Christianity in the Colonial World: Use It How You See Best.

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Christianity in the Colonial World: Use It How You See Best.


Colonial America, US, USA, Christianity, Spanish Catholics, 17th century, 18th century, Portuguese Jesuits, English Protestants, Native Americans, African Slaves, African Americans, native peoples. Empire, hegemony, relationships.


During the colonial period every European empire that had its hands on the continent saw itself as a Christian nation. Though denominations varied from empire to empire, the same consistent theme of seeing Christianity as a global empire was universally shared. Where they differed was the implementation and vision of this Christian empire in the Americas and subsequently the world. The French Catholic Jesuits, the Spanish Catholics, and the English Protestants all saw themselves as a part of a grand Christian empire. The manifestation of this concept however differed from nation to nation and from denomination to denomination. In fierce competition they engaged one another to establish their particular Christian hegemony. The competitions' records and legacies can unfortunately consume the stories of enslaved and native peoples. Though they themselves also adopted elements of Christianity in their own communities for a variety of purposes, and thus are relevant to this topic of history.

From the 17th to the 18th century evidence shows that every major European empire (e.g the French, the Spanish, and the British empires) as well as the enslaved peoples they used, and the native people who encountered them and extended relationships with them, adopted elements of Christianity to establish a particular hegemony within their communities. This was not an all encompassing unifying gesture and in fact was a heated competition at times, and thus we must not leave any peoples from this narrative if we want to truly understand the dynamic role Christianity played in colonial American history.

Of the Catholic denominations in France there exists a subset called the Society of Jesus or, as they are better known,the Jesuits. The Jesuits during the colonial period were often persecuted or pushed out of their home countries in this reality of competition between Christian denominations and empire. In the letters of Father Pierre Biard, circa 1606 -1625, we get a glimpse of the animosity different denominations in this Christian empire felt for one another. “For they carried us off, together with the Frenchmen who remained, fifteen in all, straight to their own country, Virginia, distant from the place in which we had been captured at least two hundred and fifty leagues.”[1] Once they arrived in Virginia the Puritan Governor wanted to hang them all, especially the Jesuits.[2] Despite these challenges the Jesuits in general, not just in France, played a tactful role in the development and spread of Christianity from the northern borders of Canada all the way to the coasts of Brazil.

In Brazil, the Spanish Portuguese Jesuits built schools and libraries. It was noted that the Spanish Portuguese Jesuits made conversion of the natives their primary de facto motive for colonization in the first place. Shortly after 1549 the first library was built in Brazil and continued to be built and expanded until the outlawing of the Society of Jesus in 1759. In this way the Spanish Portuguese Jesuits in Brazil are accredited with starting the first public libraries and centers of knowledge in the nation.[3] The French and Spanish Portuguese Jesuit’s implemented their ideas for native peoples with the pursuit of conversion through education and thus assimilatied them into their particular culture. Other Spanish Catholics had different perspective and values abd therefore a different manifestation of what they thought they should be doing to aid the Christian empire took place. In many ways, Catholics were more pragmatic and material in their relationships with native people, it was either to exploit resources and/or exchange land ownership. Subsequently the goal of conversion and assimilation into their particular culture remained a consistent focus as well. However, in letters between Luis de Quirós and Juan Baptista de Segura we see this pragmatic view of native people relationships come to light. During the colonial period food scarcity was rampant for both European settlers and native peoples. For native peoples their ecosystem radically changed and became inhospitable to their way of life. For European settlers lack of preparedness and food shortages were due to death rates and harsh colonial environments. In this particular exchange we see Luis de Quirós plan to exploit this situation for the benefit of the Catholic Christian empire. “At this time the planting is done here, and thus many of the tribes will come here after being scattered over the region in search of food and there will be a good opportunity for the Holy Gospel.”[4] While the Jesuits made it their first priority to establish education, Spanish Catholics were more interested in seeking converts through material exchange relationships. For the Spanish Catholics converting native people into their cultural hegemony served an economic purpose. How those material exchange relationships manifested varied from region to region, exploiting converts in South America for gold, silver, or in this case food. “From the frontier came genuine democracy, rugged individualism, plasticity, mobility, tolerance, optimism, and an assertiveness and self-assurance rooted in material prosperity. To a degree that these characteristics were exemplified by Catholics, it would be most often by the denizens of the forests, the mountains, and the plains.”[5] It is this spirit of material prosperity that motivated Catholics to the regions they traveled to and because settlement is such a labor demanding task. Assimilating bodies into the Spanish Catholic economic and cultural systems was an important concept for the Spanish.

