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A Dynamic Account of Religion's Central Role in American History
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“I’m tired of all these pilgrims, these puritans, these thieves.” So sings the pop artist Jewel on her compact disc Spirit. It is a fatigue that historians of American religion know well, finding it not just among their students but also among themselves. Long gone are the days when New England Puritanism stood as the dominant emblem of America’s religious past, let alone its present. Stories of Pilgrim landings and first Thanksgivings now leave a syrupy taste, while any reexamination of witchcraft crises, religious persecutions, and Indian slaughters only replaces the yawn of those grown tired of Pilgrims and Puritans with a look of horror and disgust.
Plymouth Rock itself now seems not so much a relic of holiness—the consecrated place on which the Pilgrim forefathers landed, the great ancestral altar of liberty—as a quaint artifact, a tourist curiosity, perhaps more befitting a minivan side trip (the Plymouth Voyager) than the Mayflower Compact. Long fenced in to protect it from being chipped away by souvenir seekers, Plymouth Rock sits now as a half-hallowed shrine that bears witness to the very invention and historical malleability of these Pilgrim forefathers. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, much of the magical power of the rock came from the desire of many Americans to identify themselves closely with these Pilgrims and Puritans, to cherish them in all their piety and courage as the forefathers of the nation. “Standing on this rock,” as one lover of the Pilgrims wrote in 1832, ushers “us into the presence of our fathers.” But, what happens now in the twenty-first century when so many have grown weary of Pilgrims and Puritans, when so many find Anglo-American relations with Indians to be thievish or worse, when so few in this polyglot and multiracial nation identify with them as fathers, let alone as mothers? Where should a religious history of America begin when the old New England stories of origin now seem so contrived, so narrow, so political?
Stories told about historical beginnings remain especially significant, and it is important to recognize at the outset that there are multiple birth narratives in American religious history, just as there are for the making of the nation as a political entity. Many of these stories, though certainly not all, will be found in these pages. Among them, for example, is the prominence of Alaska as the eighteenth-century birthplace of Russian Orthodox Christianity in America. As one twentieth-century Orthodox Christian recalled, “Alaska is for Orthodox Christians the oldest part of Orthodox America and the source of their spiritual roots in this land.” Other groups tell other stories of their religious roots in America—the organization of the first Jewish synagogue in 1729 in New York City; the formation of the first independent African church in the early 1770s, a Baptist congregation in Silver Bluff, South Carolina; or the emergence of the Christian restorationist movement in 1801 out of a giant revival meeting at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, a location recurrently celebrated as “the birthplace of a faith.” Then there are Roman Catholic claims about American beginnings, many of which center on St. Augustine, Florida, settled already with Spanish adventurers and Catholic missionaries in 1565. “St. Augustine was founded forty-two years before the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, and fifty-five years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts,” boasted a recent partisan, “making it the oldest permanent European settlement on the North American continent.”
There is no such thing as immunity from the past, William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun in 1950. “There’s no such thing as past either. . . . The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The contentiousness and solemnity that so often surround American stories of religious beginnings show just how apt were Faulkner’s observations. This religious history opens with Native American, Spanish, and French stories before turning to English colonization, but those beginnings are, in turn, nested within other beginnings that emerge all along the way. Again, these narratives range widely, whether Mormon visions of primordial origins in ancient America or African American Muslim stories of roots that go back to Africa and move through and beyond the devastation of slavery.
NATIVE AMERICAN RELIGIONS AND COLONIAL ENCOUNTER
The “New World” clearly was not new to those who had inhabited it for tens of thousands of years before any Europeans arrived. Long before pharaohs sat on ancient Egyptian thrones, long before Moses led his people out of that Egypt, and long before Homer wrote The Iliad or Rome rose to mighty power, inhabitants of the Americas had hunted and fished, planted and reaped, loved and given birth, danced and mourned their dead. These inhabitants had also ordered their lives in accord with socially prescribed patterns of behavior and explained their existence and their universe in accord with cosmological principles of understanding. In other words, they had developed complex systems of religious ritual and belief.
