Book explores Mohicans, Christianity in 18th-century America
Throughout history, Christianity has changed with every culture it encounters as it irrevocably reinvents that culture.
To Live Upon Hope, a book by Rachel Wheeler, associate professor of religious studies at the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, looks at 18th-century Mohican Indians and the varying ways in which one tribe became Christian and changed what would become the dominant creed of the New World. The book was published last semester by the Cornell University Press.
Initially, for perhaps a century after contact, Native Americans showed little interest in the religion of new settlers, but by the 18th century, with changing political circumstances and astronomical death rates from exposure to European diseases, tribes began to take what was useful from Christianity and blend it with their own cultures, according to Wheeler.
"Little attention has been paid to the various ways in which Native Americans became Christian. The assumption has been that they were cultural sell-outs. But they were not. As disease ravaged whole communities, some Indians found elements of Christianity that helped explain their new circumstances, and seemed to offer hope that they could thrive as the Europeans around them did. Even prophetic, nativist movements like that led by the Shawnee Prophet and his brother, Tecumseh, drew from Christian concepts such as a binary world view, and the idea of a wide path to destruction and a narrow one to salvation, conceived as the restoration of Indian peoples," said Wheeler.
Two very different types of missionaries -- Congregationalists (descendents of the Puritans) and Moravians -- established missions among the Mohicans. Congregationalists were sponsored by the colonial government lawmakers and preached a sparse religion focused on teaching the Bible and English cultural ways. The Mohicans of Massachusetts, to whom the Puritans preached, did not think dressing in European clothing or building English homes made them less Mohican, and instead grounded their cultural identity in their role as intermediaries between British colonial officials and other Indian tribes.
Moravians, who had no government connections, were Protestants who had split from the Catholic Church prior to the Reformation. Like Catholics, Moravians incorporated art and music in their worship, and like Protestant evangelicals, they emphasized a close personal relationship with Jesus. The Moravian missionaries, according to Wheeler, cared little about bringing European cultural trappings to the Native Americans who they took seriously as individuals.
Wheeler suggests these differences have important implications for the debate over multiculturalism today. "The Moravian missionaries paid little attention to Indian culture as such, but were much more successful than other missionaries in relating to the Indians they worked among simply as fellow human beings. Is celebrating differences a barrier to recognition of common humanity across groups?"
Until this book, little was known about this part of history and its implications for both religion and culture in the New World.