For the English Protestants in the colonies this world view was drastically different in execution and purpose. The original nature of the American colonies were peripheral in the eyes of the English Crown.[6] For the English religiosity was less conformed and contained and what you find is the appearance of multiple Christian groups in the colonies, e.g Quakers, Protestants, Puritans, etc.[7] This competition that manifested between these groups, produced a less uniformed approach to assimilating native peoples and slaves into particular Christian denominations. The English, like the Spanish and the French, interacted with natives and slaves and religion had a large impact on those interactions. However, views on the success of these interactions wildly depends on interpretation. The English who held slaves in the Southern colonies permitted missionaries to convert their slaves but admitted to limited success. Unlike the Spanish Catholics the English Protestants had no particular economic incentive behind conversion, instead, to them it was more of a personal desire. “...slaves were considered a gospelly unleavened lump whose heathenism one had to endure for the sake of cultivating tobacco and rice.”[8] The English had different views for Natives as their original intention of incorporating them into colonial labor forces similar to the ideas of the Spanish failed due to the spread of disease and death in those populations which strained relationships. For the English converting natives and slaves was more a personal want that had to do with personal convenience in navigating social life. John Eliot, an English Puritan minister within the colonies, wrote this in his diary on his motivations for assimilating native peoples into Christianity: “I have begun to teach them the Art of Teaching, and I find some of them very capable. And while I live, my purpose is, (by the grace of Christ assisting) to make it one of my chief cares and labours to teach them some of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the way how to analize, and lay out into particulars both the Works and Word of God; and how to communicate knowledge to others methodically and skilfully, and especially the method of Divinity.”[9] What John Eliot describes is a desire to assimilate native peoples into his Christian hegemony. One could argue that by extending conversion to slaves the English participated in a larger system of using Christian elements to adopt people into English culture; natives and slaves used this system to their advantage where they could. Native peoples also used Christianity in their personal lives for their own agenda and purpose. In John Eliot’s diary we’re given accounts of tribes who bordered English towns and wanted Eliot to settle with them and teach them. “The English Town called Marlborough doth border upon them, as did the lines of the Tribes of Judah and Benjamin; the English Meeting-house standeth within the line of the Indian Town, although the contiguity and co-inhabitation is not barren in producing matters of interfering; yet our godly Indians do obtain a good report of the godly English, which is an argument that bringeth light and evidence to my heart, that our Indians are really godly. I was very lately among them; they desired me to settle a stated Lecture amongst them.”[10]

Eliot’s account, at the very least, convinces himself of the fact that natives on some level desire to know more about Christianity. That desire proved that natives were willing to adopt elements of Christianity for their personal benefit. It is worth noting that gender power dynamics of Native American society varied. A patriarchal hierarchy which one could attribute to European power structures was not congruent with native societies and as such the roles of women differed. One would assume that in the male-centric missions and the male-centered Christian world view would clash on an ideological level with native community structure and the status of women in those communities. However, this is not the case: “Christianity did not totally destroy the power that the Tlingit had traditionally had in their rank remained the most important influence in Tlingit society. Although women might bow to the authority of the church, they remained powerful figured in their communities because of family alliances. Christianity did not deprive them of power but allowed them to mediate Christian values...”. [11] In other cases natives used Christianity superstitiously in hopes that it would turn the tide of colonization and restore their world to how it originally had been.

African slaves in the colonies also incorporated aspects of Christianity in their own lives. It was a liberating ideology that formed links and fellowships in the colonies which helped supplement the families and kinship that were broken up in the act of slavery itself. Particularly due to the history of Portuguese Catholic involvement on the west coast of Africa, the Congo and Angola regions of Africa adopted elements of Christianity prior to enslavement and transition into the Americas. For slaves, Christianity was an avenue of association that could be utilized to form links and deteriorate differences between white colonial masters and themselves. They had their children baptized, which is an important cultural marker for adherents to that particular faith as it conflicts with ideas of slavery.[12] Christians adhering to their doctrine do not make slaves of other Christians. The usage of baptism as a means to avoid slavery in the African community is another example of the usage of elements within Christianity to assimilate into a particular hegemony a group of peoples for a particular gain.