The religions of these indigenous peoples were as diverse as the places of their settlement, as varied as the tribal groups themselves. If one is inclined to think of pluralism as a phenomenon of the modern world, it is important to recognize that the American continents were never so pluralistic as in the centuries before European discovery and exploration. Pluralism was reduced, not enhanced, by the “invasion of America.” No single religious institution, no single sacred book, no unified priesthood or common creed, no core group of rituals can be found in the mottled patterns of the lives of these indigenous peoples. It was only centuries into colonization that a pan-Indian or Native American identity emerged and, likewise, that intertribal religious movements (such as the Native American Church, with its peyote-based ritual observance) came into being. Even then, the new encompassing identity fostered by such pan-Indian movements was fiercely contested.
Misunderstanding between Europeans and indigenous peoples came early in the application of the name Indian, since Christopher Columbus thought he had reached the outermost islands of India. It is important to recall that the European construct of “the Indian” and the abstraction designated as “Native American religion” are both artificial labels suggesting a unity that is nowhere to be found. When we borrow such shorthands, we are really referring to the Arapaho, Blackfeet, Chumash, Delaware, Eskimo, Flathead, Ghost Dancers, Hopi, Iowa—and so on through the rest of the alphabet right to the Yuma and Zuni. Each tribe had to come to terms with its own specific environment, whether of woodlands or plains, seashores or deserts, and indeed the close bond between place and people has often been of primary religious importance in native traditions. As one contemporary Apache man says, “The land looks after us. The land keeps badness away.”
Each tribe also had to discern and repeat the stories, often in song and dance, that explained to themselves who and why they were. In exploring the significance of a people’s place in the world, tribal storytellers pursued many different paths, even as the underlying questions often repeated themselves: How, in the beginning, did the world come to be as it is? Where did we as a people come from? What happens after death? What things are permitted or forbidden for us to do? What separates us from, or unites us with, other peoples of other places or ancestries? What rules the sun or the seasons? What heals the ailing body or brings the blessings of fertility? What do dreams and visions signify? What will the future bring? And while such questions were (and are) widely shared—indeed, they were common across European, African, and Native American cultures—in the answers lay inevitably a rich diversity.
Cherokees of the Southeast, for example, regarded the earth as “a great island floating in a sea of water” and suspended at its four extremities “by a cord hanging down from the sky vault, which is of solid rock.” Pimas in the Southwest saw the “Earth Magician” as the creative agent who shaped the world; “Round and smooth he molds it.”
Earth Magician makes the mountains
Heed what he has to say!
He it is that makes the mesa.
Heed what he has to say.
Tsimshians in the Northwest explained the light of the sun with a story of the One Who Walks All Over the Sky. This divine figure wears a mask of burning pitch that warms and illumines as he makes his way from east to west. Sparks flying out of his mouth at night account for the stars, while the moon receives its light from the face of the sleeping sun. When the sun paints his face with red ocher, that redness visible in the evening tells the people that the weather will be good the next day. And in the Northeast the Iroquois elaborated their account of Sky World, Earth, and Underworld with stories that explained not only where people came from but also where, after death, they would go.
In addition to painting cosmological pictures that helped make sense of the world, indigenous peoples also wove a rich tapestry of rituals of community, transformation, and vision. Rites of passage, such as those surrounding childbirth or death, have been especially critical to Native American religions, just as they are in Judaism or Christianity. Zunis of the Southwest, for example, present the eight-day-old infant to the sun after a ceremonial washing by the women of the father’s clan. With cornmeal as a sacrificial offering, the elders dedicate the child, praying to “our sun father” that his blessing might rest upon the infant and indeed upon the whole community: “May you help us all to finish our roads.” Among the Chinooks of the Northwest, concern is directed toward the pregnant woman, who is forbidden to wear certain jewelry or eat certain food or do anything that might endanger her life or the life she bears within. “She does not look at a corpse . . . [or] at anything that is dead.” “She does not look at anything that is rotten.” And the husband, too, is placed under careful restrictions, being also forbidden to look at a corpse, to kill animals related to the clan, or “to eat anything that has been found.” Every precaution must be taken, not least precautions with the spiritual world.
