethnohistory and Ethnology (ed. Barry Gough and Laird Christie; University of Western Ontario: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1983) 120.

30 Mayhew, Indian Converts, 278.

31 Ibid., 18.

32 Ibid., 92.

33 Ibid., 188.

34 Ibid., 199. Bayly's The Practice of Piety, first published in London in 1615, was the all-time Puritan bestseller on personal piety. It was the third work to be translated into the Massachusett language by Eliot, in 1665, after the Bible (trans. 1663) and Richard Baxter's Call to the Unconverted (trans. 1664). The New England Company wanted The Practice of Piety to be translated first, but Eliot preferred to work on the Baxter treatise. Kellaway, The New England Company, 135.

35 Ives Goddard and Kathleen Joan Bragdon, Native Writings in Massachusett (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1988) 380—83, 391, 414.

36 Ibid., 443, 449, 453, 465.

37 Ibid., 417, 423, 437, 453.

38 Ibid., 375, 423, 431, 437.

39 Gookin, Historical Collections, 69.

40 Eliot, “A Further Account of the Progress of the Gospel,” 361—63.

41 Mayhew, Indian Converts, 278.

42 Gookin, Historical Collections, 87. Francis Jennings has a helpful chart that summarizes Gookin's numbers. See Jennings, The Invasion of America, 251. In his introduction to the first published Indian conversion narratives, Eliot notes, “These Indians (the better and wiser sort of them) have for some years inquired after Church-Estate, Baptism, and the rest of the Ordinances of God, in the observation whereof they see the Godly English walk.” The implication is that only “the better and wiser” (i.e., only a few) of the Indians sought membership, and the rest did not. Eliot and Mayhew, “Tears of Repentance,” 268.

43 David Silverman has an even more expansive chart that includes Massachusett, Penacook/ Pawtucket, Nipmuc, and Wampanoag Christian Indian populations. See Silverman, Faith and Boundaries, 80.

44 Robert Pope has studied in detail the effects of the Halfway Covenant in seventeenth-century New England churches and concluded that in general, it did not represent “declension” at all; the churches were not inundated with “halfway” members, and the process of acceptance in the Massachusetts Bay was slow and long. Furthermore, the fact that the churches experienced growth of full members in the 1680s seems surprising given the lowering of standards supposedly represented by the possibility of “halfway members” in the 1662 Halfway Covenant. Pope's analysis, however, does not directly address the question of the proportion of church members to the total population of New England. Robert G. Pope, The Half-Way Covenant: Church Membership in Puritan New England (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969). For a similar argument against the Halfway Covenant as an indicator of declension, see Mark A. Peterson, The Price of Redemption: The Spiritual Economy of Puritan New England (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997).

45 Eliot, “A Further Account of the Progress of the Gospel,” 361—63.

46 For an excellent account of “popular” religious practices among the Wampanoag during this time period, see Douglas L. Winiarski, “Native American Popular Religion in New England's Old Colony, 1670—1770,” Religion and American Culture 15 (2005) 147—86.

47 Kellaway, The New England Company, 239.

48 Matthew Mayhew, A Brief Narrative of the Success Which the Gospel Hath Had, among the Indians, of Martha's-Vineyard (and the Places Adjacent) in New-England. (Boston: 1694) 13—15.

49 Ibid., 14.

50 Ibid., 15.

51 Ibid., 12—13.

52 David Silverman notes that “scholars of Christian Indians, particularly the so-called praying Indians of New England, have reached a consensus that the natives' religious institutions, rituals, and other behaviors included Christian traditional elements, often in syncretic form.” What is missing from much of the scholarship, as Silverman notes, is a nuanced understanding of the process through which this occurred. Silverman, “Indians, Missionaries, and Religious Translation,” 143.

53 James Axtell, “Preachers, Priests, and Pagans: Catholic and Protestant Missions in Colonial North America,” in New Dimensions in Ethnohistory: Papers of the Second Laurier Conference on Ethnohistory and Ethnology (ed. Barry Gough and Laird Christie; University of Western Ontario: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1983) 70.

54 Silverman, “Indians, Missionaries, and Religious Translation,” 166. Kiethtan was the “good” spirit, who balanced Cheepi, the “bad” spirit.

55 Richard W. Cogley, John Eliot's Mission to the Indians before King Philip's War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999) 244.

56 David J. Silverman, “The Church in New England Indian Community Life: A View from the Islands and Cape Cod,” in Reinterpreting New England Indians and the Colonial Experience (ed. Colin G. Calloway and Neal Salisbury; Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2003) 264—65.

