"Gods of War, Gods of Peace," by Russell Bourne

For a handful of decades -- and a brief period of hope -- settler and Native American religions met, mingled and shaped colonial America.

Published July 25, 2002 6:24PM (EDT)

Oh, it's an old and sickening story, how early American colonists all but decimated the Native American cultures they met here. But surely this is not the full story; we just happen to hear more about the narrative's finale than the stages that led up to it. That's why Russell Bourne's newest book set in this milieu (he's also the author of "The Red King's Rebellion," on colonial racial politics) strikes such an unexpected and rigorous note. He reconstructs a lost world for us, a span of some 200 years he's decided to frame through the era's spiritual currents, the "fireplace of light and darkness" where competing creeds interacted. It's a tactical choice that seems smarter and smarter as you read along. This was a time soaked in God and gods, after all, holy wars and baptisms, faith and heresy.

In "Gods of War, Gods of Peace: How the Meeting of Native and Colonial Religions Shaped Early America," this former editor of American Heritage magazine offers a dense but accessible overview of the era's spiritual and cultural exchange. And, it turns out, that exchange was deep-seated, nuanced and kinetic. Bourne cites historian Francis Jennings, who puts things thus: "Interaction caused constant transformation on both sides." Transformation would ultimately be eclipsed by the near-ruination of the Native side, yes. And Bourne doesn't fully succeed at sticking, um, religiously to the religious theme -- you'll find tangents upon tangents -- but his chronicle is transfixing, blasted with ironies and heartache, and colored with towering figures both known and (undeservedly) obscure.

The bulk of the book takes place in New England, particularly Massachusetts, beginning in 1620, when the Pilgrims arrived. English settlements in Massachusetts still resonate as a touchstone of the American identity, the geographic showcases of the quest for religious freedom. Plymouth's Protestant Pilgrims (or Separatists, because of their pronounced break with Anglican hierarchy and pomp) exerted a fierce independence, mistrusting any clerical elite. Given their debt to the local tribesmen -- the area's Native Americans shared food through the notoriously harsh first winter and coached the Pilgrims in the ways of their new environment -- the Pilgrims became a bit more easygoing in their interactions with the indigenous culture than their stiffer-than-stiff Boston counterparts, the Puritans. The Bostonians were later arrivals who retained a healthy respect for English-style hierarchy and a decidedly earthly lust for land and power.

The Pilgrims' unexpectedly tolerant attitude reached its highest point, perhaps, in their relationship with Squanto, a Patuxet Wampanoag Indian, whose people had been wiped out by plague. He had been enslaved first by the English and then by the Spanish, from whom he escaped. Squanto's intelligence and fluent English would ensure the Pilgrims' very survival. Indeed, they would eventually declare him a "saint," accepted as a true member of the Separatist religious world. Pilgrims referred to him as "a spetiall instrumente sent of God for their good beyond their expectation."

Squanto and other Wampanoag tribesmen were receptive to the English. But Massasoit, who outranked Squanto as an overlord of the Wampanoags of the whole region, possessed the greater clarity -- for he perceived that receptivity was a slippery slope. ("Massasoit" is a title, a kind of grander order of sachem, or tribal chief. Massasoit's real name was Ousamequin, or Yellow Feather.) Massasoit would never accept the English god or English ways. Indeed, soon after the Pilgrims arrived, the local tribes organized a three-day religious ritual that attempted to exorcise the Pilgrims from Massachusetts altogether.

It obviously failed, and both natives and settlers began the hard work of hard diplomacy, to figure out how to coexist. As Bourne puts it, "Friendship of a certain sort might be possible, even a working brotherhood, but acceptance of the English settlers' unnatural, biblically ordered life was out of the question ... [the Wampanoags'] choice was between hostility toward the English dominion or assimilation within it."

Massasoit's response at once addresses a practical dilemma and reflects the religious, economic and cultural ways of the Algonquin -- the loosely unified family of all northeastern tribes. (The Wampanoags were part of the Algonquin world.) "What is this thing you call property?" he declared. "It cannot be the earth. For the earth is our mother, nourishing all her children, bears, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs to him only?"

Parse a quotation like that, and you don't wonder why these spheres collided, but how they were ever able to coexist at all. But somehow they did, at least for some 50 years. And it was mostly on the power of individual bonds between influential figures. This is the good news and bad news of "Gods of War": Bourne's strong suit is character development -- people really come alive -- but his weakness is a confusing grasp of chronology.

