Skip to Main Content

New Scholarship on Religion and Literature, 2000-2012 (November 2013): Protestantism and Native Americans

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein

Protestantism and Native Americans

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Protestant controversies also had profound ramifications for colonial America—not least its Native population.  Hilary E. Wyss untangles the literary agency of “Praying Indians” in Writing Indians: Literacy, Christianity, and Native Community in Early America, which draws on a variety of genres—conversion narratives, correspondence, marginalia, historiography—to show how Native Christians negotiated between sometimes mutually antagonistic cultural domains (as in King Philip’s War) and melded their own spiritual and political traditions with those imported by the English.  Laura M. Stevens’s The Poor Indians: British Missionaries, Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibility analyzes the sentimental rhetoric of missionary reports from the field, finding that missionary sentimentalism could be used to vilify Spanish Catholics and Deists, but also produced the famous trope of the “vanishing Indian,” in which the Christianized dying Indian testifies to the importance of colonial evangelization.  Kristina Bross takes a similar tack in Dry Bones and Indian Sermons: Praying Indians in Colonial America, which argues that the colonists’ supposed mission to the Native Americans did not actually catch fire until over a dozen years after it supposedly began, as part of the fallout from the English Civil War.  Focusing in particular on accounts of Native American conversion, Bross shows not only how colonial evangelists crafted stories of Natives emerging into the divine light, but also how converted Native Americans such as Samuel Ponampam appropriated evangelical rhetoric to assert themselves against such narratives.