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Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America

The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America


In his book The Indian Great Awakening, Linford Fisher accounts the period when the native Indians in New England converted to Christianity. He argues that the social, economic, and political environment in which the Indians found themselves in made them take caution for survival, such as strategically converting to Christianity. According to Fisher, their conversion was “more practical and provisional” (8). As such, the question that needs to be addressed is: “Did the Indians use Christianity as a means to get equality and their land from the White colonies?”

Economic Environment

In addressing the question, Fisher begins by explaining the role of the economic environment of Indians in shaping their cultural interactions with the colonies of New England. The only way of trading that the Indians knew was barter trade, which is the exchange of goods such as cattle for grains within the Indian community. Therefore, this was the only way they understood in contrast to the use of paper currency, such as the British pound. The Whites from the colonies got along with them through this way of trading.

As a result, one of the strategies that the Whites adopted was indebtedness, which they used to manipulate the Indians. For example, they set up a market for exchange in which liquor was used as the main commodity in demand. Once the Indians became dependent on liquor, their debt to the Whites grew, and in numerous times, they sold land to pay the debt. The loss of the land became a cultural problem that weakened their status to a point that they had to adopt the ways of evangelical colonies to survive.

Social Environment

In addressing the question, Fisher argues that the White missionaries used education as an important tool for spreading Christianity throughout the native Indian communities. It helped them produce “literate, Christianized, and culturally Anglicized Indian men and women” (Fisher 51). The Indians  took the opportunity to become educated by the White missionaries even as they converted to Christianity. However, as Fisher puts it, the reality was far more complicated than them gaining the education. The education they gained was used to fight for their native rights. No sooner than a half a century, they would build schools of their own in the communities and demand teachers from their native tribe.

The same can also be said for their church. Examining the church records, Fisher deduces that the involvement of the Indians was of “affiliation rather than conversion” in order to improve their social standings(Fisher 86). Ultimately, because of some disappointing experiences at the churches of Anglican, such as expelling, contempt, and bad treatment, the separatist movement materialized, and numerous native churches emerged. As Fisher  puts it, “the very institutions that were supposed to help turn Indians into faithful English subjects, in the end, were used by Indians to create semi-autonomous space within which they could monitor their own spiritual lives and exercise a great deal of autonomy” (113).

Understanding of the Indians

The conversion of the native Indians to Christianity has been shown by Fisher to be a means to the end to them. The understanding behind this strategy was that White people would uphold their own religious beliefs, which were aimed to get as many people as possible to become devout to a point where they could believe in God and go to heaven when they died. Anything that went against the wishes of God, such as the promotion of inequality and unfairness, was viewed by the missionaries as not being religious.

Since the Indians were manipulated by the Whites through the use of liquor to give out the lands, they had to look for the alternative strategy that could get back their land. One of the strategies, as discussed, was to use the teachings of the Christian religion to appeal to the White colonies. Fisher states that their “approaches to religion were incorporative” because they used the belief to append Christianity in their efforts to get what they needed (88). For example, the teaching of equality as taught by Jesus Christ was used by the Indians to seek fairness in their own land. As a result, they were able to use this strategy to get their lands back.


In this book, the question “did the Indians use Christianity as a means to get equality and their land from the White colonies?” is answered by Fisher. In particular, he focuses his attention to the way that they pretended to convert to Christianity out of their own free will to become children of God. In reality, they were learning the religion while at the same time becoming educated in order to use the same religious beliefs and education against the White colonies to get equality and their lands back. Therefore, this book is for the person that wants to understand how the Indians used Christianity to beat the White colonies at their own game.

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