Gods of War, Gods of Peace: How the Meeting of Native and Colonial Religions Shaped Early America
by Russell Bourne
425 pp.; $28
Once our Native American and European forebears began discovering one another half a millennium ago, little stayed the same. Their separate pre-contact worlds gradually gave way to a host of new realities. Trade networks, political alliances, disease environments, agricultural techniques, and cultural identities all were transformed in the centuries after Columbus.
Did this refashioning of old worlds include the sacred realm? A widening stream of recent books and articles would have us think so. Upon encountering new places, products, and peoples, Europeans and Euro-Americans took stock of what the new discoveries meant for them and their faiths. Their growing consciousness of the Indian "Other" influenced how they made sense of the world. Meanwhile, the religious worldviews of Native Americans felt the jarring effects of the European presence. Over time, peoples on both sides of the cultural divide reconstructed religious outlooks in the wake of meeting one another.
Russell Bourne's Gods of War, Gods of Peace gives bold expression to that thesis and links it to nothing less than the formation of a distinct American civilization. Targeted for a general readership and written in a sweeping narrative style with no footnotes, the book asserts that the collective encounter of Indians and Europeans in North America is best understood as "a confrontation of two historic and still evolving religious systems, with immense consequences for the different cultures." Far from playing the peripheral role often assigned to it, religion was central to the interactions of Europeans and Native Americans precisely because religion was central to the way both civilizations understood reality. The story of their contest of faiths, as Bourne tells it, was no simple tale of conquest. Instead, both peoples' religions took hits but managed to go with the flow and survive. What emerged in the end (the mid-19th century) were substantially changed but still separate cultures, "resulting in a strangely uncombined, uniquely American civilization."
To reach that conclusion, Bourne constructs a version of early American history that features a series of preachers and prophets whose voices and visions gave expression to the divine will and to human yearnings. He is especially attracted to cultural bridge-builders, those who in word and deed held out the possibility that Natives and newcomers could live in harmony. Hence, the three chapters of part 1 give center stage to Squanto, Hobomock, Roger Williams, Hiawatha, Jean de Brébeuf, and John Eliot. In one way or another, all of them inspired hopes for the creation of "equitable biracial communities."
On the Euro-American side, what set apart men such as Eliot and Williams from the vast majority of their Puritan peers was their choice to "integrate themselves with their new homeland—that is, to become Americanized." What Bourne means by "American" is not entirely clear but seems to include a respect for the natural environment and its indigenous peoples, opposition to any forms of forced conversion, and a willingness to preserve at least certain aspects of Indian cultural practice in the process of Christian evangelization, and for the sake of peace. Such "Americans" were far too few in 17th-century New England to keep the peace. The Pequot War in the 1630s and King Philip's War in the 1670s were notoriously bloody affairs, not least because participants on both sides interpreted the conflicts as divinely sanctioned battles between competing gods.
Parts 2 and 3 make even more of the close ties between religion, diplomacy, and war within early America. Carrying the story through the eighteenth century and into the1830s, Bourne rightly highlights Indians' fundamentally spiritual understandings of political and military matters. Whether making war or peace, traditional sacred rituals and innovative religious reforms (some Christian, some not) played crucial roles in the efforts of Shikellamy, Neolin, Pontiac, Joseph Brant, Handsome Lake, Tecumseh, Tenskwatawa, William Apess, and a host of other Native leaders to help their peoples adapt and survive. Meanwhile, for their part, Euro-American missionaries often became key political operatives. For instance, Bourne recounts the career of Samuel Kirkland, who, amid the pressures of the War for Independence, functioned less as a pastor and more as a patriot go-between among the Oneidas.
In all of this, Bourne remains interested in glimpsing those cultural moments when he believes early America produced racially inclusive spiritual communities, places where religious influence freely flowed in both directions. "Exceptions to the general rule of conquest and annihilation," 18th-century towns such as Jonathan Edwards's Stockbridge, David Brainerd's Crossweeksung, and the Nanticoke Reformer's Juniata Junction serve as reminders that the sorry tale of racial separation and antipathy of later generations hadn't always been the case. For Bourne, the crucial point of no return was the War of 1812: "its unleashing of interracial horror on the northwestern and southeastern frontiers, its justification of indiscriminate conquest in the name of patriotism, and its bringing forth of opposed prophets and apostles—ended all practical hopes for a mutual brotherhood and a shared nationality." In its wake, not even the Second Great Awakening could foment a robust opposition to Indian removal in the 1820s and '30s. As a result, the nation went forward with eyes averted from Native suffering but nevertheless the unique cultural product of the long interaction of contending faiths.
