The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America
Linford D. Fisher
Oxford University Press, 2012
312 pp., $36.95
Thomas S. Kidd
The Indian Great Awakening
In 1990, archaeologists unearthed the grave of an eleven-year-old Pequot girl who died around 1700. Accompanying her remains were two objects of ceremonial value: a bear paw, and a page fragment from a King James Bible, which contained a verse from Psalm 98: "The LORD hath made known his salvation: his righteousness hath he openly showed in the sight of the heathen." To historian Linford Fisher, the funereal juxtaposition of a traditional Native American talisman and a piece of Old Testament poetry illustrates the complex religious world of Native Americans in 18th-century New England.
Fisher's brilliant Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America seeks to change our understanding of Native American religious experience in the era of the Great Awakening, which historians have usually portrayed through stories of Christian leaders such as Samson Occom, the most influential Native American pastor of the 18th century. Occom testified that he was "brought up in heathenism" among the Mohegans of Connecticut, with virtually no knowledge of Christianity, until he experienced a thoroughgoing conversion during the Great Awakening.
Fisher does not question Occom's experience, but he thinks it was atypical. Instead, Fisher argues that we would better describe most Native American "conversions" as "engagement" or "affiliation" with Christianity, emphasizing pragmatism and contingency rather than total spiritual (or cultural) transformation. Some Indians tried the colonists' faith and found it wanting, while others paired the Bible and the bear claw, as it were. Questions of belief were inextricable from those of land, education, and autonomy.
Some readers may balk at what, at times, seems like a skeptical approach to Native Americans' Christianity. Many 18th-century Indian converts did maintain sincere faith, even in the face of unfair and oppressive treatment by white colonists. But I also suspect that a number of evangelical readers—especially those who have worked in cross-cultural environments—would resonate with the notion that conversion is often more complex than a missionary might wish.
Thomas S. Kidd is professor of history and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University, and the author most recently of Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots.
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