Tribal communities also supervise and sanction the transition of boys and girls from their status as children to the more responsible role of adults. In the Chinook puberty ceremony for girls, several days of fasting were required, and the girl remained “hidden for five days.” And for a period of one hundred days she had to wear a specified garment, refrain from picking fresh fruit, and bathe only at night. For the boys, puberty ceremonies required arduous or even painful initiations that would become the mark of manhood. Among the Delawares, the young man’s first successful hunt signaled the moment when he should be ceremonially accepted into the tribe and instructed in his proper duties. A Moravian missionary to that tribe, David Zeisberger (1721–1808), reported that the felling of the first deer “proves the occasion of a great solemnity.” First the deer, if a buck, is given to one of the male elders in the tribe, if a doe, to an older woman. The animal is then skinned and brought back to the village by the whole hunting party. As the group nears the village, one hears “a prolonged call, which is the old man’s or old woman’s prayer to the deity in behalf of the boy, that he may always be a fortunate hunter.” A meal follows, in which the boy is instructed “regarding the chase and all the circumstances of his future life.” Afterward, alone in the forest, the boy, on the verge of manhood, might have a spiritual vision of an “old man in a gray beard,” who will assert his power over all things upon the earth and will promise the neophyte that he, too, will have much power: “No one shall do thee harm and thou needest not to fear any man.”
The grim fact of death once more marshaled all the resources of the community to affirm that the unfriendly forces responsible for this individual death would not destroy the community and that hostile spirits would not trouble the family of the departed. This world and the world beyond were not separate or independent. An aged Pueblo Indian, for example, might leave this world only to return in another form, as a cloud or as a kachina doll. The death of a young person or a child, on the other hand, could be much more ominous, implying an imbalance between the forces of good and evil. Among the Kwakiutl, when a child died, the greatest concern was to see that the spirit did not return to haunt or to hurt. The purpose of the ceremony was to insulate and protect the living. By contrast, among the Hurons any infant who died was buried near the road so that the young spirit might enter the womb of some passing wife, thus to be born again.
When an Ottawa warrior was on his deathbed, the family dressed him in as fine a garment as could be procured; they then painted his face and dressed his hair “with red paint mixed with grease.” The priestly leaders or medicine men gathered around him as his weapons were brought in and laid at his feet. When the moment of death seemed near, the person was helped to a sitting position so that he might look alive and thus defy death a little longer. When death finally conquered, the burial was public, the period of mourning carefully stipulated, and the feasts of reaffirmation and remembrance held. The ceremonies of death were not private but part of the collective life of the community.
Before Europeans learned much about the inhabitants of the New World, they often romanticized and idealized them as symbols of innocence, as the true inheritors of the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Even in the eighteenth century the aboriginal Indian maiden was a preferred artistic symbol of America: richly blessed by nature, unsullied by civilization. This idealization did not fare well in toe-to-toe combat, in hostilities provoked by relentless European advancement, in misunderstandings on both sides of a cultural chasm. The tendency of Europeans to sentimentalize the earliest Americans was always matched by a tendency to brutalize and exploit them, and that predilection only increased as time went on. In the nineteenth century, the period of most rapid European sweep across the North American continent, racial stereotypes of white man versus red man intensified as the Indian was thought of chiefly in terms of a problem requiring a solution. To many, the solution was assimilation through education and Christianization; to others, the solution was removal to a reservation; to still others, the only enduring solution was warfare and extermination. To the last group, the only good Indian was a dead Indian.
In early America indigenous peoples were dealt with largely in terms of their potential for trade, for labor or land, for military attack or alliance, and for conversion. These were the chief points of contact between the old inhabitants and the new arrivals. Trade was often the least disruptive form of contact, for its success generally depended upon leaving Indian cultures and religions intact. This was true all through the eastern half of North America: from the French along the St. Lawrence River to the Dutch along the Hudson River, from the English in the Carolinas to the Spanish in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. But as European settlement swelled, successful trading alliances gave way to wider contests over the possession of land and the demarcation of private property.
