Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Native Americans and Christianity

I just finished reading Linford Fisher's book, The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America.

For the most part, this is a wonderful monograph with lots of great context on Native American culture in early America. I must say, however, that I had my doubts about the book early on when I read the introduction. Fisher mistakenly describes the Great Awakening as a series of revivals in America as well as the Caribbean, Britain, and Europe. Even though he cites Tommy Kidd's work, it is clear that Fisher does not understand that the Great Awakening was distinct to America, and that the Evangelical Revival is the proper term for revivals that took place in Britain. Further, I initially questioned one of Fisher's main arguments: that "affiliation" is a better term to describe Native Americans' conformity to Christianity during the 18th century (as opposed to "conversion"). Fisher concludes that because Native absorption of Christianity ebbed and flowed, peaking at the time of the Great Awakening in the 1740s and declining in the subsequent decades of the eighteenth century, that it is best to say that Indians "affiliated" with Christianity. That is to say, they took what they wanted from Christianity and discarded the other elements that they did not find useful. Since I initially doubted whether Fisher understood the Great Awakening, I wondered if Natives who later rejected Christianity were basically the same as white colonists who Edwards and other evangelicals described as losing their zeal after the fires of the revival began to cool.

Fisher, however, convinced me that the Native American outlook on religion is much different than the way that Europeans view faith-based matters. There seems to be a range of beliefs among various American Indians regarding Christianity--from the wholehearted embrace of Samson Occom to complete rejection. Complicating matters was the fact that the most sincere evangelicals often abused their relationships with Native communities by vying for land and, in the case of Eleazar Wheelock, using money earmarked for Indian missions to train elite white colonists of British origin. While I do not think that Fisher thoroughly analyzed the Native American experience of conversion (in contrast with white colonists at the time of the Great Awakening), he has provided enough data for scholars to rethink Native adoption of Christianity in light of the culture and traditions at that time.

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