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Religion in the Americas, 1600 – 1800

October 29, 2011

Image 1. Sick man being led over hot coals. Reprinted from Father Joseph Francois Lafitau, Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times (1724; Toronto, 1977)

The history of religion in the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is the history of cultural change through a process of encounter and negotiation. A  number of class readings describe this process and the religious forms that resulted.

In his book, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650 – 1815, Richard White describes the creation of a  “middle ground,” where, in order to achieve some mutually beneficial purpose, actors from two different cultures justify their actions in what they perceive, sometimes wrongly, to be the cultural premises of the other.

Missionaries, for example, in some cases accepted native cultural suppositions, allowing the two cultures to reach a ‘working’ understanding.  Thus, they might recognize the existence of supernatural intervention in a native healing ceremony, like the one depicted in Image 1.  They would be more likely to ascribe that intervention to the devil, however, than a benevolent spirit.  Press here to read a seventeenth century missionary’s account of a similar healing ceremony as that depicted in Image 1, taken from The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, edited by R.G. Thwaites.

Image 2. Black slaves saying the rosery, Peru, 1600-1615. This image is from the "Guaman Poma Website," published by the Research Institute at the Royal Danish Library.

In Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400 – 1800, John Thornton shows how the encounter of African religion and Christianity, first in Africa and then in the New World, resulted in an Afro-Atlantic religion that was understood as Christian, but that “satisfied both African and European understandings of religion” (Thornton, 235).  The common ground on which the two religions met was the belief in ‘revelation’.

Click here to hear an interview by Australian Public Broadcasting Company radio with Linda Heywood and John Thornton, professors of history at Boston University, on the conversion of the Kingdom of the Kongo to Catholicism.  This was said to have occurred as a  result of a vision of St. James that appeared to King Alphonso and his followers during a battle in the late fifteenth century.

Image 3. Seventeenth century Kongolese cross.



The cross in Image 3 is found in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and illustrates White’s “middle ground”:

“Christ is depicted with large protruding oval eyes … representing the supernatural vision of a human who is possessed by an ancestor or deity. Below Christ and above his shoulders are small, highly stylized praying figures. … they may be mourners or ancestors.” From the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

Image 4. Increase Mather's Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences



In his book, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment; Popular Religious Belief in Early New England, David Hall demonstrates how, even in a society as seemingly homogeneous as seventeenth century Puritan New England, religious culture was shaped by a process of cultural encounter.  Hall shows how popular religion was the result of an internal negotiation between older folk traditions of ‘wonder’ and the providential Calvinism preached by the clergy.


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