Review: Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World

Edward E. Andrews, Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Native ApostlesOn the eve of the American Revolution, an unlikely band of ministers and benefactors devised a plan to send John Quamine, a free black man, and Bristol Yamma, a slave, as missionaries to Africa. The project was conceived by the two would-be missionaries themselves, and supported by controversial Congregationalist minister Samuel Hopkins and his more moderate colleague Ezra Stiles. In 1774, Stiles and Hopkins arranged for the duo to be sent to the College of New Jersey, where Presbyterian minister (and president of the College) John Witherspoon would train them. Their proposed mission gained some notoriety, and a diverse lot of supporters championed their cause, including Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet, New Jersey lawyer and politician Elias Boudinot, Scottish theologian John Erskine the noted black poet Phyllis Wheatley, Eleazar Wheelock and his Mohegan pupil-turned-preacher Samson Occum, and black Anglican missionary to Africa Phillip Quaque (though his endorsement came with serious reservations). The outbreak of war in 1775 and the subsequent death of Quamine in 1779 ultimately thwarted the planned mission. In spite of its failure, though, it remains an important but oft-ignored episode in what Edward E. Andrews calls “the tangled history of cultural encounter between Europe, Africa, and the Americas” (188).

That episode frames the penultimate chapter of Edward E. Andrews, Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013). According to Andrews, Quamine and Yamma’s planned mission to Africa “was rooted in Afro-Christian religious transformations within the Atlantic world as well as the history and challenges of Native American missionary experience,” and represents an important convergence of nearly a century and a half of Protestant efforts to train Native American and African (American) missionaries (221). In Native Apostles, Andrews analyzes the experiences of several hundred such missionaries, arguing that “native preachers, who could be found from New England to the Caribbean, the Carolinas to Africa, and even Iroquoia to India, became vital participants in an increasingly expansive Protestant missionary effort” (4). Moving chronologically through the 17th and 18th centuries, the book is organized into a series of broadly thematic chapters examining the lives and experiences of a wide cast of characters that includes both recognizable figures like Hiacoomes, Samson Occum, and Olaudah Equiano, and their less well-known counterparts, often known simply by their first (or only) name: Moses, Negyes, and Papunhank, for example.

The turn to native missionaries was one that crossed theological boundaries and denominational lines: New England Congregationalists, Anglicans on both sides of the Atlantic, Moravians in the American South and West Indies, and eventually, Baptists and Methodists, all relied on Native American and African (American) missionaries to evangelize native peoples and enslaved and free Africans. The specific methods and motivations of each group varied according to theological proclivities, ecclesiastical structure, and time and place: The Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, for example, were initially intent on converting, training, and securing the proselytizing services of Native American leaders like Yamasee chief Prince George, who would then inspire their respective tribes to convert en masse to the Church of England. German Moravians, by contrast, who were especially active in the greater Caribbean and throughout North America during the 18th century, relied heavily on the preaching of enslaved men and women to evangelize other blacks and Indians. But nearly all Protestant groups employed native missionaries for broadly similar and pragmatic reasons: the natives (at least in theory) could speak the language and tap into existing social, familial, and trade networks.[1]

Nor were the native missionaries mere passive recipients and dutiful servants of the denominations and missionary societies they represented. Just as African and Native American converts used Christian conversion to further their own temporal and spiritual needs and sometimes use their new religion to subvert established social and ecclesiastical hierarchies, so too did native preachers use their appointment to establish their own authority and challenge that of white missionaries and church leaders. The variety of ends to which native preachers worked resulted in “a complex spiritual pastiche, an early modern babble of tongues” that, according to the author, “spoke to the problems of racial and religious encounter during a period of vigorous colonization” (5). A simple narrative with clear trajectory this story is not.

Some readers might wonder about the lack of female voices in the book and wish Andrews had made more of the scattered references to Native American and African women who were denied official clerical positions but preached in some capacity anyway. The author notes that among the “dozens, if not hundreds, of other Native Americans and Afro-Americans who preached” but left behind no record of their activities, “a fair percentage … may have been women” (5), but following this brief mention in the introduction, they largely disappear from the narrative. There is also some ambiguity in definition of terms central to the project. Andrews follows the historical actors he studies, both black and white, in utilizing a broad definition of “native,” for example. The word in this case implies not that the missionaries were necessarily “native to the land, but rather that they generally came from the same population as their potential converts” (2). Scholars of Christian missions and missiology, meanwhile, might question Andrews’s use of the words “missionary” and “preacher” interchangeably, though again, he seems to be following an ambiguity arising from the sources themselves.

Those very minor quibbles take nothing away from the book’s larger value. Native Apostles deftly weaves together the lives and experiences of well-covered historical actors with newly discovered and previously overlooked archival finds. His debt to several recent books is clear (and helpfully described in a “note on sources” at the book’s end), but to these Andrews had built upon and added his own distinct contribution to the literature.[2] I found myself repeatedly comparing his book to Catherine Brekus’s earlier work on female preachers in 18th and 19th century America.[3] What Strangers and Pilgrims did for female preachers, Edward Andrews has done for preachers of color in the 17th and 18th century British Atlantic World. Not only were there many more such preachers than we previously knew of (an appendix lists nearly 300, identified by name, time, location, and denomination), but we now better understand the vital role they played in not only the spread of Protestantism but also the complex cultural exchanges between Europe, Native America, and Africa.

_______________

[1] Ironically, on more than one occasion, the native missionaries all but lost their ability to speak their native language while undergoing intensive training in English-speaking ministerial colleges.

[2] Andrews’s book is part of a more recent body of work that attempts to reorient our understanding of the intersections of religion, race, and empire. His work stands alongside and builds on that of David Silverman, Linford Fisher,  Travis Glasson, John Saillant, Joanna Brooks, Ty Rese, Erik Seeman, Jon Sensbach, and Elizabeth Elbourne, among many others.

[3] Catherine Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

2 comments on “Review: Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World

  1. […]  Edward Andrews, Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World(Harvard University […]

  2. […] assistant professor of history at Providence College in Rhode Island. Yesterday, Christopher Jones reviewed his book, Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic […]

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