Indian carried Christianity: Wampanoag Christianity on Martha's Vineyard, 1643--1690

Kenneth R. Mulholland
Dept. of History, University of Utah
July, 2010
Full text (external site)


In this dissertation, I examine the Puritan mission on Martha's Vineyard from its beginning in 1643 through the Christianization of the entire Wampanoag people in 1690. The Congregationalist minister Thomas Mayhew, Jr. and the island's first convert, Hiacoomes, led the mission. Historians have largely ignored the mission on Martha's Vineyard, focusing instead on the mission led by John Eliot in the Massachusetts Bay Colony; yet, the Vineyard mission preceded Eliot's mission by three years, had more converts, and produced a sustained Native church that still survives.
My dissertation tells the story of the mission's beginning and focuses on the unique character of the highly indigenized Vineyard Christianity that was Puritan in content but Wampanoag in sensibilities. Vineyard Christianity was also marked by the centrality of native leadership that was never controlled by the English missionaries. Many of these Native Christian leaders were converted sachems and shamans, and their continued prominence did much to maintain the social fabric of the island's Native society. The spread of Christianity across Martha's Vineyard and on to Nantucket, Cape Cod and Plymouth Colony was initiated, accomplished, and sustained by Native evangelists.
I argue that the vitality of Vineyard Christianity came from its perception as a restoration of lost Wampanoag "wisdom." This association began with the Wampanoag concept of manit (spiritual power) and their belief that the Christian God was more powerful than the Indian spirits in protecting them from epidemic diseases. From this beginning, the process of "translating" important Wampanoag religious ideas into analogous Christian concepts and doctrines progressed. Because of this continuity of familiar ideas (although with Christian meanings) the teaching of Native preachers resonated with the people.
By contrasting the Martha's Vineyard mission with John Eliot's "civilizing" mission, which banned many important aspects of Native culture and also marginalized its leaders, the radicalism of the contextualized and Native-led mission of Martha's Vineyard is highlighted.