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The "New World" was of course not new to those peoples who had inhabited it for tens of thousands of years before any Europeans arrived. Having crossed a no longer visible land or ice bridge from Asia to the Aleutian Islands, migrants settled in Alaska or, over a period of centuries, slowly spread to the east and south all across North America, then even farther south into Central and South America. Completing this slow but steady dispersal of population may have taken as long as twenty-five thousand years. Evidence for such an expansive migration comes through archaeological discoveries and surviving, widely scattered microcultures, these revealing that lands unknown to medieval Europeans already enjoyed much human habitation and high civilization.
Long before pharaohs sat on ancient Egyptian thrones, long before Moses led his people out of that Egypt, and long before Homer wrote The Iliad or Rome rose to mighty power, inhabitants of the Americas had hunted and fished, planted and reaped, loved and married, given birth and buried their dead. These inhabitants also ordered their lives in accordance with certain patterns of behavior and explained their existence and their universe in accordance with certain principles of understanding. They had, in other words, become religious.
The religion of these earliest Americans was as diverse as the times of their settlement, as varied as the tribal organizations themselves. If one is inclined to think of pluralism as a phenomenon of the twentieth century, it is important to recognize that the American continents were never so pluralisticas in the centuries before European discovery and exploration. Pluralism was reduced, not enhanced, by the "invasion of America." No single religious institution, no single sacred book, no unified priesthood or common creed can be found in the multicolored patterns of the lives of these ancient peoples. Yet, the effort should be made to understand something of their religious aspirations and activities.
Understanding does not come easily, since we do not have the kind of rich literary documentation upon which historians traditionally depend. We must draw upon oral traditions and the archaeologist's trowel, upon the geologist's data for the Ice Age and the chemist's methods of dating, upon reading from the present back into the past, upon informed guesses and presumed universalities, and in later centuries upon the reports of missionaries and other observers. We cannot draw upon a common history, for no recorded history is shared between European Americans or Afro-Americans and these wanderers of old. We can, however, draw upon a common nature shared with these as with all peoples: common needs, common anxieties, common questions if not-quite-common answers. What is most required in our search of the past is the desire to understand.
Misunderstanding came early in the application of the name Indian, since Christopher Columbus thought he had reached the outermost islands of India. Yet, in giving to these people an Asian origin, Columbus's misnomer was not hopelessly wrong. And some shorthand term is useful, just so long as it is not offensive and so long as it does not lull us into assuming a false unity. For never will we find that convenient construct called "the Indian," much less that abstraction designated as "Indian religion." When we use the shorthand, we are really referring to the Abnaki, Blackfeet, Crow, Delaware, Eskimo, Flathead, Ghost Dancers, Hopi, Iroquois--and so on through the rest of the alphabet. Each tribe had to come to terms with its own environment, whether of woodlands or plains, seashores or deserts. And each tribe had to find some terms to explain to themselves who and why they were.
Religious practices and religious stories played major roles in these accommodations and understandings. If rains were scarce and crucial to survival, then much religious ritual centered on urging or sacrificing or praying that rains might come. If the success of the hunt or the fertility of the soil were central to tribal life, then religion (along with sharp arrows and good seeds) was called upon to do its part. Just as environment dictated some of the differences, so the search for one's place in the universe could take many paths. The questions tended to be the same: Where did I (we) come from? Why must I (we) die? What is permitted (or forbidden) for me (us) to do? What separates us from, or unites us with, other peoples of other tribes or totems or lineages? What rules the sun, or the seasons, or even the affairs of the heart? And while the questions are widely shared, it is in the answers that one finds a rich diversity, a lively pluralism.
Cherokees of the Southeast regarded the earth as "a great island floating in a sea of water" and suspended at its four extremities "by a cord hanging down from the sky vault, which is of solid rock." Pimas in the Southwest saw the "Earth Magician" as the creative agent who shaped the world, "Round and smooth he molds it."
Earth Magician makes the mountains.
Heed what he has to say!
He it is that makes the mesas.
Heed what he has to say.
Tsimshians in the Northwest explained the light of the sun with a story of The One Who Walks All Over the Sky. This One wears a mask of burning pitch which warms and illumines as he makes his way from east to west. Sparks flying out of his mouth at night account for the stars, while the moon receives its light from the face of the sleeping sun. When the sun paints his face with red ocher, that redness visible in the evening tells the people that the weather will be good the next day. And in the Northeast the Iroquois elaborated their account of Sky World, Earth, and Underworld with stories that explained not only where people came from but where, after death, they would go.
