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Gods of War, Gods of Peace: How the Meeting of Native and Colonial Religions Shaped Early America


Gods of War, Gods of Peace: How the Meeting of Native and Colonial Religions Shaped Early America Cover




Chapter 1

THE Devilish Interaction OF Two Religions

President thomas jefferson, having recently hosted and grandly entertained a Seneca prophet in Washington, wrote to him in 1802 that he did, indeed, seem to have been "favored by the Divine spirit." Because Jefferson himself was a rationalist who felt little personal empathy for traditional religionists, it might seem out of character for him to salute a Native American leader in such words and to speak of divinity. But this was no obscure villager to whom Jefferson was writing and certainly no naive shaman; this was the dynamic and articulate Handsome Lake, who, fired by an intense sense of godly purpose, had spent the years after the American Revolution preaching moral reform among the Iroquois peoples. Appropriate and careful words were necessary.

The president, sincerely admiring Handsome Lake's teachings (if only because they stressed his own favorite theme: family farming), praised "the great reformation" that the prophet was undertaking. Yet what made this exchange between two notable Americans of the Republic's early years truly remarkable was the final phrase in Jefferson's letter. He wrote of Handsome Lake and his people, "You are our brethren of the same land, we wish you your prosperity as brethren should do. Farewell." It was as if the archbishops of two national churches in neighboring countries were nodding genially across a frontier at each other with enduring and mutual respect. How different American history would have been if that fraternal spirituality had actually conditioned the events of the centuries to follow. Congenial brethren of the same continent was not at all what Native Americans and Euro-Americans were destined to be. For neither colonial nor postcolonial Americans would ever extend sufficient respect to the religious beliefs of the Algonquian and Iroquois people whom they encountered on the early frontier-least of all any understanding that Native American religious concepts were evolving in a way closely related to the developments of their own frontier denominations. There was no doubt about one mutual factor among people on each side of the racial barrier: Their religions inspired them, consoled them, united them. Furthermore, in those very, very different American religions there was also a certain commonality: a belief in rituals, even in the imminent reappearance of a messiah, and certainly in men like Handsome Lake who were so charged with godly energy that they seemed nearly gods themselves. No wonder Jefferson felt moved to remark, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, how favored the Seneca prophet was by the "divine spirit."

No wonder, also, that Jefferson, even while focusing on a program of quite secular objectives for his nation, saw the usefulness of religion. Perhaps it would be better to say that Jefferson saw religion-and those who practiced it progressively, like Handsome Lake-as one of the most likely tools for advancement in the United States. In that same letter of November 3, 1802, he referred to the Seneca prophet as an "instrument of so happy a change," and forecast that, in recognition of the advances he had helped make, his "children's children, from generation to generation [would] repeat your name with love and gratitude forever." With what scorn Native Americans today (some of whom, among the Iroquois, remain devoted members of the church founded by Handsome Lake) recall Jefferson's prediction of eternal harmony resulting from cultural change.

Contact AND Conversion

Yet, for all its disappointments and complexities, for all its economic and political aspects, the cultural contact between Anglo-Americans and Native Americans in the past three centuries becomes most understandable when seen as an intrinsically religious encounter. That is the purpose of this book: to assist the reader in entering the time when gods and demons seemed to contend with each other, when prophets and apostles explained the disturbances of the cosmos, and when to be religious was normative. The book's clock starts ticking shortly before the hour in 1635 when the recently arrived Puritans of Massachusetts decreed that church attendance was compulsory for all citizens, under penalty of fines and imprisonment. Though the Puritans would soon become the lesser fraction of their colony's population, they would continue to set the philosophical tone.

It was in religious terms that the early Pilgrims and Puritans evaluated the anxious Algonquian who had greeted them-reaching the peculiar conclusion that the aborigines must be one of the lost tribes of Israel. Otherwise, how would they relate to the Bible, in which all was revealed? Additionally, it seemed probable to the Puritans that the Indians had been corrupted by the Devil, who now worked through them to frustrate the founding of the New Jerusalem.

There were, to be sure, a host of Pilgrims and several Puritans to whom the contacted Native Americans seemed worthy of respect and regard, particularly for their morality and their spiritual qualities. Plymouth's Governor Edward Winslow, for example, expressed admiration for the courage and integrity of the Wampanoag people's pnieses, religiously active warrior-counselors. Most outspoken of these open-minded English settlers was the renegade John Morton, known for his remark that the Algonquian of Massachusetts were "more full of humanity" than the stern-backed, parochial English who were then arriving by the shipful.

