By Heath Carter
I'm here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I'm attending the American Society of Church History's spring meeting, organized around the theme of "Christianity and Migrations." There are any number of interesting panels and I hope to post another update before all is said and done, but for now a brief report on Rachel Wheeler's stimulating plenary address this morning entitled, "Whose Story is American Religious History? The Parallel Lives of Daniel Boone and Joshua, the Mohican." Wheeler is an associate professor of religious studies at IUPUI whose work has come up often on this blog [those interested in reading up on her first book, To Live Upon Hope, might check out fellow blogger Lin Fisher's conversation with her back in 2009].
Her talk today engaged big questions about how we should narrate the story of European-Indian encounter in the Americas, which has ramifications of course for how we tell the story of American religious history. She argued that the life of Joshua, an Indian convert to Moravianism, highlights the difficulties with both triumphalist and revisionist accounts of conflict on the frontier. The problems with triumphalism, a view summed up in Horatio Greenough's mid-nineteenth century sculpture, The Rescue, need not be elaborated here. There is a reason why the statue, an image of which Wheeler incorporated into her talk, was removed from the steps of the U.S. capitol building in the late-1950s.
But Wheeler persuasively showed that Joshua's story also complicates the revisionist narrative, which lacks the categories to see his conversion as anything other than collusion with the oppressor; and lacks, moreover, the flexibility to allow for Moravian missionaries who - unlike some of their Protestant counterparts in the late-18th century - were not virulently anti-Indian but were in fact open to some of the ways that Indian converts made Christianity their own.
In elaborating the fascinating comparison between Boone and Joshua, Wheeler followed themes of migration, war, and conversion. All of these will be central to her next book, a biography of Joshua which will put him belatedly on more religious historians' radar (I confess that before Wheeler's talk I had not heard of him). If her second book makes the same kind of splash as her first, it may be that we'll all soon be required to take what she called the "Joshua test" - do our accounts of American religious history shed light upon the experience of this Mohican-Moravian martyr, or will we continue to relegate those like him to the margins? For the profession's sake, let's root for passing grades for all.