Monday, March 30, 2020

Raised up by the wind in colonized Massachusetts


When Puritan colonists descended on epidemic-decimated Massachusetts in the 1600s, they ostensibly believed it was their responsibility to evangelize the existing Native inhabitants. According to Michael P. Winship's Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America:

The English had always made pious, empty noise about the missionizing goals of their colonies. "Come over and help us," says the Native American on the 1629 seal of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Yet for already overworked New England ministers faced with what one called the "veriest ruins of mankind," it was easier to agree with the illustrious John Cotton about the Native Americans' place in God's plan for humanity. The Native Americans' mass conversion was to take place only after the mass conversion of the Jews. Since the Jews remained stubbornly Jewish, the Native Americans must remain, for the time being, Native American, and there was no point in putting energy into trying to convert them.

Somewhat surprisingly, some local Natives took it upon themselves to investigate the Englishmen's God. After all, that God seemed powerful while their Wampanoag spirits had allowed the epidemic.

Winship tells the story of a man named Waban who apparently had always felt a call to be a spiritual leader of some sort to his people, but never quite found his role until he decided to study the secrets of the English religion. He then led a community called by the Puritans the "Praying Indians" who attempted to adopt Puritan customs. They convinced at least some Puritan congregations of the authenticity of their acceptance of the Christ and were baptized -- a far from perfunctory rite in that colony. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts confirmed their title to their land and later the town of Natick was founded as a home for "Praying Indians." Conversion spread around Cape Cod and particularly offshore on the island of Martha's Vineyard. Though imported European illnesses continued to kill off members of the tribe for several generations, some Wampanoags found a way to make their peace with the white men's God.

Waban's acceptance of Christianity had one idiosyncrasy to it. He never adopted the practice, common among Praying Indians, of taking a Christian first name. Perhaps that was because he felt he did not need to, for his name was already charged with Christian significance. "Waban" meant "wind," and Eliot's first sermon to the Notamun Indians was on Ezekiel 37:1-4, which speaks of wind stirring dry bones.

Native Americans and English alike made the connection between the verse and Waban and his evangelizing activities. For Waban, his prophetic name meant that the coming of Christianity started before the arrival of Europeans. Other Native Americans recalled pre-contact dreams of the arrival of black-clothed missionaries, while still others were convinced that the missionaries were restoring wisdom the Native Americans had forgotten.

These newest of Native American stories, about how their God used the English to complete his bringing of this truth to them, meant nothing to most colonists. ...

The Praying Indian community was further repressed in the wake of what the colonists called "King Phillip's War" in 1676 when some of the tribespeople rose up against the English interlopers.

But elements of a syncretistic piety survive to this day among the Wampanoags. On Martha's Vineyard Island, the tribe is an important component of a racially diverse population. In southern Massachusetts in the last few days, the Trump Administration Department of the Interior is trying to "disestablish" the Mashpec Wampanoags. Perhaps the tribe is suspected of wanting to compete with Trump in a casino business?
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I thought of Waban when we read from Ezekiel about the dry bones brought to life by wind in online church on Sunday morning.
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The illustration here is from Native American Netroots.

I took up Hot Protestants as part of my personal "1620 project" in which I'm trying to learn a little more about the story of my ancestors who were among those tough but otherwise unattractive settlers at Plymouth 400 years ago. A previous post:
Those Plymouth Puritans

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