I'm delighted to put up this guest post from Linford Fisher, currently teaching at IU - South Bend, but soon to join the History Department at Brown University. Lin is also the author of a chapter on "'Religious Encounters," in our recently completed reference work Columbia Guide to Religion in American History, to be published a year or so from now I hope. In celebration of his imminent move, I'm pleased to put up some of his thoughts on early American religious history and "comparative ethnohistory."
Lately I’ve been contemplating comparisons. Not just any old comparisons (the current deplorable status of my IRA compared to two years ago, for example), but rather comparative historical projects. And, even more specifically, what some scholars have termed “comparative ethnohistory.”
The phrase “comparative ethnohistory”—if it ever crosses your mind at all in the first place—might conjure up the parallel examination of two indigenous contexts in the colonial Americas, perhaps something along the lines of James Axtell’s The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (Oxford, 1985), in which Axtell elegantly compares Indian responses to French and English evangelistic efforts in New France and New England.
Margaret Connell Szasz, however, has something slightly different in mind as I learned recently when I picked up her book Scottish Highlanders and Native Americans: Indigenous Education in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Oklahoma, 2007). In her introduction, she positions herself in the emerging field of “comparative ethnohistory”—of which Colin Calloway seems to be the other primary representative. Intrigued, I read on (in part because I owed Scotia a book review, but also because my own work deals with indigenous evangelization).
Scottish Highlanders and Native Americans is essentially an examination of how one missionary agency in the eighteenth century—the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK)—focused their resources on two very different and yet surprisingly similar contexts in much the same way, namely, the Algonquian populations of northeastern North America, and the Gaelic speaking peoples of the Scottish Highlands. Both people groups, Szasz argues, were viewed by the SSPCK in much the same way, since they were both largely illiterate, had their own cultural and religious customs that were viewed as “barbaric,” and had both been subdued through a brutal process of colonization in the century or so prior to the formation of the SSPCK. Szasz artfully makes her case for this indigenous parallelism in the first chapter, highlighting local orality, kinship patterns, traditional religious practices, and then the intrusion of colonial institutions in the seventeenth century that were intended to civilize and Christianize both the Highlanders and Native Americans.
The SSPCK was founded in 1709 for the “further promoting of Christian Knowledge, and the increase of piety and virtue, within Scotland, especially in the Highlands and Islands” (75), which it did with characteristic reformed vigor. By the 1730s, with more than eighty schools established in the Highlands and tangible results among the Gaelic peoples, the SSPCK capitalized on its vague charter statement about also spreading Christian knowledge “in Popish and Infidel parts of the world” by sending missionaries and teachers to North America to work among indigenous populations in the English colonies. Although the society was perhaps less successful in North America (as a relative latecomer to the scene, with the Puritan/Independent New England Company  and the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts  already active in many areas), it became well known primarily for its sponsorship and ordination of the most famous eighteenth-century American Indian minister, the Mohegan Samson Occom.
Szasz spends the last third of her book comparing Occom and his Gaelic Highlander counterpart, Dugald Buchanan. Like Occom, Buchannan was sent away for religious education at a young age, was drawn to the religious revivalism of the 1740s, and became a prominent example of the effectiveness of Scottish-style indigenous Christianization. Szasz’s overall framing and argument seems to be that in both contexts, indigenous populations were selective in their appropriation of Christian ideas and practices, ultimately using for their own ends cultural tools handed to them by the Scottish missionaries.
Szasz is a brilliant, careful scholar, and the book was a pleasant read. Telling the story from the perspective of the SSPCK definitely de-centers the typical narrative of Indian evangelism in the colonial northeast. Learning about the experiences of the Scottish Highlanders does expand one’s view of evangelistic activity in the British colonies. The nagging question, however, is this: how much did I really learn? One of my recurring frustrations with comparative projects is that they rarely satisfy specialists. Does the newness consist primarily in the comparison itself? I also couldn’t shake the feeling that, despite the similarities between the two contexts, the differences ran deep, and in important ways. I was reminded of Jonathan Z. Smith’s warnings regarding the potential pitfalls of comparisons in his essay “In Comparison a Magic Dwells”: “As practiced by scholarship, comparison has been chiefly an affair of the recollection of similarity. The chief explanation for the significance of comparison has been contiguity. The procedure is homeopathic. The theory is built on contagion. The issue of difference has been all but forgotten” (Smith, Imagining Religion, p. 21).
If Smith is right, comparative projects by their very definition seek to find similarities, often at the expense of critical differences. This doesn’t mean that I disliked Szasz’s book (I didn’t) or that I do not think that such comparisons are not valid (I do); it simply means that, for now, the jury is still out, even as I continue to contemplate comparisons.