Brown University history professor Linford D. Fisher has a new book on the native American communities in southern New England, entitled The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America. Focused on southern New England, Fisher’s work looks at how Mohegan, Narragansetts, and Pequots responded to English settlers’ attempts to convert them to Christianity from the 1670s to 1820.
At a recent book launch at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Professor Fisher said that one thing that surprised him during his research was how actively Indians selected how to respond to English initiatives. Contrary to common stereotypes, native peoples were neither resigned to giving up their traditional religious patterns, nor entirely resistant to or opposed to “Christianization.” Instead, they actively and pragmatically shaped and negotiated and utilized English resources to achieve their own goals. Many parents, for example, welcomed and sought out English schooling for their children so that younger people could help the tribe navigate the overwhelming changes brought by the English colonists. According to Fisher’s research in church records, perhaps a quarter of the Indians joined white-led churches, but many of those did not remain there long; others formed separate churches with Indian leadership, though English ministers often criticized these as “disorderly” and irregular.
Fisher also described Indians who acted as diplomats trying to negotiate between the European powers vying for control of the region. Indian sachems repeatedly sent petitions and envoys to Britain throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to demand justice, as British subjects, especially to assert land rights and protest mistreatment at the hands of colonists.
Fisher connected his work with present-day debates over Indian sovereignty. He noted in particular the current debate over the “Doctrine of Discovery,” a theological position that justified Christians seizing land in the Americas occupied by non-Christians. Fisher stated that a number of Christian bodies, including the World Council of Churches and the Episcopal Church, have recently repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, actions welcomed by indigenous peoples as one step toward healing the damage of the past. The Doctrine has also been addressed by the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Fisher’s thorough research on the Native American experience in colonial New England will help both scholars and area residents to understand the role of religion and cultural conflicts in shaping the region.