I apologize for this coming a day late; there were some complications with finding the book.
I’m going to have to ask the class to think back to “New England’s First Fruits”, while I talk about “The Poor Indians” because the text pertains to what Laura M. Stevens discusses in her book. The first section of “New England’s First Fruits” was a missionary writing that referred to the conversion of several Indians to Christianity. Essentially, Stevens’s entire book focuses on the English missionary writings that were sent back to Britain. Throughout her book she discusses the language used in the missionary writings that sparked an emotional wave through Britain which helped induce a British nationalist pride of high ethical and moral standards.
It’s an interesting thought and one which the class might have been on the brink of touching on Monday. Several people brought up the language that was used in the writing of “New England’s First Fruits” and commented on the strange choice of words used to describe the Indians. The majority of the adjectives used to describe the Indians weren’t words that one might use in sympathy for a person one considered equal. Some of the common words that were used to stir emotional feelings for the Indians were, “Wretched, wretch, poor, pity, pitiable, miserable, etc.” Stevens claims that the choice of adjectives used were very important. To a modern ear, the majority of the adjectives used might be considered derogatory, like “wretched” or “miserable”. However, when reading some of the descriptions that use “pity” or “poor”, a modern ear might consider these to have a sympathetic connotation. According to Stevens it’s a simple mistake that must be fixed by reminding the reader to realize that most missionary writings did intend to evoke an emotional response from their readers, but were not intended to bring sympathy from the readers. “Missionary writings were more likely to ask for readers’ pity than their sympathy for Indians, and for good reason. Sympathy—which comes from the Greek word pathos, meaning feeling or suffering, and a prefix meaning like or same—has to do, of course, with an imagined or authentic experience of shared feeling...Pity comes from the Latin word pietas, or piety, which in turn comes from the pius, meaning duty. In its most literal form this word does not describe an emotion born of sameness, but rather the mercy born of religious devotion.” (Stevens 8)
Therefore, these religious advertisements, which is basically what they were, were drawing upon the English readers’ pity. During the 17th century, being able to feel pity meant that one was made of a higher moral standard and essentially a better person than the one being pitied. The missionary writings drew upon the British people’s desire to be considered a nation of higher standards. In reality, the writings about the “poor Indians” were probably more of a spectacle or voyeurism for the British. The Indians were very far away, and distance is an important factor when one is trying to promote action or even a reaction from others. The British people had their own day to day sufferings and problems to deal with so why should they be bothered with the American Indians? This was why the missionary writings made sure to play up nationalism and give the readers’ a sense of unity in their shared endeavor to save the Indians! Furthermore, it drew up upon Britain’s imperialism which desired the world, but still wanted to go about conquering it in an honorable and moral way.
Stevens says that, “the history of British mission in North America was one in which words outweighed deeds and textual production exceeded conversions.” (Stevens 3) The missionary writings did accomplish their goal of fundraising, because according to Stevens they brought in a nice amount of money. However, the money did not seem to bring about many results because while there were a few conversions, “they were few and feeble” (Stevens 3).
I hope I was able to explain enough. There was so much to the book that it was difficult to keep this blog short and to the point while still trying to discuss the main idea.