William Apess, religious liberty, and the conversion narrative



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This paper reads Pequot William Apess’s (1798–1839) The Experiences of Five Christian Indians (1833) in light of Apess’s equation between racial equality and religious liberty. Disgusted by the prejudices of the Congregational church he was forced to attend as a young indentured servant, Apess joined the egalitarian Methodists. His masters admonished that as an Indian he was unprepared to choose his religion, which spurred his association between racial and religious liberty. Five Christian Indians cleverly elaborates these views. Apess marshals the conversion narrative genre to undermine stereotypes of Native Americans as a vanished heathen race. His appropriation inserts his brethren into public discourse as both persevering as a people and exercising spiritual agency. In the concluding essay “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” Apess challenges White Christians’ prejudices with scriptural, logical, and historical interpretations demonstrating racial equality. White treatment of Native Americans thus mirrors white Americans’ spiritual monstrosity. This dissident exercise of religious freedom, which gained Apess brief notoriety in 1830s New England as part of the antebellum social justice milieu, did not sway the hearts and minds of white readers. The idea that scripture’s meaning was so self-evident as to be immediately accessible to any individual’s moral sense was thoroughly ingrained in nineteenth-century U.S. American Protestantism. White Christians’ understanding of scripture was conditioned by a deep belief in racial hierarchy. Despite this roadblock to Apess’s effort, the work’s resuscitation in recent years illustrates the survivance of antebellum native dissent.

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Prose Studies

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