A Nation of Women (part III)

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This is a continuation of my summary/review of Gunlog Fur’s A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians. Here is part II and part I. This third installment discusses Delaware spiritual beliefs as revealed in encounters with Christian missionaries.

The Delaware responded to the first hellfire preachers with alarm, thinking they had come to declare war. When that misunderstanding was put away, many Delaware continued to attend sermons, curious about Christian beliefs or perhaps entertained by what preachers had to say. Still, Christian missionaries had few converts. This changed with efforts of Moravian missionaries to Christianize the Delaware in the mid eighteenth century.

Fur notes research suggesting that efforts to convert North American Indians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries resulted in one of three predictable outcomes: the entire tribe decided to convert, the tribe decided not to convert, or there was conflict along gender lines around the issue of converting. There were serious conflicts among Delawares about the presence of missionaries and decisions to convert, but interestingly these conflicts were not split along gender lines. Fur notes that Delaware women both participated in and fought white missionary efforts during this period. To make sense of the conflicts and alliances that arose, it is necessary to understand not only Delaware cultural beliefs but some of the beliefs around culture and gender held by the Moravians.

The Moravians were remarkably egalitarian for the times, even compared to other progressive sects, with ideals reminiscent of the very early Christians. They not only preached that men and women were equal in the eyes of God, but allowed women to speak in mixed gender congregations and to hold leadership positions. They had feminine conceptions of the Holy Spirit and utilized metaphors for Christ that were less heavily gendered than other sects. Moravians preferred to work in sex segregated groups and the majority of their religious activities were sex segregated as well. Missionaries had to be married, as men proselytized to other men and women to other women. Unlike the early Christians, Moravians did not hold sexual relations to be shameful, at least in the context of heterosexual marriage, and they placed no value on celibacy. They strove to introduce Christianity in an ethnically sensitive way, at least as they understood the concept, and missionaries not only learned the Delaware languages but taught in those languages and translated written religious materials into Delaware. Missionaries were expected to live and work in the manner of people they were trying to convert, insofar as it did not conflict with their Christian values, so Moravian missionaries labored alongside their converts. It seems that if any group could make Christianity acceptable to the Delaware, it was the Moravians.

The environmental stressors afflicting the Delaware at the time of initial contact with the Moravians were another factor in Delaware receptivity to their message. Delaware peoples had been in contact with Europeans for two centuries when Moravian missionary efforts began in the mid-eighteenth century, and during that time life had changed dramatically. Contagious diseases such as smallpox appeared in waves infecting each generation, reducing the population by between 75 and 90%. Delaware lived peaceably with some white settlements, but had experienced violence and betrayal from others. Alcohol had devastating effects on families. Long-standing conflicts with Iroquois nations to the north and west became increasingly violent as Iroquois sought to appropriate Delaware territory to improve their access to the European fur trade. Delaware had survived all of these challenges with traditional culture intact, but the first part of the eighteenth century saw a much greater white encroachment on Delaware land, blocking access to traditional food sources and forcing widespread relocation of villages. Delaware were beginning to experience significant food shortages, a new experience for people living in a moderate climate with fertile land and abundant wildlife. Hunger and loss of land, combined with long-standing problems of disease and warfare, made many open to religious solutions offered by the new missionaries.

Moravian missionaries had serious conflicts with other whites, for both political and theological reasons, which may have been a point in their favor from the perspective of many Delaware. One conflict revolved around the staunch and inflexible pacifism Moravians adhered to. Within Delaware communities, the principle of pacifism shored up one faction in the ongoing debate over how to respond to white encroachment. While Delaware peoples did not approve of warfare as a way of life, they did go to war to defend their territories, and debate ensued throughout the eighteenth century over which was the better strategy, mediation or war. This debate appears to have hinged on practical considerations, but Moravian missionaries with their message of pacifism appeared on the scene at a time when Delaware leaders were trying to rein in their warriors and arrive at a political solution with European and Indian nations. Since mediation was the purview of women, just as conducting warfare that of men, we can assume that women were actively involved in this decision.

Many women who sought or accepted interaction with Moravians were motivated by concern for their children, as the Indian villages of the Moravians were considered safer and more secure in their food supplies. Women also wanted their children to learn to read and write. Child mortality was a factor, with women often seeking baptism for dying children. Fur does not speculate on the reasons for this, even while noting that baptism for adults approaching death was much less common.

Christianity was a highly polarizing issue for eighteenth century Delaware. For all the attractions the Moravian brand of Christianity held for some Delaware women (and men), there was also strong opposition toward missionizing of any stripe. The next installment looks at reasons many women found Moravian beliefs incompatible with their way of life. This section will have a bit more on Delaware spiritual beliefs. I post on Fridays, so look for this on November 29th.

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