William Hart is Associate Professor of History at Middlebury College. This interview is based on his new book, “For the Good of Their Souls”: Performing Christianity in Eighteenth-Century Mohawk Country (University of Massachusetts Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write “For the Good of Their Souls”?
WH: I wrote my book, “For the Good of Their Souls,” in order to complicate our understanding of indigenous “conversions” to Christianity. Historians have begun to realize that the term “conversion” is inadequate to explain how and why Native peoples negotiated their relationships with missionaries and Christianity. I wanted to examine a nation that historians have long thought was nearly wholly Christian. Hence, my decision to study the Mohawks, who until not long ago, were commonly referred to as the “faithful Mohawks,” a term that carries a double meaning: Christian and loyal (to the English). In graduate school, I found the scholarly conversation among ethnohistorians about how to write about Native communities in contact with missionaries when the documentary evidence is so one-sided fascinating and challenging. My book is the first book to re-examine Mohawk Christianity in over eighty years.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of “For the Good of Their Souls”?
WH: I argue that most baptized Mohawks, which in time constituted a majority of that population, did not convert to Christianity (although some did), but rather “performed” Christianity–especially Protestantism–in order to continue to survive as Mohawks in a rapidly changing world. Performing Church of England Protestantism enabled many to acquire literacy, to attain social standing in their communities, to receive more favorable diplomatic and trade relations with the English, and for some to live by a new moral code.
JF: Why do we need to read “For the Good of Their Souls”?
WH: My book, the first full-length study of Mohawk Christianity since 1938, reveals the myriad ways baptized Mohawks controlled, manipulated, and shaped according to their needs their relationship with English missionaries and schoolmasters. My research revealed that such relationships were complicated and usually did not meet the expectations of their assigned missionary. Rather most baptized Mohawks–but not all–
“performed” the rites and rituals of Protestant Christianity situationally in the presence of English surveillants. In the process, they “translated” Protestant Christianity to fit their needs and understanding.
JF: Tell us a little bit about the source material you worked with in the writing and researching of “For the Good of Their Souls.”
WH: My research drew heavily upon documents, Haudenosaunee culture, and scholarly research. My primary documentary sources included the Records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (manuscripts), the foreign missionary society founded in 1701 affiliated with the Church of England, which contains voluminous correspondence and reports exchanged between Anglican missionaries in the British colonies and the Society in London; the multivolume records for the colonial history of New York, which contain the correspondence of civil and ecclesiastical leaders in the colony; the fourteen volume collection of the Sir William Johnson Papers; and calendars of the Dutch Reformed Church, and late eighteenth–early nineteenth-century records for early Canada. I also used evidence gleaned by anthropologists, historians, genealogists, material culturalists, linguists, archaeologists, and scholars of comparative religion, among others.
JF: What is your next project?
WH: I am interested in understanding the choices that racially marginalized people made living in the “Others’” hegemonic world in order to survive and thrive, which is the abiding theme of the Mohawk book. My next book project–“I Am a Man”: Martin Freeman, Race, Manhood, and the Cant of Colonization–examines the American Colonization Society through the life of Martin Freeman (1826-1889), a graduate of Middlebury College (salutatorian, Class of 1849), who became the first Black president of an American College–Avery College near Pittsburgh (1856-1863)–and who migrated to Monrovia, Liberia, in 1864 to teach at and become president of Liberia College. The book will take a microhistorical approach to colonization in that the details of Freeman’s life before, during, and after Middlebury will illuminate the larger cultural debate around the place of free Black Americans in nineteenth-century American society that informed the relationship between American colleges and the ACS.
JF: Thanks, William!