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Quite evidently, the Puritans’ presence in North America was characterized by their hatred for the natives. Specifically, the Puritan’s culture, religion and quest to survive collided with the native cultures and norms. Although the Puritans had fled Europe to escape persecution and establish a society based on God’s will, their behavior towards the natives was ironical and expressed their direct discrimination towards them. Various historians have attempted to elucidate the social, cultural and religious conflicts between the two groups. This paper argues that religion, worldviews and ethics played the most significant role not only in the Puritan society, but also in the Native American society, which caused cultural conflicts, oppression and guerilla warfare between the two groups.
The Puritan Christianity was represented by a group of Christians who had separated from the Church of England because of their beliefs and practices, which were fundamental in nature. By 1600, the group, which was a minority in England, faced massive persecutions, prompting them to find a better and friendlier place to practice their religion (Jennings 128). Around 1608, several Puritans fled to the Netherlands before relocating to the ‘New World’. As the Puritans sailed across the Atlantic, they believed that they would find an empty or “unpeopled” country. However, it still came as a surprise to find a large population with different culture, social structure, beliefs and way of life. In particular, the natives in New England were divided into various tribes such as the Pawtucket, Pequot, Abenaki, Narragansett, Wampanaog and Massachusetts. Archaeological evidence suggests that the American Natives were the aboriginals who had migrated across the Bering Land Bridge from Asia, probably between 30,000 and 40,000 years earlier (Jennings 54).
The Puritan-Native American Cultural Clashes
The differences in religious ideologies between the Puritans and the Native Americans played a significant role in shaping the relationship between them. On the one hand, the Puritans believed that God had chosen a small group of people in the world and intended them to join him on Heaven for eternal life full of peace and joy. For an individual to be part of this group, he or she was supposed to live according to the Bible’s teachings, put God first and rely on Him for survival or death (Carpenter 16). According to them, God’s wish can make one survive or die because his will is the final word. The Puritans believed that they were part of the selected group and that anyone else willing to be part of it was supposed to convert and join them (Bowden 14).
On the other hand, the Native Americans believed in equality, that no person is more special than the others. According to Carpenter (16), the Natives held to the concept of “each man is good in the sight of the Great Spirit” (Bowden 29). Therefore, they did not believe that God can choose a small number of people to be ‘his people’, yet he was the creator of humanity.
Noteworthy, when the Puritans arrived in New England, their most important role was to convert the Natives based on the belief that the Native American groups were ‘the lost tribes of Israel’ (Bowden 21). They thought that it was their duty to enlighten these lost tribes back to the right religion. However, due to the conflicting view of God and religion, the Natives found that the Puritan’s efforts were coercive in nature, which increased the hostility between the two groups (Bowden 14).
An important aspect that contributed to the religious conflict between the Puritans and the Natives was the means through which religious beliefs were shared. The Puritans’ religious teachings were based on the Bible, which was supposed to provide the correct answer to any question. On the other hand, the Native Americans relied on oral narratives, which passed religious beliefs from one generation to the next. According to Bragdon (48), this factor brought conflicts between the two groups. The Puritans thought that the Natives were barbaric and unreligious. They thought that it was impossible to have a true religion based on stories. On their part, the Natives disliked the idea of borrowing a foreign set of believes that did not fit into their traditions.
According to Carpenter (77), the most prominent religious difference that emerged between the two groups was based on the idea of God. The Puritans, like all other Abrahamic religions, were monotheists. However, the Natives, though worshipping “Great Spirit” as their almighty, considered a number of other deities such as trees, ancestors and the omnipotent Wakan Tanka or Tirawa (Carpenter 97). Under the laws of the Bible, it is a sin to worship any other god apart from God. Thus, the Puritans believed that the Native American’s way of worship amounted to idolatry, which violated the first commandment given to Moses by God. Therefore, the Puritans thought that the natives were sinners whose destination was hell, unless they were converted to Christianity.
This idea brings forth an important issue of the conflict – sin. The two groups differed significantly on the community’s thinking about sin. According to Carpenter, the Puritans valued their religion above any other human aspect. They believed that their actions had less consequence than their faith in God (84). As opposed to them, the Natives believed that their actions were more important and governed their faith. Worshipping their gods was achieved through rituals such as dancing and feasting, which pleased the spirits. The Puritans believed that land was an economic resource. They practiced the economic culture of buying and selling land. However, Natives considered land as ‘the mother of the community’ (Bragdon 57). They believed that cutting grass or digging the ground was equal to killing a person’s mother. Therefore, nobody was allowed to sell land because one cannot sell or kill his or her mother. The Indians hated the Europeans because they believed that the cultivation and beautification of terrain that the Europeans were carrying out was equal to killing the Mother Nature (Bragdon 58).
The puritans and the natives had contrasting views on nature and humanity. From the Christian perspective, the world is not as important as the next world (Hell or Heaven). The Puritans, like other Christians, believe that all humans are naturally evil. On the other hand, the Natives believed that there was only one world for all humans and animals. They thought that a person returns to the earth after death in the form of a new person or animal (Bragdon 37). To them, things one did while on Earth did not matter because he or she will still reincarnate.
The relationship between the Native Americans and the Puritans was largely shaped by their religious views, views of self and the world. In particular, the idea of deity was the major aspect of the conflict. While the Puritans were a monotheist group, the Natives had several gods besides the Great Spirit. From this conflicting perspective, other conflicts arose, including the idea of sin, life after death, worship styles and nature.
Bowden, Henry. American Indians and Christian Missions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Print.
Bragdon, Kathleen. Native People of Southern New England. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. Print.
Carpenter, Delores Bird. Early Encounters-Native Americans and Europeans in New England.East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004. Print.
Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Print.