By turning our eyes toward the multiple religious dimensions of European-Indian relations in early America, Russell Bourne has clearly done an important service. His work adds to a growing consensus that religious explanation, exchange, and transformation were critical elements in much of the contact between Native Americans and Europeans. What is not so clear to me is whether employing these stories to account for the shape of "American civilization" is especially helpful. At a time when American historians are becoming more interested in emphasizing the unexceptional character of our nation's past (particularly when seen in a global context), Bourne's work seems to hearken back to an earlier era of scholarship (say the 1950s) when the quest for defining the American national character was much in vogue.
The irony here is that he wants to alert us to the presence and persistence of cultural and religious pluralism in America. Yet the book is peppered with adjectival uses of "American"—American preachers and prophets, American design, American exceptionalist, American considerations, American evangelist, American faith—that convey an image of a single and rather fixed idea (though rather fuzzy) of who and what that was or is. Bourne describes numerous individuals whose religious and cultural makeup were changed over time (some of them were "Americanized") but fails to treat "American" in a similar fashion as an evolving, dynamic cultural construct with multiple meanings.
Much the same problem afflicts Bourne's treatment of race. He leaves the impression that as soon as Europeans showed up, a biracial frontier was formed with clear and static notions of who was white and who was red. The trouble is most of the evidence from the colonial era suggests something different. Racial categories seem to have taken a long time to form (at least into the eighteenth century), were often malleable, and anything but self-evident. The fact that Bourne uses the term "red" throughout his history, whereas Euro-Americans did not use the word to describe or refer to Native Americans until the 1700s, is itself a clue that he needed to offer a more complex—no, a more accurate—view of race in early America.
Even if this book had provided more satisfying analyses of cultural and racial formation in America, there would still be reasons to be leery of its ultimate goal of explaining how America got to be America. For one thing, until 1800, it focuses exclusively on the northeast and never considers European-Indian interaction in Louisiana or New Spain. Were religious encounters in colonial Virginia and the Carolinas, not to mention Florida and New Mexico, somehow irrelevant to what the republic-to-be became?
More important, by orienting our attention on how the competition of religious systems forged later American civilization, we run the risk of missing what might have been or might have seemed vitally important at that present historical moment. Understanding the myriad meetings and exchanges of Native Americans and Europeans on their own terms and within their own peculiar historical contexts, rather than in relation to some future American identity or American culture, strikes me as essential for doing justice to each particular religious encounter. No doubt some of these encounters had long-lasting effects. But we do a disservice to those involved, and to what happened in early America itself, if we assign primary or solitary value to how the meetings of Indians and Europeans contributed to what was to be rather than what was.
Richard W. Pointer is professor of history at Westmont College.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Visit Books & Culture online at BooksandCulture.com or subscribe here.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Books Present, Books Past, and Books to Come | Plus: A new format for this column. (Jan. 13, 2002)
Double Indemnity Meets Dead Souls | A conversation with novelist Richard Dooling. (Jan. 6, 2003)
Books of the Year | The top ten. (OK—make that twelve.) (Dec. 30, 2002)
Entertain Us | Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the rapture of distress. (Dec. 16, 2002)
Boys Will Be Boys | A new book by a leading Christian feminist scholar inadvertently reveals the flawed assumptions underlying much talk about "flexibility" in gender roles. (Dec. 9, 2002)
Street Cred | Dave Eggers: The portrait of an artist as a … what? (Dec.2, 2002)
Epicurus'—and Darwin's—Dangerous Idea | How we became hedonists. (Nov. 18, 2002)
Weird Science? | A Darwinian debate continues. (Nov. 11, 2002)
Of Moths and Men Revisited | A Darwinian debate. (Nov. 4, 2002)
Angels in Heaven | A game that's more than a game. (Oct. 28, 2002)
Number One with a Bullet | America's foist family as a tool for evangelism. (Oct. 21, 2002)
Train Up a Child | Helping children to become intimately familiar with Scripture. (Oct. 14, 2002)
Acting Like Those 'Evangelicals' | Guilty as charged? (Sept. 30, 2002)
Ugly Evangelicals | Is this us? (Sept. 23, 2002)
Herbie Goes Bananas | The rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of the VW Beetle. (Sept. 16, 2002)
So Far, So Near | A graduate of Murree Christian School in Pakistan, the site of a deadly assault by Islamic terrorists in August, reflects on his growing-up years, on what has changed in the interim, and on the beleaguered Christian community in Pakistan (Sept. 9, 2002)
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingWorship Music Is Emotionally Manipulative. Do You Trust the Leader Plucking the Strings?The Spirit is at work, but so are the mechanisms around high-production sets.español
- From the MagazineHow One Family’s Faith Survived Three Generations in the PulpitWith a front-row seat to their parents’ failures and burnout, a long line of pastor’s kids still went into ministry. Why?
- Editor's PickDied: Paul Eshleman, Who Brought ‘Jesus’ Film to the Ends of the EarthThe Campus Crusade evangelism strategist wanted everyone in the world to hear the good news that God loved them.