The Great Awakening of Scholarship on Religion and Race in Early America

Paul Harvey

Two new books -- one out recently, and one coming out in a couple of months -- are going to make a major impact in early American religious history. I'm delighted to promote them here a bit as I had the pleasure of reading one in manuscript form just prior to its publication, and the other in an earlier dissertation incarnation. Both have influenced my own thinking/work greatly already, and we'll feature interviews with both authors I hope just a bit down the road this summer or fall.

The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early AmericaThe first is from our contributor Lin Fisher, who just posted about Rhode Island's "birthday" and will be putting his review of John Barry's biography of Roger Williams up here soon. A little over a month ago Linford published his work The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (Oxford University PRess, 2012). This work is really a masterful piece of research that moves work on New England Native Christianity (and resistance to Christianity) well beyond the focus on the "usual suspects" (Samson Occom et al) into figures hitherto little known even to scholars. The story Lin tells emerges from his patient research and recreation of the complex religious world of New England Natives in the 17th-18th centuries, and the ways in which the usual dichotomies of "conversion" and "resistance" break down. There are some other excellent books on this subject, by David Silverman and others, and Lin's will take its place right alongside theirs.

One of the "blurbs" on Amazon, from noted scholar Neal Salisbury, captures my own thoughts well: "Linford Fisher offers a compelling account of how Indian people in south-central New England and eastern Long Island embraced Christianity during the eighteenth century, not in hopes of becoming integrated into Anglo-American society and culture but rather of ensuring their survival and strengthening their distinct identities as Indians. Fisher's most important revelation is the extent of Indian Christians' separation from-and their criticism and even defiance of-Anglo-American Christians." 
The second comes from the pioneering blogger (under the name "Historianess") and historian at Rice University, Rebecca Goetz. Her much-anticipated work The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race, is set to appear with Johns Hopkins University Press in September.

I read Rebecca’s dissertation upon its completion, and have used it and cited it extensively in my own work. The dissertation has been extensively revised over the past few years into the book manuscript, and I believe the book will establish Rebecca’s reputation as a powerful scholar of early American history.

The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (Early America: History, Context, Culture)Essentially, Rebecca argues that “race” as a concept arose earlier in American history than is commonly suggested in the literature, and that religion was key in defining early American concepts of race. By defining Indians and Africans first as potential converts to Christianity, but then as “hereditary heathens,” Anglo-Virginians turned their Christianity into a shaper of concepts of race. Goetz documents this through extensive, time-consuming, detailed, and rigorous research in the difficult and scant sources of the period, focusing especially on legal cases and statutes in individual Virginia counties. The book includes a wonderful “essay on sources” which will be mined by scholars for decades to come. Goetz also shows how, by adopting Christianity, Afro-Virginians fought back against these emerging concepts of race, insisting that they too had rights as Christians which were denied by slavemasters who were themselves of questionable religious stature. And ... so much else beyond just this. Just read the book; aside from the specific arguments being advanced, Rebecca gives us a wealth of new stories from the archives which are, if nothing else, just incredibly interesting to read.

My friend at Colorado State University, the inimitable blogger Historiann, is also an early American historian. At her blog, she often (and very humorously) decries the obsession with endless biographies of the same old founding fathers and pontifications about their meaning, and shouts from her blog for original writing mined from the archives of early America to get the attention overly devoted to overstudied questions and figures.

She writes: "Stop it!  Stop!  Go find something new, interesting, and utterly undiscovered in the archives, for a change!"

Well, Historiann, here you go: two books straight from the archives, with fresh insights, questions, and provocations. We'll have more about both books on this blog down the road. For now, congratulations to Lin and Becky for these important, provocative, and just pretty dang excellent new books. 


Good words, Paul. I too read both dissertations and have been waiting expectantly to see the completed monographs. We're better for them.
Randall said…
Looking forward to getting these books this summer.
Historiann said…
Thanks for the heads-up on these new books, Paul! I have been thinking about Goetz's book lately as a matter of fact, in the service of a book ms. I was reviewing for a press last week, and was wondering when it would appear. It does indeed sound like a number of lectures will need to be revised ater her book is out--I'm eager to understand more about her argument and the sources she uses.

I will just say that it's striking to me the degree to which structure is back among scholars of my generation in my field--people in their 30s and 40s now-- seem to be pretty much over "agency" as a way to understand the colonial Americas. Over the past decade or so, I've grown impatient with the whole "Myne Owne Ground" alternative fantasy view of the history of race in the U.S.
Rebecca said…
Hi Paul, Thanks so much for the love and publicity!

Historiann--I don't know that I would say I'm a structuralist. One of the interesting things about Christianity and race is that it encompassed many views of human difference, and many of those views were at odds with one another...i think it took a lot of intellectual effort to create a Christianity that supported race. But, see the book. :)

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