But it was Roger Williams, Separatist clergyman and founder of Rhode Island, who perceived most accurately the religious nature of his particular neighbors, the Narragansett. As portrayed in chapter 4, those haughty and populous Algonquian had remained untouched by either white men's plagues or other tribes' rivalries, protected they believed by their god Cautantowwit (or Kiehtan), whose ancestral home was thought to have been in the southwestern part of the continent. They welcomed Roger Williams among them, in part because of his natural respectfulness, in part because he proved to be a good trader of goods between them and the English settlements.

For Roger Williams's own purposes-which included gaining a greater sense of God's design by studying the natives and securing land for himself and his followers-he entered upon a methodical analysis of Narragansett religion and language. This occurred at a time when many of the Christians in the settler communities were responding to the New World's opportunities by becoming more interested in how to improve their lots than by how to save their souls. To such backsliders into moralistic individualism and to us in later years Williams wrote, "He that questions whether God made the world, the Indians will teach him."

Copyright © 2002 by Russell Bourne

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or

transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including

photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system,

without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should

be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,

6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.


Product Details

How the Meeting of Native and Colonial Religions Shaped Early America
Bourne, Russell
Mariner Books
New York
United states
Native American
United States - Colonial Period
United States Religion To 1800.
US History-Colonial America
Edition Number:
1st ed.
Edition Description:
Trade Cloth
Series Volume:
no. 00-4754
Publication Date:
April 4, 2002
One 8-page black-and-white photo insert
8 x 5.31 in

Related Subjects

History and Social Science » US History » Colonial America

Gods of War, Gods of Peace: How the Meeting of Native and Colonial Religions Shaped Early America
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Product details 448 pages Harcourt Brace and Company - English 9780151005017 Reviews:
"Review" by , "In Gods of War, Gods of Peace: How the Meeting of Native and Colonial Religions Shaped Early America, this former editor of American Heritage magazine offers a dense but accessible overview of the era's spiritual and cultural exchange. And, it turns out, that exchange was deep-seated, nuanced and kinetic." (read the entire Salon review)
"Review" by , "[A] persuasive voice evidencing prodigious knowledge of early American history....In general, the narrative is spun with a pleasingly light touch....Though sometimes obscured by war whoops and thick flights of arrows, a fascinating examination of what happens to religions when worlds collide."
"Review" by , "The book's strength is in Bourne's descriptions of the religious encounters from both perspectives....[O]ffers a highly readable and valuable depiction of the possibilities and tragic failures of early American history..."
"Review" by , "[A] dense but accessible overview of the era's spiritual and cultural exchange. And, it turns out, that exchange was deep-seated, nuanced and kinetic....Bourne doesn't fully succeed at sticking, um, religiously to the religious theme — you'll find tangents upon tangents — but his chronicle is transfixing, blasted with ironies and heartache, and colored with towering figures both known and (undeservedly) obscure....Bourne's strong suit is character development — people really come alive — but his weakness is a confusing grasp of chronology. Still, all that character development offers up fascinating pairings....The depth of Bourne's research and his ear for the right detail make his account of [John] Eliot's early sojourn both a delight to read and insightful history."
"Synopsis" by ,

"Synopsis" by , This moving portrait of two cultures--Native Americans and early European colonists--alters the understanding of early American history and deepens the knowledge of how people became Americans. 8 page photo insert.

"Synopsis" by ,
Through dramatic comparisons of Native American and early colonial politics, history, and religion, historian Russell Bourne offers a complete and insightful look at how these two disparate groups influenced each other and how this interchange helped forge the basis for the culture we live in today.

Despite living in a war-torn world, both sides made heroic efforts to reach out to each other. The religious and cultural concepts of the Native Americans helped to transform the colonists, turning many into pantheists, communal villagers, and woodland warriors. Similarly, many of the Native Americans became evangelical Christians, farmers, traders, and even commanders of nationalistic armies. Benjamin Franklin, marveling at the cooperation and mutual respect evident among the Six Nations of the Iroquois, suggested that colonial leaders should follow their lead. Yet, in the end, differences and treacheries drove the two peoples apart.

Based on extensive historical research and consultation with numerous Native American and academic sources, Gods of War, Gods of Peace offers a revelatory new view of how Native American and colonial religions shaped America and its ideals.

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