Native Americans and the Colonists in the Great Awakening – By Michael Guéno

Michael Guéno on Linford D. Fisher’s The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America

indian great awakening
Linford D. Fisher, The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 308 pp., $34.95

For some time now historians have challenged inherited depictions of North America’s religious history, critiquing the Protestant-oriented narratives that dominated previous generations of scholarship. Native Americans, Catholics, Jews, and Mormons (among many other groups) may have appeared in some of these earlier histories, but they remained distinctly on the margins, mere footnotes in a larger story that highlighted key turning points in the religious experiences of American Protestants. As scholars seek to reimagine America’s religious past, they increasingly bring a new set of questions to the table: How did non-Protestants negotiate their religious identities and ritual practices in an often-hostile environment? What types of limitations curtailed Protestants’ reach and influence? How might key moments in American religious history look different if viewed from the perspective of non-Protestants?

Linford Fisher’s The Indian Great Awakening offers a polished example of the tectonic shifts in the historiography of American religion that new insights have made possible. His work moves beyond the stories told by generations of Protestant historians and successfully incorporates the voices of a consistently marginalized Native American community.  He chronicles the lived experiences and colonial negotiations of Native Americans in southern New England from the early seventeenth century through the 1820s, illuminating the dynamic engagement of Native Americans with Christian and European cultural elements. Paying special attention to the wide spectrum of Native responses, Fisher highlights the nuanced ways Native American individuals and communities adapted Christian practices and employed transatlantic political structures to safeguard their lands, realize promises of education for their children, and make a place for themselves within white churches.

Previous portrayals of the Indian inhabitants of Connecticut, Rhode Island, western Massachusetts, and Long Island in the wake of King Philip’s War (1675-1678) tend to depict the dissolution of passively resigned Native American communities before the advance of a hegemonic culture. In contrast, Fisher directly challenges scholarship on Native Americans that either excludes them from the story of Protestant revivalism during the colonial era or diminishes the significance of religion in the cultural negotiations of that same time period.

In order to probe the experience of his Native American subjects, Fisher delves into a variety of documents penned by or expressing the words of the Natives themselves — from letters and journals to petitions and wills, from hymns and essays to sermons and autobiographies. Most laudably, Fisher deftly and coherently integrates oral traditions from personal interviews, original analysis of material objects, and anthropological data and scholarship to produce an ethnographically sensitive and theoretically sophisticated work. The resulting depiction of Native American religious affiliation offers what can only be described as a mature depiction of Native religious experiences.

Fisher pays considerable attention to the relationship between Native Americans and a series of revivals, commonly referred to as the Great Awakening, that broke out among Protestants in the mid-eighteenth century. The Great Awakening was not an isolated event responsible for the inculcation of Christianity within Native communities of New England, as it is commonly portrayed. Rather, Fisher shows that the relatively short-lived Indian Great Awakening is best understood in relation to the much longer history of educational engagements, cyclical evangelical efforts, unending transitions, and provisional religious repositioning that characterized Native peoples’ engagement with Christians during the eighteenth century.

By situating the Great Awakening within the broader context of Native Americans’ contestations for cultural autonomy and their concerns regarding land loss, Fisher reveals the revivals to be one moment in a prolonged, provisional engagement of Native peoples with Christian and colonial worlds. He also challenges prevailing cultural ideals of conversion that are deeply entrenched in the descendant historiographical tradition. These standard narratives of conversion typically begin with a sufficiently powerful religious experience that produces the utter rejection of one religion, worldview, or lifeway, which in turn opens the door for an individual’s complete acceptance of another religious tradition.

Native American conversions were often generated not by powerful religious experiences but by practical considerations.

In sharp contrast to inherited models of conversion, Fisher avers that Native modes of religious engagement were more tentative, ambiguous, and multivalent than the traditional narrative ideal of religious conversion suggests. Rather, Native peoples established contested relationships with Christianity that tended to reflect highly practical assessments of their communal and religious needs. In the early decades of the eighteenth century, for instance, Fisher describes the way in which Native interest in Christianity was heightened by the promise of education for Indian children and the material benefits of affiliation. By the 1730s and 1740s, the religiosity of the Great Awakening likewise presented Natives with an apparently new form of Christianity that promised egalitarianism and opportunities for integration into local congregations.

Throughout the text, Fisher chronicles the wide spectrum of Native American responses to Protestant evangelism, which ranged from resistance and indifference to personal conviction. Further complicating the picture, those who chose to affiliate with Christianity often modulated their levels of affiliation throughout their lives. Some disaffiliated for a time or joined the emergent network of Christian Indian Separate churches maintained by less regulated Indian ministers. (Unlike other, more historiographically prominent pan-tribal movements in the eighteenth century, Indian Separatism placed a high value on indigenized elements of Christianity and Euroamerican culture.) When a third wave of evangelism and educational efforts took shape in southern New England during the decades following the Indian Great Awakening, Natives once again asserted their autonomy, to varying degrees of success, by voicing preference for local reservation schools and Indian teachers.

Illustration by H.J. Ford for Andrew Lang's The Strange Story Book, 1913. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration by H.J. Ford for Andrew Lang’s The Strange Story Book, 1913. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Fisher skillfully retells the story of the Great Awakening and of colonial history more generally from the perspective of Native American communities. In the process, he brilliantly demonstrates religion’s central role as the medium for cultural engagement between the Native and Euroamerican colonists of southern New England. And he illuminates Native American worldviews that were so entwined with Native cultures “that two hundred years of colonization could only reshape, not obliterate, their communities and cultures, as is evidenced by the religious and cultural diversity and the vitality exhibited by these same Native groups today.”

The history of religious engagement and the spectrum of religious responses presented in The Indian Great Awakening suggest a way to explore Native American perseverance and actions during a period of American history where Indian actors have largely been omitted. Fisher offers evidence of Native presence and elucidates public contestations over Native rights and religions, highlighting the exclusion of Native Americans from earlier national histories. It is my hope that his re-engagement with the history of the Great Awakening from the perspective of Native Americans will serve as an inspiring model and challenge other contemporary scholars to address similar oversights in the historical record.