The English, gradually developing a system of black slavery in Virginia, experimented, without success, with making the Indians into slaves. Unlike blacks, who had been completely uprooted from Africa, Indians still had cohesive cultural support, still had a nearby refuge to which they could flee. But land, more than labor, became the sticking point in relationships between Europeans, who wanted to settle and possess the land, and Indians, who found the notion of private property alien. The two sides usually talked past each other, since traditional patterns of behavior were so different and basic assumptions so far apart. The English even ran into trouble explaining to themselves why they had a perfect right to take over whatever Indian land they happened to occupy. Did they have a title from King James or King Charles? And if so, who had given the Indians’ land to those English sovereigns? Did the Indians forfeit their land by being “uncivilized” or by merely passing over it rather than surveying, marking, fencing, and “improving” it?
John Winthrop (1588–1649), founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, argued that land “which is common to all is proper to none. This savage people ruleth over many lands without title or property; for they enclose no ground, neither have they cattle to maintain it, but remove their dwellings as they have occasion.” In other words, since Massachusetts woodlands did not look like English villages, all that territory was available for the taking. Besides, Abraham was called forth by God to leave his own homeland to “go and take possession” of the land of others. So may English Puritans, with similar justification, possess this land to which they had been called. “Why may not Christians,” Winthrop asked, “have liberty to go and dwell amongst [the Indians] in their wastelands and woods?” It was a question whose affirmative answer led to repeated conflict and warfare between migrating Europeans and previously settled Native Americans.
Wars in Virginia, in New England, in Canada, and elsewhere set the tone of Indian-white relationships through most of the colonial period of American history and well beyond. Adversaries in war rarely try to understand the opposition but instead only misrepresent and caricature each other. One Anglo-American advocate in the 1780s argued that Indian land claims were meaningless and absurd: “I would think the man a fool and unjust,” Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748–1816) wrote, “who would exclude me from drinking the waters of the Mississippi River because he had first seen it. He would be equally so who would exclude me from settling in the country west of the Ohio, because in chasing a buffalo he had been first over it.” In fact, Brackenridge added, the Indian and the buffalo have about the same claim to all this vast continent. “To see how far the folly of some would go, I had once thought of supplicating some of the great elks or buffaloes that run through the woods, to make me a grant of a hundred thousand acres of land and prove he had brushed the weeds with his tail, and run fifty miles.” Indian as noble savage had become Indian as enemy and foolish exponent of outrageous claims. Such Indians, if they could not be silenced or moved or assimilated, had to be slain.
Christianity, the prevailing religion of the traders and settlers, sometimes moderated and sometimes only intensified European severity and hostility toward the Indians. Christianity could be used, for example, to label Indians as idolaters and hence worthy of slaughter, as was the case in the Puritan war with the Pequots already in 1636–1637. Questioned by some back in England as well as by the Pequots about the brutality of killing women and children, Captain John Underhill simply replied, “We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.” One minister, after the Puritan victory, gave thanks, announcing that God himself had “subdued” the Pequots.
From top to bottom, the encounter between Europeans and Indians was fraught with struggle, and this was especially the case in the relationship between Christian missions and indigenous religions. The missionary is now regularly dismissed as one who showed no sensitivity to tribal tradition, who regularly violated tribal integrity, and who could barely discern a distinction between Christianity as a religion and Western civilization. Often, indeed, the missionary imperative meant not only new practices of prayer or scripture reading, but also new modes of agriculture and dress. Conversion meant, especially for English missionaries, a wholesale cultural transformation. Yet missionaries also served often as cultural buffers, moderating the effects of the many detrimental agents in these colonial zones of contact. Some offered sharp critiques, for example, of the greed and immorality of traders who dealt in whiskey and guns. Quaker John Woolman (1720–1772), roaming across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, worried that English settlers and hunters were depleting the “wild beasts” upon which the Delaware Indians depended for subsistence and that traders were inducing them “to waste their skins and fur...
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APA 6 Citation
Gaustad, E., & Schmidt, L. (2015). The Religious History of America ([edition unavailable]). HarperCollins. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/597425/the-religious-history-of-america-pdf (Original work published 2015)
Gaustad, Edwin, and Leigh Schmidt. (2015) 2015. The Religious History of America. [Edition unavailable]. HarperCollins. https://www.perlego.com/book/597425/the-religious-history-of-america-pdf.
Gaustad, E. and Schmidt, L. (2015) The Religious History of America. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/597425/the-religious-history-of-america-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Gaustad, Edwin, and Leigh Schmidt. The Religious History of America. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.