57 Bragdon, “Native Christianity in Eighteenth Century Massachusetts,” 123.

58 Cogley, John Eliot's Mission, 243. Silverman, “Indians, Missionaries, and Religious Translation,” 145—47. Cohen, “Conversion among Puritans and Amerindians,” 250, 255. Kristina Bross and Charles Cohen both speak of the “learning” of Puritanism. Bross highlights the lapse in time between the first sermon to the Indians in 1646 and the first public conversion narrative in 1652, arguing that it took a while for the Indians to learn what exactly the genre of the conversion narrative was. Cohen points out that even after the Indians were familiarized with the genre of the conversion narrative, they still needed more time to perfect it, since many, if not all, of the conversion narrations first given by the Indians in 1652 were rejected as insufficient and the same candidates were brought forward again seven years later in 1659. Not all English men and women, let alone Indians, however, successfully mastered this particular practice. Bross, Dry Bones and Indian Sermons, 89—90. Cohen, “Conversion among Puritans and Amerindians,” 244, 250. See also Robert James Naeher, “Dialogue in the Wilderness: John Eliot and the Indian Exploration of Puritanism as a Source of Meaning, Comfort, and Ethnic Survival,” The New England Quarterly 62 (1989).

59 Kellaway, The New England Company, 274. Part of this was undoubtedly due to the fact that Edwards did not know enough of the Native languages to preach in the local dialect; he routinely preached in English and had an Indian serve as an interpreter. Rachel Wheeler has written at length about the degree to which missionary experience shaped Edwards, including much attention to writing more simplified sermons full of relevant metaphors about the love of Christ. Ironically, however, in comparing hundreds of sermons preached by Edwards at Stockbridge and Northampton, Wheeler does not see much de-emphasis of Calvinism. William Hart has also argued that plain and simple preaching was a racialized missionary strategy adopted by various agencies in the eighteenth century as ideas about the inherent dullness of Indians and blacks gained more currency, something Wheeler does not see evidenced in Edwards. Rachel M. Wheeler, “Living Upon Hope: Mahicans and Missionaries, 1730—1760” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1999) 134—35. William Bryan Hart, “‘Christianity Made Easy to the Meanest Capacity': S.P.G. Missionary Attitudes toward Eighteenth-Century Mohawk Cognition” (paper presented at the Tenth Annual Conference of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Northampton, Mass., June 2004).

60 Bragdon, “Native Christianity in Eighteenth Century Massachusetts,” 121.

61 Charles Cohen, Richard Cogley, and David Silverman argue against notions of vacuous Indian understandings of Christianity or even Reformed doctrine; Keely McCarthy and Kristina Bross argue for the need to allow for genuine belief in decisions to convert—McCarthy resists especially Axtell's political-motivation-for-conversion narrative. Cohen, “Conversion among Puritans and Amerindians.” Cogley, John Eliot's Mission. Silverman, Faith and Boundaries. McCarthy, “Conversion, Identity, and the Indian Missionary.” Bross, Dry Bones and Indian Sermons.

62 For a rich discussion of the use of ritual in Puritan religious life, see Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1982). See also David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989) esp. ch. 4, “The Uses of Ritual,” and the last half of ch. 5, “The Mental World of Samuel Sewall.”

63 Hall, Worlds of Wonder, 19.

64 Mayhew, A Brief Narrative, 12.

65 Hall, Worlds of Wonder, 176.

66 See, for example, David Underdown, Fire from Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992) ch. 4. See also Imogene Luxton, “The Reformation of Popular Culture,” in Church and Society in England (ed. Felicity Heal and Rosemary O'Day; London: Macmillan, 1977). Keith Wrightson and David Levine, Poverty and Piety in an English Village: Terling, 1525-1700 (New York: Academic Press, 1979).

67 Silverman, “Indians, Missionaries, and Religious Translation,” 164.

68 Mayhew, Indian Converts, 18.

69 Ibid., 98.

70 Ibid., 100.

71 Ibid., 91

72 Ibid., 188

73 Ibid., 187

74 Ibid., 179

75 Ibid., 180. There is an interesting gendered dimension here, too, one that parallels patterns in English society in the seventeenth century, where women were typically the ones who initiated church adherence, membership, and baptisms, primarily at particular moments of transition within the family, like childbirth, marriages, etc. See Anne S. Brown and David D. Hall, “Family Strategies and Religious Practice: Baptism and the Lord's Supper in Early New England,” in Lived Religion in America (ed. David D. Hall; Princeton, N.J.: Princeton, 1997) 55-56. Laurel Ulrich has also argued that women joined churches earlier and at a younger age than men (including their husbands) in part because “church membership was one of the few public distinctions available to women.” Laurel Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (1st ed.; New York, N.Y.: Knopf (distributed by Random House), 1982) 216.

76 William S. Simmons, Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore, 1620-1984 (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1986) 67. Lamin Sanneh has noted a similar phenomenon among twentieth-century post-colonial African tribes, namely, that Christianity helped them become “renewed Africans.” Sanneh, Whose Religion Is Christianity?, 43.

77 Daniel R. Mandell, Behind the Frontier: Indians in Eighteenth-Century Eastern Massachusetts (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996) 5, 49.

78 Silverman, “The Church in New England Indian Community Life,” 265-67.

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