Still, all that character development offers up fascinating pairings. Take, for instance, Hobomock and Myles Standish. Hobomock (Algonquin for "devil") was a member of Massasoit's court and the tribe's political representative to Plymouth. He was a recognized spiritual leader as well, having survived a ritual poisoning that proved his holy power. Standish was the military commander in chief of Plymouth colony, and forged a friendship with Hobomock when they mounted a joint expedition to punish one of Plymouth's nearby rivals in the beaver trade (such cooperative ventures were unusual, but not unheard of). Perhaps Standish felt a kinship with Hobomock, since Standish himself was an odd man out in the Pilgrims' tight-knit world: As a Roman Catholic, the highly talented commander was certainly unique in Plymouth, having been voted into a leadership position, in spite of a decree barring non-Separatists from office.

Massasoit feared the religious conversion of his people so much that he tried to insert a clause in the peace treaty with the Plymouth settlers forbidding the colonists from even attempting it. Hobomock, on the other hand, became much more welcoming of the Pilgrims' ways. After witnessing the successful medical treatment of Massasoit by Plymouth healer Edward Winslow and the apparently successful easing of a drought through a "solmne day of humiliation" (the Pilgrims' community-wide day of reflection and prayer), Hobomock began to see power in the Pilgrim god. He eventually went to live in the Standish household, "religiously open," according to Bourne, until his death.

Which brings us to the least "religiously open" residents of Massachusetts, the Puritans of Boston and Massachusetts Bay. They dwelt in the "City on a Hill," Gov. John Winthrop's phrase capturing their menacing mix of arrogance and deep piety. This too was a theocracy, one of the bleakest ideological flowerings of Calvinist predestination, evolved from decades of theological debate, persecution and brutal religious warfare. Their god was wrathful, dispensing salvation only to a few. Boston firebrand religious leader John Cotton personified the contradictions of the Puritan way: a near-tyrannical religious fanaticism that quickly turned to fear as a means of warding off the wilderness of temptations in the new world.

Bourne points out: "As the Puritan leaders made further (mostly unsuccessful) attempts to control their increasingly trade-oriented and decentralized society, they emphasized the alien nature of Native Americans." Local tribesmen personified a demonic threat. It didn't take long for Cotton to move from embracing the idea of Christianizing Native Americans to saying they should be "blasted in all their green groves and arbors." He and other religious leaders even contorted themselves to produce the doctrine that Native Americans were one of the lost tribes of Israel, brought to the new world by Satan!

Needless to say, this view didn't indicate fertile ground for understanding or a peaceful religious commingling. For the Puritans, faith was a tool to isolate, control and retain power. Wars of conquest against the natives of southern New England were cast as holy wars, with Christian soldiers led into battle by a pillar of fire against the armies of Satan, in an arena where no quarter would be given.

Incredibly, Bourne finds an example of hope for coexistence and deeply layered interaction in this most unlikely spot. For this paranoid, violent world of Massachusetts Bay spawned John Eliot, one of the most innovative and successful missionaries in America. His is a name many associate with the first book published in America, the Bay Psalm Book. "Innovative" doesn't sound like an adjective you'd be likely to apply to any Puritan, but Eliot possessed both common sense and shrewd flexibility, plus a deep moral conviction that was capable of transcending doctrine.

He had the smarts, for instance, to toe the party line in terms of public support for orthodoxy, especially in the matter of just who was destined for heaven. However, he bravely opposed the outrage that was the Pequot War of the 1630s, rightly citing Puritan massacres of native women and children as a serious moral issue, and expressed real compassion for the "perishing, forlorne outcasts" who survived.

Eliot intuitively grasped that learning the Algonquin language was one obvious key to success. The Puritan hierarchy lurched from its policy of persecution back to one of supporting missionary work in 1646, a pattern that would be continuously repeated (often the motivation was to vie with the growing sway of French missionaries). The timing was right for Eliot to take to the road, armed with his knowledge of Algonquin (which he'd learned from a native tutor).

The depth of Bourne's research and his ear for the right detail make his account of Eliot's early sojourn both a delight to read and insightful history. We see him toting a fruit basket and a Bible, dressed in a practical brown leather outfit, not the black of a preacher. He is mocked for his stumbling Algonquin by one group of Native Americans but shrugs it off, finding a more receptive audience in the person of Waban, a sachem just outside of today's Boston who had already enrolled a son in an English school.

Significantly, Bourne mines the subtext that, while Eliot "had a talent for reaching into people's souls ... his proselytizing must be seen in the light of other economic and political factors, including the [Native Americans'] dispirited condition ... they had lost confidence in their own culture and its reigning divinities ... why not make a canny move toward survival?" In other words, Waban didn't need a weatherman to see which way the wind blew. It may have been some consolation that Eliot seemed earnest in his efforts to understand a culture that seemed on the road to extinction.

Clearly, he took pains to find common ground between native and colonial spiritual beliefs. Bourne writes that, as Eliot saw it, "The biblical angels might be compared to woodland spirits; the villagers practiced family prayer as a respected tradition. Furthermore, there was the concept of manitowuk -- the holiness that dwells within certain forms and practices. Where there was holiness, there might be God."

