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Gods of War, Gods of Peace: How the Meeting of Native and Colonial Religions Shaped Early Americaby Russell Bourne
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
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