Monday, November 10, 2008

Were Indian Conversions Bona Fide?

Experts will tell you that controversy is one of the ingredients of a popular blog. Well, considering that my topic is about race, religion, culture, and ideology, I know there will be plenty of potential for controversy. Some people have already disagreed with some of my posts to online forums. They weren't always nice about it either.

I've done some careful research over the last few years and I think I understand some of the criticisms, but I also know that my critics have dismissed me way too easily... That's part of my motivation to put my thoughts and findings out here on my very own blog.

James Axtell, a history professor at the College of William and Mary, also came up against some critics when he made a twenty-minute presentation at a 1986 conference held by The American Society for Ethnohistory. He described his audience that day as "to put it nicely, skeptical"(100). But the experience motivated him to write a 21-page chapter for his book After Columbus: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (Oxford University Press, 1988). The chapter is called "Were Indian Conversions Bona Fide?"

History professors are supposed to try to be objective, but Axtell clearly felt that his peers weren't treating the subject of Indian missions objectively:

[this paragraph is a quote from page 101]
"In much of the recent historiography of colonial missions, the conversion of Indians to Christianity has received a poor press. In the past fifteen or twenty years, historians and ethnohistorians of both Protestant and Catholic missions have cast aspersions of the quantity, quality, and longevity of native conversions to the intrusive religions. They have sought not only to deflate the numerical success of the colonial missionaries but to ridicule their cultural goals and methods and to minimize their spiritual results. The effect of all this debunking has been to paint the missionaries either as evil tools of imperialism or as naive fools, and their Indian neophytes as hapless victims of clerical oppression or as cunning Br'er Rabbits of the forest."

I welcome your comments.

1 comment :

John Umland said...

Great blog.
I think historians easily fall victim to their own modern snobbery. Not all converts are duped idiots, nor were all missionaries duped nose counters. I can't recall the name but Philbrick in Mayflower compares Eliot and another missionary who moved to one of the Mass islands (MV or Nantucket) among the tribes and converted them as an incarnational presence. The Moravians and Quakers also had success with this method, identifying with the people instead of making them in the missionary's image.

I'm really looking forward to your posts on the Brotherton's.

God is good