Responses of Native Americans and African Slaves to Atlantic Missions

AHA Session 252
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Simmons Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Erik R. Seeman, University at Buffalo (State University of New York)
Rachel Wheeler, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Session Abstract

Responses of Native Americans and African Slaves to Atlantic Missions
This panel focuses on three geographically, chronologically, denominationally, and ethnically diverse misions.  Celine Carayon, Assistant Professor at Utah Valley University (beginning August 2010), reveals a historically forgotten French Capuchin mission to the Tupinambás in early seventeenth-century Brazil.  Aaron Spencer Fogleman, Professor of History at Northern Illinois University, demonstrates the early eighteenth-century efforts of German Moravians among African slaves in the South Carolina Lowcountry, which preceded the more famous evangelical work of George Whitefield.  Sean P. Harvey, Visiting Assistant Professor at Northern Illinois University (until May 2010), discusses three Native missionaries who used their spiritual work to contribute to Euro-American philology in the early nineteenth century.  Erik R. Seeman, Associate Professor at the University of Buffalo, who has studied the meeting of Native, African, and European religious traditions, will chair the panel.  Rachel Wheeler, Associate Professor at IUPUI, who has published on Mohicans’ differing responses to Congregationalist and Moravian missions, will provide the comment. 
Previous scholarship has explained particular ways in which culturally attuned missionaries molded their message to their would-be converts’ experiences, and has noted the crucial roles that “cultural brokers” of various stripes played as intermediaries.  So too, has a growing body of scholarship emphasized the syncretic religious forms that emerged from Christianity’s confrontation with Native and African beliefs and practices.  The panel’s papers illuminate underexplored ways in which Native Americans and African slaves, the ostensible objects of missionary work, shaped the very terms under which it proceeded.  Separated by centuries, continents, confessions, and cultural beliefs, Native and African subjects provided modes of communication that allowed religious conversation and they responded critically to religious messages, either casting aside or creatively adapting new elements. Some became missionaries themselves, further molding messages to their native and European audiences, inserting their religious work in broader intellectual and cultural conversations, and using themselves as models that challenged prevailing hierarchies.
This panel will be particularly appealing to scholars interested in how Native and African peoples in the Americas understood the message European missionaries offered; why they might have found particular messages appealing or not and how this shaped the missionary enterprise; and, for converts, how preexisting beliefs and practices, as well as ongoing processes of imperialism and enslavement, shaped their resulting faith.  Thus, this panel will appeal to those studying the role religion played in both imposing and resisting imperialism and slavery.  More specifically, portions of this panel concern historians of South American colonization and early French attempts at establishing colonies; scholars working on early African American Protestantism and life in the slave community in colonial South Carolina. More generally, this panel will also appeal to historians of religion, those interested in the place of religion in broader intellectual life, and scholars who appreciate the importance of Atlantic and comparative perspectives to a full understanding of both European colonial enterprises and the myriad ways African slaves and the Native peoples of North and South America responded to those efforts and shaped the missionary exchange.

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