The Idea of America


Imagining the Native American


   The millenarianism of the Protestant settlers of America had two other crucial aspects: the Ordeal and the final battle between good and evil. Protestant sects were and are bitterly divided over the sequence of events at the end of time, so the exact relationship between these two events and the millenium were not universally agreed on among the settlers of America. But for the most part, it seemed logical that both the Ordeal and the final battle would occur before the rule of saints, since the rule of saints implies that evil has somehow been contained.

   The Ordeal is a difficult concept to define, for it's not fully defined in the New Testament. It's clear that the Ordeal was paramount to early Christians: the last line of the Lord's Prayer, which is mistranslated, "lead us not into temptation," in the original Greek reads, "keep us from the Ordeal." While the Ordeal is not explained, we can make some guesses about what it means. The word in Greek is "peirasmos," and refers to some physical suffering or trial. It is also used for judicial torture; the Greeks, like the Romans, employed torture as a means of extracting evidence. Free citizens could not be tortured, but slaves frequently were. The logic was that torture would force the truth out of a suspect or witness; the "peirasmos," then, was a physical suffering that separated truth from falsity in the Greek mind. The Ordeal (or Tribulation or Trial) seems to be a similar event in salvation history, a time of great suffering, whether spiritual or physical, which would separate truth from falsity.

   The Protestant settlers believed that this Ordeal would take place in America and, for most Protestants, would serve as the prelude to the millenium. The settlers also believed that the events of salvation history were also events that occurred in one's individual life. While salvation history demanded an ordeal, one's own, personal salvation history was given meaning by similar events. In narrating personal salvation, the circumstances of the eschatological ordeal would often be used to give meaning and value to personal and communal events. The personal "ordeal" or "tribulation" often served in salvation narration to be the circumstance that revealed to the believer his or her salvation, that is, the evidence that God was scripting their lives in such a way as to bring them to salvation (or the realization of it). So the Ordeal was as important in the radical Protestant imagination of the self and the meaning of one's life as the conversion event itself. Just as the Ordeal would precede the rule of saints, so a personal ordeal preceded personal conversion.

   If any place seemed right for an ordeal, that place was the wilds of America. In the Protestant imagination, America would be the place that tested them as both individuals and as a religious community. The former pertained to personal salvation history while the latter pertained to Christian eschatology.

   What does this mean for Native Americans? While many radical Protestants dealt openly and fairly with Native Americans, for most of the radical settlers of America the Native Americans were collapsed in with the general idea of America, as the wilderness that would provide the Ordeal in their personal and communal salvation histories. Native Americans, from the first, were imagined as the instruments of the ordeal, and the witnessing narratives of American Protestants took on a far different character than the witnessing narratives of the continental bretheren. In a witnessing narrative, one structures the story of one's life to explain how the circumstances of one's life brought one to a realization of the workings of God within one's life, particularly how God has manipulated one's life to bring you to a knowledge of your salvation. These witnessing narratives drew on the Old and New Testaments for their symbolic and narrative content; in particular, as noted above, they drew on eschatological symbols and narratives. The dominant witnessing genre among the Americans became the "captivity" narrative, in which being captured by Native Americans became the Ordeal which led to the realization of salvation. Because of this, Native Americans were represented in the Protestant imagination as instruments of evil; they were ungodly, cruel, malicious, and randomly violent. While Native Americans would not have been imagined well in any Christian imagination, the reconfiguring of Native Americans as instruments of the Ordeal led most settlers of America to regard them as hopelessly lost to the forces of evil. This affected the community that early settlers formed with Native Americans; now that they were reconfigured in the American imagination as instruments of evil, having commerce with them threatened to infect the American community with this evil. Even as late as the 1780's, Americans were arguing that the Native American could never be converted to Christianity and, consequently, could never be allowed into European-American society.

   This cultural view of the Native Americans carried over into the more crucial eschatological notion of the final battle between good and evil. Again, the New Testament is dramatically vague about the circumstances of this final conflict; whether it will be a spiritual or a physical conflict isn't all that clear. The settlers of America, however, had a ready-made candidate for the forces of evil in this final conflict: Native Americans. Some Protestants believed that the conflict between Natives and Europeans would be a spiritual conflict and began to actively proseletyze Native societies. This proseletyzation, done in the best intents, seriously disrupted Native American society. Not fully welcome in their own societies, and almost completely unwelcome in European-American society, the converts found themselves between two worlds.

   Those, however, who believed that the final battle would be a physical battle began a pattern of violence against the Native Americans that became the model for the relationship between European-Americans and Native Americans well into the twentieth century. While the history of this relationship is one of conquest and genocide, it's important to understand that it was rooted in a fundamental view of Native Americans that originated with the early settlers of America. As various millenial ideas were secularized, such as the millenium being converted to "manifest destiny" in the nineteenth century, so were the millenial ideas about Native Americans. Despite evidence to the contrary, such as the enormously successful adoption of Western ideas by the Cherokee, Americans throughout the nineteenth and even twentieth century would view Native Americans as fundamentally and irrevocably different and ultimately impossible to incorporate into European-derived society. The consequences of this world view are, I need hardly say, one of the great tragedies of human violence in all of history: the most systematic extermination of a people that any society, including the German Third Reich, ever engaged in.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-2-97