Julius H. Rubin. Tears of Repentance: Christian Indian Identity and Community in Colonial Southern New England. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013. xiii + 405 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-4355-2.
Reviewed by Matthew Sparacio (Auburn University)
Published on H-AmIndian (August, 2014)
Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe
The Emotion of Conversion in Colonial New England
The place of Native Americans within the lived religion of colonial New England--and especially the topic of Native American conversions--continues to spur innovative scholarship by historians. Linford D. Fisher’s The Indian Great Awakening (2012) renewed discussions regarding Native American conversions by shifting scholarly debate away from the question of “if” Native Americans converted to “why” they chose to convert. By doing so, Fisher notes the long-standing undercurrent of pragmatism associated with Native American conversions in the long eighteenth century. Released a year after Fisher’s pioneering work, Julius H. Rubin’s Tears of Repentance builds on the “if” and “why” of conversion by meticulously outlining the “how” of conversion.
Rubin argues that “Christian Indian identity from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries was forged in the crucible of religious melancholy” (p. 7). This is an important claim, as previous historians, such as James Axtell (The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America ), have asserted that the deployment of religion was a means of colonial domination. Instead, Rubin counters by claiming the centrality of religion to “ethnic renewal and the persistence of native peoples” (p. 307). The book is split into two parts. Chapters 1 through 3 trace the deployment of reformed Christian intellectual endowments through southern New England. In Rubin’s words, “religious melancholy shaped their religious personhood and experience. Christian Indians were marked by the attributes of the melancholic saint, repenting the sins of the forefathers for their heathen past, viewing life as a penitential journey” (p. 16). Chapters 4 through 8 examine emotional regimes that resulted from the introduction of New Light theology as a product of the Great Awakening.
In part 1, Rubin asserts that “praying towns in the emerging Christian Indian social and religious identity need to be seen as an adaptive response to trauma” (p. 23). Protestant theology proved appealing in the wake of virgin soil epidemics because “the idea of divine Providence placed all suffering within a comprehensive and meaningful framework” (p. 24). Praying towns, though, occupied an ambiguous place in colonial New England, representing space claimed by neither Native Americans nor English colonists. Membership to this third religious community rested on adherence to the standards of emotional regimes, how Native Americans “should express the authentic modalities of godly sorrow, repentance, and melancholy” (p. 40). Formal conceptions of melancholy found their intellectual foundation in the works of Robert Burton, especially The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). Public displays of emotion--specifically melancholy--epitomized personhood. Rubin uses a number of primary sources dealing specifically with conversion narratives that emphasize this public display of emotion; indeed, the title of his work originates from a source written by John Eliot and Thomas Mayhew Jr. in 1653 detailing twenty-two Natick Indian conversions. By transferring the emotional experience of conversion from oral testimony to print culture, Eliot “imposed a structure of narrative organization and doctrine consistent with the Puritan conversion narrative and morphology of conversion” (p. 58). The Natick Dictionary (1903) highlights how Native American converts prioritized religious emotion over issues of salvation by examining the lexicon of Eliot's recorded conversions. Although Native American converts adhered to both displays and discourse of religious emotion, they did not abandon their native identities. In this sense any conversion can be considered more accurately as a negotiation, aiding the formation of ethnic identity within socially marginalized village settlements. In addition to religious emotion, the idea of religious paternalism on the part of colonial leaders--disseminated in the form of Protestant moralism--also contributed to ethnic identity formation. In the first decades of the eighteenth century, “religious personhood was increasingly linked to the imposition of strict rules for godly living” (p. 91). Communal initiatives espousing Protestant moralism, such as the example at Mashpee, seemed to offer Native Americans the ability to exercise political authority within the colonial power structure.
Rubin identifies the era of the Great Awakening as a significant moment in the generation of “new models of Christian Indian identity for individuals and communities” (p. 114). By adhering to New Light theology, Christian Indians gained agency within the colonial hierarchy. The Great Awakening marked a shift away from a penitential sense of life that characterized the early iterations of Christian Indian identity; in the words of Rubin, “religious melancholy assumed new forms” (p. 120). Religious melancholy informed new Christian Indian identity in three ways: it marked the passage of Christian Indians into the ranks of grace; it characterized the cyclic nature of the spiritual journey throughout new saints’ lives; and it served as the preferred expression of Christian Indians who recognized the hopelessness of their colonial condition. All of these characteristics derive from the religious writings of George Whitfield, and Rubin uses the life and works of Samson Occom to illustrate the connections between Whitfield’s doctrine and the shifting standard of Christian Indian identity. Additionally, Rubin notes how religious paternalism contributed to the ethnogenesis of two native groups. Rubin notes how the early Stockbridge tribe--derived from the Mahican confederacy--“never adopted an evangelical New Light identity” but instead found ways to blend their traditional beliefs with English forms of authority (p. 161). The New Jersey Brotherton tribes similarly failed to demonstrate the enthusiasm of New Light revivals. The Stockbridge and Brotherton tribes both eventually moved to Oneida lands to create a separatist Christian Indian commonwealth. Moravian missions to Shekomeko and Pachgatgoch also deployed a strict religious paternalism that excluded Christian Indians, thereby accentuating separatist feeling. Separatist sentiment and communities, though, continued to deploy the language of religious melancholy as a means of ethnic identity.
This is an important work for scholars of New England native groups because it contributes to our understanding of the complicated process of Native American conversion. Although scholars have long noted the way white colonials perceived Native American conversion, Fisher’s and Rubin’s work together help establish a red perspective. The value of Tears of Repentance is found in Rubin’s nuanced examination of topoi found in colonial New England conversion narratives. One wonders, though, how engagement with the historiography of emotions could contribute to Rubin’s work. Emotions and emotional expression form the basis of Rubin’s argument, and the small-scale phenomena of Christian Indian villages hearkens to the earlier work of Barbara H. Rosenwein, who proposed a methodological framework of “emotional communities,” defined as “a group in which people adhere to the same norms of emotional expression.” Especially in the context of colonial New England, engagement with the history of emotions may lead to a more nuanced understanding of religious expression and intercultural relations between natives and colonists. An impressive synthesis of regional and theological secondary sources, as well as contemporary conversion narratives, Tears of Repentance is recommended for all scholars of early New England.
. Recently, Fisher has commented on the differences in opinion regarding Indian conversion between Puritan leaders Roger Williams and John Eliot. See Linford D. Fisher and Lucas Mason-Brown, “By ‘Treachery and Seduction’: Indian Baptism and Conversion in the Roger Williams Code,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 71, no. 2 (April 2014): 175-200.
. Barbara H. Rosenwein, Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 2.
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Matthew Sparacio. Review of Rubin, Julius H., Tears of Repentance: Christian Indian Identity and Community in Colonial Southern New England.
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