Friday, March 1, 2013

Books on Books on Books (Pt. 1) - Linford Fisher, The Indian Great Awakening

It's been a busy past few months...between applying to PhD programs, teaching high school social studies, raising a beautiful little girl with my beautiful wife, and finishing up a research project (which is tentatively scheduled to be published in the summer 2013 edition of Nebraska History), I haven't had as much time to read as I'd like.  I have been able to sneak a couple books in, though, and I feel like writing about the good here we are, with me typing words onto a digital screen, and then hitting "publish," and then you, I guess, reading those words. First up:

Ever wanted to read a book about the 18th century Great Awakening, but you're tired of reading about George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, and every other white, English-speaking colonial preacher? Fisher's well-researched and well-documented book will get you away from your Eurocentrism for a moment. Fisher's basic arguments are twofold...first, more broadly, he analyzes religion as a lived experience (intertwined with the messiness of ordinary life, instead of a collection of abstract ideas) to argue that:
Native American engagement with Christianity was a contested, multigenerational process that had at its core an interest in education and was framed by concerns for the ongoing loss of land and a slowly eroding sense of cultural autonomy.
Second (and more specifically) he posits that it then follows that:
The Indian Great Awakening...was a logical but not inevitable result of three prior decades of renewed attempts of the English to evangelize their Native neighbors and the Indians’ increasing attempts to procure education, literacy, and acceptance into the larger Euroamerican colonial society.
In other words, the Great Awakening in 18th century colonial America (according to the Native American experience) was not a sudden and spontaneous outpouring of religious fervor. Instead, it was a movement that took advantage of the groundwork that had already been laid by Christian missionaries in the decades prior to the 1730s and 1740s, and ultimately resulted in:
...low levels of affiliations, short-lived institutional interest, and broader noninvolvement on the part of Natives...[but alsothe beginnings of a Native Christianity pursued and practiced by subsegments of the New England Native population
Even if Native Americans converts ultimately left the supervision of English missionaries (a fact much lamented by the English, who felt that the Indian Separates had fallen into sin), they still retained a distinct Christian identity.  Again, from Fisher:
Indian Separatism...was an explicit embrace of an indigenized version of reformed Protestantism and European-style cultural practices like individual property ownership and agricultural surplus production, not a rejection of Christianity and Euroamerican culture
In the process of his main arguments, Fisher deconstructs the typical notion of evangelical-style conversion. In Fisher's analysis, it is more accurate to note that Native Americans "affiliated" themselves with Christianity in varying ways and to varying degrees than to say that they "converted."  Here's his explanation:
Conversion often implies a unidirectional, total, complete, and usually permanent transformation from one religious 'state' of being to another, whereas affiliation is one element of religious engagement and reflects an elasticity in religious association as lived, which was often provisional and changeable.
He elaborates:
In adopting Christian practices, and even in making professions of Christian faith and receiving baptism, Indians did not 'commit cultural suicide, to cease to be an Indian.' Instead, Indian approaches to religion were incorporative, and Christian beliefs...could have been appended in provisional and incomplete ways, without intellectual or religious discomfort, no matter how foreign this possibility might have appeared to Euroamerican missionaries.
To simplify what Fisher's arguments (and the insightful vignettes dispersed throughout) show over and over and Christian "conversion" by Native Americans in New England in the 18th century was often more about a (rather lengthy and messy) process than about a (sudden and complete) moment. 

Allow me to end here by stepping far afield from the actual purpose of Fisher's book (which is, of course, to engage in historiographical analysis and debate) and suggest that thoughtful evangelicals today would do well to take heed to the details found within Fisher's description of missionary efforts in 18th-century New England. First, the obvious lesson: you shouldn't be racist and patronizing and duplicitous among the people and culture to whom you are seeking to preach the gospel, and you shouldn't conflate religious conversion with replication of one's national culture.

Second: what might seem like a total failure in terms of numbers may actually be an important step in clearing the ground for the advance of the gospel in subsequent generations. Fisher (inadvertently, to be sure) illustrates this point when he describes a supposedly groundbreaking moment in the spread of Christianity among the Narragansett people...that moment involved a pivotal meeting between the Narragansetts and an English missionary (held on February 6, 1743), that has been interpreted as a watershed moment for the acceptance of Christianity among the Narragansetts. But, Fisher points out:
"These same Narragansetts...had been cued for more than twenty years to the practices of reformed Protestantism, and the apparent embrace of Christianity by some of them cannot be understood apart from this prior exposure."
So that's nice. Just don't blow it all with petty infighting like this:
The Mashantucket Pequot sachem Charles Skuttaub over time had grown averse to any Religious Meetings simply because he was being pulled in four different directions...the Anglicans 'say they are Oldest and Rightest; I must come to them, the Presbyterians Say we are Right; you must come to us—The Separates Say we are certainly Right and all others are wrong, therefore you must be sure to come to us,...Now where shall I go?' asked Skuttaub. Quite simply, 'No where'—to no Euroamerican service at all