A Communion of Churches: Indian Christians, Ministers, and Congregations in New England, 1600-1775

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History & Political Science


This dissertation advances the study of New England's religious history by exploring the complex and contested religious discourse surrounding puritan ecclesiology and the conceptual place of Native Americans within physical and imagined communities. While relations between puritan missionaries such as John Eliot and Thomas Mayhew and early "Praying Indians," or Indian Christians, have been closely studied, this work draws attention to the importance of theology and religious discourse in realms like hermeneutics, ecclesiology, and eschatology in shaping the nature of these exchanges. Despite communal and cultural differences, religious culture frequently served as a means of bridging these gaps to foster amicable and meaningful relationships between English ministers and Algonquian-speaking Native Americans within the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its environs. At the same time, frustrations to actualize missionary communities like Natick in conformity with preconceived English ideals and violent altercations like King Philip's War were similarly filtered through a milieu of religious ideas to solidify early categories of difference which reinforced the exclusion and marginalization of Native Americans from religious spaces.;With the arrival of Separatists at Plymouth in 1620 and the first puritans at Boston in 1630, English settlers entered a region dominated by native power. Anthropological examination of both groups reveals the importance of community dynamics, harmony, and wellbeing to both Englishmen and Native Americans. Both groups faced various challenges during these early contact years in the form of conceptually placing their new neighbors within an ontological schema, navigating trade and diplomacy, and confronting internal challenges of schism and disease. The onset of civil war in England in 1642 created new millennialist impulses for select puritans in New England, who read transatlantic events as a sign of the impending apocalypse and set out to convert Native Americans in fulfilment of biblical prophecy. Native Americans faced tremendous violence and pressure from family members in making the decision to form new religious communities in partnership with these missionaries, which makes the religious impetus a significant factor in explaining indigenous decision-making.;The transition from civil polity to ecclesiastical polity took nearly a decade for Natick, and this work argues that these developments paralleled internal debates regarding puritanism and the Half-Way Covenant, validating indigenous religiosity in new ways, though these positive developments proved short-lived with the onset of King Philip's War and popular rhetoric portraying Indians as Canaanite heathens destined for destruction. The status of Indian Christians proved tenuous as the region entered the eighteenth century, though new developments by Solomon Stoddard created the potential to increase the boundaries of English religious communities to include Native Americans. The period of revivalism that swept New England from roughly 1735 to 1750 also raised questions about indigenous religious experiences and participation, leading to a strong critique from the antirevivalist faction. This long view of religious interaction adds more depth to the failure of mid-century missions by Gideon Hawley, John Brainerd, and Eleazar Wheelock. At the same time, Indian Christians like Samson Occom chafed against and challenged prevailing religious discrimination against their brethren.



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Faculty Publications - History & Political Science


Advisor: Tyler Boulware