A Nation of Women (part IV)

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I did not it intended for my review/summary of Gunlog Fur’s A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians to be spread over so many weeks, but I also do not like long blog posts. This is the fourth installment, and there will be two more. Here are the links for Part I, Part II, and Part III.

There were some aspects of Moravian belief that both hindered and helped their missionary efforts. One of these was the Moravian antipathy for alcohol. Some Delaware chose not to convert because they did not want to stop drinking whiskey, while for others the strictures against alcohol were a factor in conversion. Young mothers, especially, perceived the absence of alcohol in Moravian towns as creating a healthier environment to raise children. While Delaware women were victimized by the male violence that accompanied binge drinking, many Delaware women themselves drank heavily. Women had direct access to alcohol through their trade activities with whites, and at any rate women took responsibility for the distribution of resources. Whiskey obtained from whites was used in ceremonies for mourning the dead, which were women’s ceremonies, but this did not appear to be a source of conflict. It was the more prosaic consumption of alcohol that divided communities.

Missionaries attributed drunkeness to Satanic seductions, and Fur does a remarkable job of pointing out the ways missionaries and Delaware converts misapprehended one another on the subject of the Evil One. The Delaware did not have a concept of evil as an animated force, let alone as a personality in opposition to God, with the souls of men and women as battleground between the two powers. They did recognize troublesome and capricious lesser spirits who might wreak havoc or might be beneficial. More often they equated the Devil with vague non-harmonious energies that caused restlessness or worry. Because missionaries characterized Delaware ceremonies and spiritual beliefs as Satanic, many Delaware saw the cosmic play between God and Devil as Indian versus white, and when speaking of a decision to “go to Hell” meant they had chosen to follow the ways that led to the Indian afterlife rather than the Christian one. While missionaries worried that their converts were being subjected to torturous temptations of the Antichrist, Delaware Indians themselves attributed their misbehavior to personal failings or poor choices.

Moravian belief stressed a personal and emotional contact with God, and Moravians looked for direct revelations from the Holy Spirit for guidance. When discussion around a problem did not reveal a clear path, they drew lots as a method of divining God’s judgment. In some ways this harmonized with Delaware reliance on dreams and visions for directing personal and community actions. Prophecy through visions could come from any individual, but some were more blessed with this power than others. Prophecy was a talent that garnered respect, and both men and women could be prophets. Visions could provide direct remedies for a problem or delineate ceremonies to address an issue. Often these ceremonies were directed toward healing physical or mental illness. Whites valued and sought Delaware knowledge on herbal healing, but labeled ceremonial healing as wicked and heathen. Other ceremonies were tolerated to some extent. Missionaries tried to substitute Christian songs and prayers for Indian ones in ceremonies for planting, harvest, hunting, burial and marriage. They met resistance even among converts in trying to change rituals around childbirth. Missionaries also had difficulty Christianizing hunting ceremonies to their satisfaction, but the reasons for this are unclear. Fur does not give information about the ceremonies that undoubtedly accompanied menarche and menstruation.

The biggest philosophical difference between Delaware and missionary, and one that Moravians may not have entirely understood, was the way conversion itself was viewed, independent of the benefits and failings of the white religion. Moravians viewed conversion as an independent decision, one of personal conscience. Delaware, on the other hand, did not view any important decision as an individual one. Attractions of the new religion had to be weighed against spiritual obligations to the community as a whole, such as role in particular ceremonies or healing talents that could not be expressed in a Christian context. Conversely, when a church member decided to go back to traditional ways, not only the spouse but numerous maternal relatives and members of the extended social network would break away as well.

We can’t sum up women’s position in any culture without taking a hard look at marriage. Next week’s post will look at how differing views on marriage and family fueled the most intense conflicts between Moravian missionaries and Delaware Indians, including Delaware converts.

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