Eliot wrestled to find a way through the maze of Puritan doctrine that had to be mastered by the Algonquins before any recognized conversion could occur. By 1663 he would produce the Up-Biblum God, an Algonquin version of the Bible, which, as Bourne writes, would enable Massachusetts natives "to name and thus grasp the workings of God; they would remain their own people, with their own preserved language, even as they approached the Christian religion and the church." A direct solution to a practical problem.

His work attracted attention and financial support from England, to the Bay Colony's horror until they siphoned some of the funds; the Puritans had grown increasingly uneasy with Eliot's brand of inclusiveness. They worried that he might admit members into the church on too liberal terms. Some wanted him stopped, but Eliot had become too famous in England -- he had the backing of aristocrats and royalty -- to be eliminated.

Meanwhile, Eliot would champion the flowering of a remarkable community removed from the neurotic, prying eyes of the Puritan leadership and the relentless push for new land for settlers. The community of (vaguely Christianized) Native Americans was called Natick, after the Algonquin for "my land" and now the name of a Boston suburb. Flourishing from the 1650s to the 1670s, it represents a turning point in the relationship between settlers and the natives they systematically dispossessed. Again, an individual vision and initiative were responsible for establishing something like cooperative interaction. Eliot had the wisdom to remove himself and his "praying Indians," as they were known, from the fervid swirl of Boston policy. He also had the good sense to tread lightly in his attempts to inculcate "civilitie," the bedrock of English Puritan mores, that would precede acceptance of the Indians within the church.

In Natick, polygamy became an official no-no, as was this decidedly unappetizing practice: "If any shall kill their lice between their teeth, they shall pay five shillings." English-style street plans alternated with a preference for wigwams and bold architectural achievement (the Natick residents built a large bridge over the Charles River, connecting two parts of town). A new, self-sufficient economy also reflected the new order, with men farming instead of hunting and women spinning fabric instead of farming. The context is heartbreaking, but this was truly a matter of survival: "The villages sounded Algonquin in language and laughter, they smelled Algonquin in cookery and curing, they looked Algonquin in their wigwams and their day-to-day leadership ... they were a visionary attempt to preserve a culture by helping it to adapt," writes Bourne.

The success of Natick became a model for more than a dozen other similar towns, but few would last; Natick itself would be abandoned in the conflagration of King Philip's War in the 1670s. (King Philip was the somewhat mocking name given by colonists to Metacom, one of Massasoit's sons. They said he reminded them of Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great's father. Upon Massasoit's death, King Philip abandoned his father's hard-won if shaky peace, and pursued a full-out attempt to eradicate English presence in New England, burning many settlements across the region.)

Eliot was an extraordinary figure. An equally astonishing presence, akin to Eliot, but this time on the Native American side, was William Appess. Appess was a Pequot, an ordained Methodist preacher and leader of the "Mashpee Revolt" of 1833, set off when the Massachusetts government, under President Andrew Jackson's orders, attempted to oust the Indians from the area. Appess embodies the themes of adaptation, interaction and survival, representing a living bridge between religions and cultures. He would use his spreading fame as a bully pulpit, arguing for the equality of Native Americans and Christians. "I felt convinced that Christ had died for all mankind," as he put it. Having lived among the Mohawk, Appess apprehended a commonality among various Native American peoples, referring to them as "my brethren."

What Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act meant for the Cherokee is comparatively well known; for the residents of Mashpee, on Cape Cod, a lonely bastion of "praying Indians," it looked like the tragic denouement of 200 years of adaptation and scrambling for survival. Appess, sent by the Methodist Church leadership, arrived in the nick of time to organize a military defense. After establishing that the Mashpee were not to be trifled with, and correctly reading Massachusetts sensibilities as more tolerant than Jackson's (which is not saying much), Appess combined civil disobedience with due process, eventually achieving his reinstatement as minister over a white outsider. More significantly, he was able to secure self-governance and a measure of dignity for the Mashpee.

What does Mashpee's example teach us? Appess knew that for Native Americans the real definition of the terms of interaction usually boiled down to some form of compromise vs. absolute destruction. The miracle is that he triumphed, even on a small scale. At the time, that was a radical achievement. However, Appess was not able to forestall the specter of death and destruction for Native Americans as it marched in tandem with Manifest Destiny. As Bourne points out: "The revolt should not be seen as a victory beacon flashing eternally against the dark but as a light blinking from near obscurity for future inquirers into Indian nationalism." "Gods of War" is full of such blinking lights. It is a sad but real thrill to see them flicker in such vast, vast darkness.

By Katharine Whittemore

Katharine Whittemore is the editor of American Movie Classics magazine.

MORE FROM Katharine Whittemore

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Religion