June 17: Idealism, Indians, and memos



Generally, I hate the word "interesting" -- it reminds me of the book reports I used to do in elementary school. ("'A Wrinkle In Time' is an interesting book. It features the interesting idea of spacetime travel, which it uses in interesting ways." Maybe I haven't progressed much, come to think of it.) But the "Brief Narrative of the Progress of the Gospel amongst the Indians in New England, in the Year 1670" has a variety of, uh, aspects of interest.

We might start with the historical aspect; it is, after all, in "American Historical Documents." John Eliot learned the native language (called Natick, Wikipedia says) in order to preach Jesus to them; he even organized the converts into "praying towns" near the Puritan settlements. The Introductory Note notes, "This pamphlet gives an interesting (! - ed) picture of the conditions of evangelisation among the natives at the end of the first generation of intercourse with the colonists," and really, when you think about it, the encounter between the Puritans and natives is a strange one. The Virginians were just in it for the money; it resembles the Europeans coming into Asia in centuries past. (Or the Mongols.) But here, among the Massachusetts tribes, we have a people who have had a megachurch dropped on them, and Eliot only wants to make it more mega:

Here [Natick] we have two Teachers, John Speen and Anthony; we have betwixt forty and fifty Communicants at the Lord’s Table, when they all appear, but now, some are dead, and some decriped with age; ...Sundry more are proposed, and in way of preparation to joyn unto the Church.
Eliot, with I guess some support from the higher-ups, is trying to get a beautiful rainbow coalition going, and you might say to yourself, well, it could have worked, except you know going in (from the Introduction) that, "The movement which was so vigorously started by Eliot was checked before his death by King Philip’s war, 1675–6." That war wiped out more than sundry of the Indians, and made the brotherhood-of-man jazz applicable to English only. NINA -- No Indians Need Apply.

So do all idealistic enterprises end in power politics.

Unless they end in paperwork, that is; because the second interesting aspect is the bureaucratic. The title is "Brief Narrative," but really it's a memo-slash-grant proposal. It starts with the implication that he screwed up his last presentation:
THAT brief Tract of the present state of the Indian-Work in my hand, which I did the last year on the sudden present you with when you call’d for such a thing; That falling short of its end, and you calling for a renewal thereof, with opportunity of more time, I shall begin...
And soon you realize that this is an update of how all the branch offices are doing ("Magunkukquok is another of our Praying-Towns at the remotest Westerly borders of Natick"), along with time-honored bitching from people in the field about money and personnel:
I find a blessing, when our Church of Natick doth send forth fit Persons unto some remoter places, to teach them the fear of the Lord. But we want maintenance for that Service; it is chargeable matter to send a Man from his Family: The Labourer is worthy of his Hire: We are determined to send forth some (if the Lord will, and that we live) this Autumn, sundry ways...We have Christ’s Example, his Promise, his Presence, his Spirit to assist; and I trust that the Lord will find a way for your encouragement.
Yeah, throw the mission statement back in their face, that'll work. And he does a little CYA for ordaining Indians:
...it is needed to add a word or two of Apology: I find it hopeless to expect English Officers in our Indian Churches; the work is full of hardship, hard labour, and chargeable also...An English young man raw in that language, coming to teach among our Christian-Indians, would be much to their loss; there be of themselves such as be more able, especially being advantaged that he speaketh his own language, and knoweth their manners.
And this kind of brings me to the last thing I found interesting, which is historiographical -- in other words, what is this doing in the Harvard Classics? I enjoy my cheap easy fun at Dr. Eliot's expense taking shots at their 1908-era prejudices, but really, to include this document of 17th century can-we-all-get-along seems kind of...progressive. (To say nothing of Dr. E's decision to include two Darwin volumes in the pre-Scopes era.) By our standards, of course, it's impossibly imperialistic to admire someone who wants to convert Indians, but by our standards it's OK to run our computers on coal.

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