|Preface to the Revised Edition|
|I||Religion in the Colonialera||1|
|2||English Exploration and Anglican Establishment||30|
|3||Puritan New England||49|
|5||From Maryland Catholics to Georgia Evangelicals||95|
|II||Religious Ferment from the Revolution to the Civil War||119|
|6||Liberty and Enlightenment||121|
|7||Freedom and Revival||139|
|8||Redeeming the West||162|
|9||A House of Faith Divided||184|
|III||Modern Prospects from Cityscapes to Bible Battles||207|
|10||Immigration and Diversity||209|
|11||Cities and Social Gospels||231|
|12||The Church and the World||255|
|13||Growth and Schism||277|
|14||Faith and Reason||299|
|IV||Religious Transformation from World War II to the New Millennium||327|
|15||War, Peace, and Religious Renewal||329|
|16||The Courts, the Schools, the Streets||349|
|17||Justice, Liberation, Union||374|
|18||Politics and Pluralism||398|
"I'm tired of all these pilgrims, these puritans, these thieves." So sings the pop artist Jewel on her compact disc Spirit. It is a fatigue that historians of American religion know well, finding it not just among their students but also among themselves. Long gone are the days when New England Puritanism stood as the dominant emblem of America's religious past, let alone its present. Stories of Pilgrim landings and first Thanksgivings now leave a syrupy taste, while any reexamination of witchcraft crises, religious persecutions, and Indian slaughters only replaces the yawn of those grown tired of Pilgrims and Puritans with a look of horror and disgust.
Plymouth Rock itself now seems not so much a relic of holiness -- the consecrated place on which the Pilgrim forefathers landed, the great ancestral altar of liberty -- as a quaint artifact, a tourist curiosity, perhaps more befitting a minivan side trip (the Plymouth Voyager) than the Mayflower Compact. Long fenced in to protect it from being chipped away by souvenir seekers, Plymouth Rock sits now as a half-hallowed shrine that bears witness to the very invention and historical malleability of these Pilgrim forefathers. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, much of the magical power of the rock came from the desire of many Americans to identify themselves closely with these Pilgrims and Puritans, to cherish them in all their piety and courage as the forefathers of the nation. "Standing on this rock," as one lover of the Pilgrims wrote in 1832, ushers "us into the presence of our fathers." But, what happens now in the twenty-first century when so many have grown weary of Pilgrims and Puritans, when so many find Anglo-Americain relations with Indians to be thievish or worse, when so few in this polyglot and multiracial nation identify with them as fathers, let alone as mothers? Where should a religious history of America begin when the old New England stories of origin now seem so contrived, so narrow, so political?
Stories told about historical beginnings remain especially significant, and it is important to recognize at the outset that there are multiple birth narratives in American religious history, just as there are for the making of the nation as a political entity. Many of these stories, though certainly nol all, will be found in these pages. Among them, for example, is the prominence of Alaska as the eighteenth-century birthplace of Russian Orthodox Christianity in America. As one twentieth-century Orthodox Christian recalled, "Alaska is for Orthodox Christians the oldest part of Orthodox America and the source of their spiritual roots in this land." Other groups tell other stories of their religious roots in America -- the organization of the first Jewish synagogue in 1729 in New York City; the formation of the first independent African church in the early 1770s, a Baptist congregation in Silver Bluff, South Carolina; or the emergence of the Christian restorationist movement in 1801 out of a giant revival meeting at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, a location recurrently celebrated as "the birthplace of a faith." Then there are Roman Catholic claims about American beginnings, many of which center on St. Augustine, Florida, sealed already with Spanish adventurers and Catholic missionaries in 1565. "St. Augustine was founded forty-two years before the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, and fifty-five years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts," boasted a recent partisan, "making it the oldest permanent European settlement on the North American continent."
There is no such thing as immunity from the past, William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun in 1950. "There's no such thing as past either. The past is never dead. It's not even past." The contentiousness and solemnity that so often surround American stories of religious beginnings show just how apt were Faulkner's observations. This religious history opens with Native American, Spanish, and French stories before turning to English colonization, but those beginnings are, in turn, nested within other beginnings that emerge all along the way. Again, these narratives range widely, whether Mormon visions of primordial origins in ancient America or African American Muslim stories of roots that go back to Africa and move through and beyond the devastation of slavery.
Native American Religions and Colonial Encounter
The "New World" clearly was not new to those who had inhabited it for tens of thousands of years before any Europeans arrived. Long before pharaohs sat on ancient Egyptian thrones, long before Moses led his people out of that Egypt, and long before Homer wrote The Iliad or Rome rose to mighty power, inhabitants of the Americas had hunted and fished, planted and reaped, loved and given birth, danced and mourned their dead. These inhabitants had also ordered their lives in accord with socially prescribed patterns of behavior and explained their existence and their universe in accord with cosmological principles of understanding. In other words, they had developed complex systems of religious ritual and belief.
The religions of these indigenous peoples were as diverse as the places of their settlement, as varied as the tribal groups themselves. If one is inclined to think of pluralism as a phenomenon of the modem world, it is important to recognize that the American continents were never so pluralistic as in the centuries before European discovery and exploration. Pluralism was reduced, not enhanced, by the "invasion of America." No single religious institution, no single sacred book, no unified priesthood or common creed, no core group of rituals can be found in the mottled patterns of the lives of these indigenous peoples. It was only centuries into colonization that a pan-Indian or Native American identity emerged and, likewise, that intertribal religious movements (such as the Native American Church, with its peyote-based ritual observance) came into being. Even then, the new encompassing identity fostered by such pan-Indian movements was fiercely contested ...The Religious History of America
Posted December 5, 2010
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