It seems that generally all actors in colonial life were in some way touched by Christianity and while fierce competition did exist between denominations, people adapted Christian elements broadly in all of it’s forms for the purpose of establishing a particular beneficial hegemony within a group dynamic. For French Catholic Jesuits the benefits of assimilating native peoples into their Christian culture was a matter of having more bodies, and thereby strength, to avoid persecution. For Spanish Catholics assimilating native peoples into their Christian hegemony allowed them to make substantial economic gains as relationships formed and bonded. For the English Protestants conversion was usual for forming personal bonds between slaves and natives and thereby assimilating them under a particular hegemony. Native Americans adopted elements of Christianity for its perceived supernatural benefits in order to use it beneficially within their own communities. African slaves adopted elements of Christianity such as baptism as a way to avoid slavery by identifying themselves as members of the Christian hegemony and culture.

While none of these groups agreed upon a particular consensus of what that Christian empire would be, they all incorporated elements of it for their own personal benefits in the particular established hegemony in which they were involved. Truly, if there is a single thread that binds all of these groups together during this time period it would be the adoption of elements of Christianity. Which in particular? For what reasons? The answers to these questions vary from case to case but one thing we can say for sure is people used Christianity however they thought it would benefit them or their identifying group. In broader terms one could say however they saw best.

1 Pierre Biard . “Letter of Father Pierre Biard, 1614 Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625.” Edited by Lyon Gardiner Tyler. Virtual James Town. Accessed September 27, 2016.
2 Pierre Biard. “Letter of Father Pierre Biard, 1614 Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625.” Edited by Lyon Gardiner Tyler. Virtual James Town. Accessed September 27, 2016. 3 Mark L Grover. “The Book and the Conquest: Jesuit Libraries in Colonial Brazil.” Libraries & Culture 28
3 (1993): 266-283 4 Quiros, de, Luis. “The Spanish Jesuit Mission in Virgina, 1570-1572 Letter of Luis de Quiros and Juan Baptista de Segura” Translated and Edited by Clifford M. Lewis, S.J. and Albert J.Loomie, S.J., eds. The Virgina Historical Society by the University of North Carolina Press, 1953. Accessed September 27, 2016. 5 Thomas W. Spalding, “The Catholic Frontiers.” U.S. Catholic Historian 12, 
4 (1994): 15
6 Charles L Cohen, . “The Colonization of British North America as an Episode in the History of Christianity.” Church History 72, no. 3 (2003): 560
7 Charles L. Cohen,“The Colonization of British North America as an Episode in the History of Christianity.” Church History 72, no. 3 (2003): 561
8 Charles L Cohen . “The Colonization of British North America as an Episode in the History of Christianity.” Church History 72, no. 3 (2003): 562
9 John Eliot. “American Historical Documents, 1000–1904.” Edited by Charles W. Eliot. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909-14. Accessed September 27, 2016.
10 John Eliot “American Historical Documents, 1000–1904.” Edited by Charles W. Eliot. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909-14. Accessed September 27, 2016.
11 Clara Sue Kidwell. “Comment: Native American Women’s Responses to Christianity.” Ethnohistory 43, no.4 (1996): 722
12 Linda Heywood and John Thornton. Central African Leadership and the Appropriation of European Culture. Edited by Peter C. Mancall. The Atlantic World and Virgina, 1550-1626. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 224


Blake Cauble


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University of Memphis




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Collection Items

Letters of Father Pierre Biard, 1614
This is a letter from French Catholic Jesuit minister Pierre Biard to General Claude Acquaviva
of the Society of Jesus, at Rome, May 26, 1614. It describes Father Biard's capture in New France by
the English and their violent treatment. It also…

“John Eliot’s Brief Narrative (1670)”
This is an exert from John Eliot’s diary while he was a Puritan missionary to American Indians.
It describes his many relationships with several different chieftains and various other Native American
groups. As well as their relationships with…

&quot;The Spanish Jesuit Mission in Virginia, 1570-1572 Letter of Luis de Quirós and Juan<br /><br />
Baptista de Segura”
This letter is from Luis de Quirós to Juan Baptista de Segura of the Spanish Catholic Jesuit
Society. It details Luis de Quirós’s experiences with the Native Americans in which he asks for
seeds to trade with Native Americans, and gives a good…
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