Negotiating a new religious world: English missionaries and American Indians in colonial southeastern Massachusetts

Jason Edward Eden
Dept. of History, University of Minnesota
July, 2006


Through the lens of religion, this dissertation investigates negotiations between English colonists and American Indians who lived in seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Massachusetts. Drawing upon unpublished memoirs, personal correspondence, sermon texts delivered to Indian audiences, and commentary from American Indians, the study uncovers a level of diversity among Puritan missionaries unrecognized by other scholarship. In the form of suspected adulterers, uneducated men of low social status, and seminary graduates, American Indians confronted numerous, unique versions of Christianity. Out of these encounters, American Indians continued a centuries-old process of developing distinctive forms of spirituality. Even as this study addresses developments in American Indian spirituality, it distinguishes itself by focusing upon how English intellectual and religious culture changed as a result of contact with American Indians. The American Indians' challenging questions, overt resistance, and unique incorporation of Christianity forced English colonists to wrestle with new challenges. Individual missionaries responded to the Indians' unique demands by altering their preaching style and delivering messages expressly designed to answer Indian questions. Some preachers adapted further by bending their theology. One missionary, Experience Mayhew, publicized miracles, listened to Indian women at meetings, and rethought Calvinist assumptions regarding predestination because he wanted to convert American Indians. In other instances, entire English communities became embroiled in debates regarding missions work. Conflicts concerning religion became political as towns, such as Harwich, wrestled with the appropriateness of employing uneducated laymen to meet the perceived needs of surrounding American Indian churches.
As religion fused with politics in colonial Massachusetts, American Indians actively participated in debates regarding their future. This study concludes by examining court records and petitions in which American Indians used Christian terminology to critique colonialism, secure a degree of political autonomy, and obtain material benefits. American Indians in this region had, before the English arrived, viewed politics and spirituality as profoundly connected, and they retained this conception as they incorporated aspects of Christianity. Read as a whole, the dissertation uncovers a more complex and contested intellectual, religious, and political world in colonial New England than previous scholarship in the field of Early American history has recognized.