Religion and Conversion

Kateri Tekakwitha

Figure 4.1 Kateri Tekakwitha.

Kateri Tekakwitha was one of the young Mohawk converts to Christianity that missionary Father Claude Chauchetiere met when he came to Canada in the 1670s (see Selection 2). This image is based on his portrait of her. What information about her conversion do you think he was trying to convey in this image?

Source: From M. de Bacqueville de La Potherie, Histoire de I’Amerique Septentrionale (Claude-Charles Le Roy)/Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


The collision of cultures in the Atlantic World had a spiritual as well as physical dimension. European colonizers, though they were split into Protestant and Catholic camps, shared a perspective on the New World shaped by their Christian heritage and beliefs. They tried to fit the Americas into a cosmology that was rooted in biblical stories of creation and prophecy, even if the existence of Indians challenged such scriptural authority. Consider, for example, the conundrum posed by the nakedness of the Indians that Columbus met in the Caribbean. The Book of Genesis taught that after Adam and Eve had sinned, they clothed themselves; thereafter, they and their descendants equated nakedness with shame. Yet, the Indians Columbus met exhibited no shame in their lack of clothing. Did that mean they inhabited a prelapsarian Garden of Eden into which sin had not entered? Colonizers quickly put such speculation aside for the more practical task of converting Indians into Christian proselytes, initiating a centuries-long spiritual struggle between native and newcomer. In a similar manner, Europeans used the Bible to legitimize the Atlantic Slave Trade, citing the Old Testament story of Ham’s Curse, in which Noah condemned the descendants of his son Ham to servitude, as evidence that God sanctioned enslaving Africans. They also defended the institution of slavery on the grounds that it provided a means of converting Africans and making possible their salvation.

Every European nation that colonized the New World paid at least lip service to the notion of converting Native Americans to Christianity. The Catholic powers (Spain, Portugal, and France) devoted far more resources to this task than did the Protestant ones (England, the Netherlands), sponsoring missionaries and claiming spiritual and political authority over large populations of Indian converts. In those regions colonized by Protestant powers, missionary work was not nearly so well funded or organized, but the conversion of indigenous peoples nevertheless remained a fundamental legal and political justification for seizing Indian land and labor.

Whether Catholic or Protestant, missionaries pursued a full-scale cultural conversion of Indians that involved much more than catechizing them in a new faith. Oftentimes, missionaries described their work as “reducing the Indians to civility”: breaking down their old cultural habits and values so that they could be remade in a European image. Missionaries expected converts not only to pray like Christians, but also to eat, dress, and work like them. This process entailed separating converts from their unconverted kin and resettling them into communities (reserves in New France, praying towns in New England, reducciones in New Spain) under the missionaries’ supervision, where their gender roles and sexual mores could be remade according to European models. These communities served as buffers for colonial populations against their enemies and as pools from which to draw labor or military assistance when necessary.

Indian conversions were never as numerous or thorough as European missionaries wished they would be. Some elements of Christianity appealed to Indians. Many converts accepted the sacrament of baptism because they believed it would convey spiritual protection against disease and other types of misfortune that followed in the wake of European contact. The religious artifacts used by Catholic missionaries to teach their faith—saints’ medals, rings, rosary beads—resembled in color and shape native objects Indians already associated with spiritual well-being, such as wampum beads. Conversion also offered a variety of practical advantages when it came to dealing with the newcomers. Missionaries provided material support in times of need and worked as diplomatic go-betweens on behalf of their converts with colonial authorities. Indians who resettled in French, English, or Spanish mission communities could also expect greater security of tenure in their lands than those Indians who spurned the missionaries’ efforts.

There were also elements of Christianity that Indians generally ignored or resisted. The biblical injunction against nakedness, which missionaries usually invoked to convince Indian men and women to dress like Europeans, held little sway among converts, who adopted European clothing in a selective manner that left plenty of flesh exposed. Likewise, converts were not particularly interested in altering their family and sexual practices so that they were in accordance with Christian prohibitions against polygamy and divorce. In general, those Native Americans who accepted Christianity never bowed entirely to new religious orthodoxies, regardless of how forcefully Europeans tried to impose them. Rather, they selectively chose which elements of Christianity appealed to them, creating syncretic faiths that blended old and new spiritual beliefs and practices.

A similar process of religious acculturation and adaptation occurred among the African populations of the Atlantic World. Generally speaking, Catholic powers expended greater effort in converting slaves than Protestant ones, at least to the point of baptizing them and subjecting their spiritual practices to the policing of church authorities. Among free blacks and mixed race peoples in Portuguese and Spanish America, the church became an important institution for cultivating social networks and mutual obligations that could secure a person’s place in society, such as through the practice of god-parentage. In those slave societies with significant black majorities in the population, such as the sugar islands of the Caribbean, the continual influx of new slaves by way of the Atlantic Slave Trade allowed for a more sustained and varied transplantation of African religious beliefs and customs in the New World. Vodou and Santería in Haiti and Cuba respectively are examples of syncretic faiths that emerged out of the meeting of Catholic and African religions in the Caribbean.

In North America, colonial powers paid much less attention to missionary work among African slaves. English slave owners were reluctant to convert slaves for fear that it would encourage them to sue for their freedom. Therefore, slave codes in English colonies explicitly denied any link between baptism and freedom. Nevertheless, slaves and free blacks in North America adopted Christianity as part of their wider acculturation to colonial society. By the mid-eighteenth century, some Protestant denominations were seeking converts among African and Native American populations. Baptists, Methodists, and Moravians (a German sect) preached a message of Christian brotherhood and spiritual equality that transcended racial boundaries. Starting in the 1740s, a Protestant revivalist movement known as the Great Awakening swept through British North America, led by itinerant preachers who moved from town to town and throughout the countryside, trying to reach people outside of traditional churches. The Great Awakening’s message of the New Birth—salvation achieved through acceptance of Jesus Christ—appealed to Native Americans and Africans because it encouraged spiritual autonomy and did not require submission to any particular church authority or doctrine. In this manner, syncretic Protestantism took root among North American Indians and slaves in a way that did not require conversion and confinement in mission communities.

The readings in this chapter illuminate the spiritual dimensions of Atlantic World encounters by focusing on the idea of conversion. The first two selections concern the efforts of seventeenth-century Spanish and French missionaries to enforce a new religious orthodoxy on Native Americans. The third and fourth selections are from the era of the Great Awakening. In one, a Native American convert experiences difficulties when he is sent by his European mentor to preach among other Indians. In the other, an African American has a life-changing experience when he happens to attend the sermon of a revivalist preacher. As you read these sources, look for the tensions and negotiations between missionaries and converts: how did the former try to impose their will on the latter, and how did the latter assert control of their own spiritual lives?

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