Piety and Dissent

Piety and Dissent: Race, Gender, and Biblical Rhetoric in Early American Autobiography

Eileen Razzari Elrod
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 248
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    Piety and Dissent
    Book Description:

    For pious converts to Christianity in late eighteenth and early nineteenthcentury New England, all reality was shaped by religious devotion and biblical text. It is therefore not surprising that earnest believers who found themselves marginalized by their race or sex relied on their faith to reconcile the tension between the spiritual experience of rebirth and the social ordeal of exclusion and injustice. In Piety and Dissent, Eileen Razzari Elrod examines the religious autobiographies of six early Americans who represented various sorts of marginality: John Marrant, Olaudah Equiano, and Jarena Lee, all of African or African American heritage; Samson Occom (Mohegan) and William Apess (Pequot); and Abigail Abbott Bailey, a white woman who was subjected to extreme domestic violence. Through close readings of these personal narratives, Elrod uncovers the complex rhetorical strategies employed by pious outsiders to challenge the particular kinds of oppression each experienced. She identifies recurrent ideals and images drawn from Scripture and Protestant tradition—parables of liberation, rage, justice, and opposition to authority—that allowed them to see resistance as a religious act and, more than that, imbued them with a sense of agency. What the life stories of these six individuals reveal, according to Elrod, is that conventional Christianity in early America was not the hegemonic force that church leaders at the time imagined, and that many people since have believed it to be. Nor was there a clear distinction between personal piety and religious, social, and political resistance. To understand fully the role of religion in the early period of American letters, we must rethink some of our most fundamental assumptions about the function of Christian faith in the context of individual lives.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-085-7
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1 MARGINS AND CENTERS, NEW AND OLD NARRATIONS: Biblical Voices, Great Awakening Christianity, and American Autobiographical Traditions
    (pp. 1-20)

    In the middle of the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the most popular writer in America, described how women—disenfranchised by traditional Protestant theological systems—contended with grave discrepancies between what male theologians and religious philosophers argued and what they themselves lived. Specifically, Stowe’s narrators suggested that patriarchal Christianity refused and resisted women’s experience and, at the same time, entrapped and injured them as they complied with a system they did not author. Stowe’s incisive insider critiques of mid-nineteenth-century New England religion regularly featured an opposition between firsthand experience (and stories told about that experience) and abstract theological argument, with...

  6. 2 “I DID NOT MAKE MYSELF SO . . .”: Samson Occom and American Religious Autobiography
    (pp. 21-37)

    In 1772, Samson Occom composed what LaVonne Ruoff calls the “first Indian best-seller”: an execution sermon before the hanging of his fellow Christian Mohegan, Moses Paul (62).¹ The most famous student of Eleazar Wheelock—a New England preacher turned Indian educator—Occom himself had become a missionary, teaching and preaching to Native Americans, and raising significant sums of money on a British tour on behalf of missionary efforts among Native Americans.² An articulate and persuasive speaker, Occom was successful in ministry and marketing, inspiring jealousy in white colleagues (who worried that his popularity undermined theirs) and generosity for “Wheelock’s Indians”...

  7. 3 JOHN MARRANT, JOHN SMITH, JESUS: Borders, Tangles, and Knots in Marrant’s 1785 Narrative
    (pp. 38-61)

    John Marrant’s 1785 autobiographicalNarrativewas one of the most popular eighteenth-century Indian captivity narratives—the best-selling early American genre that held readers captive for over a century, serving up an irresistible blend of adventure, religious instruction, autobiography, ethnography, and horror. Frequently categorized as a captivity narrative, Marrant’s autobiography fits into other genre classifications as well. The captivity narrative as a genre that overlaps or coincides with the authorial concerns and readerly appeal of the spiritual autobiography is particularly important not only to this discussion of Marrant but also to the subject matter of this book as a whole. Captivity...

  8. 4 MOSES AND THE EGYPTIAN: Religious Authority in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative
    (pp. 62-84)

    From the first image that greeted readers of his book, Olaudah Equiano presented the self of his 1789 autobiographical narrative as a pious Christian, one whose religious conversion meant a kind of freedom as significant as his manumission from slavery. In the striking frontispiece portrait Equiano sits with Bible in hand, insisting—in his visual as in his textual presentations of himself—that the Christianity he embraces is the defining feature of his life story. He responds, as Susan Marren has suggested, to two paradoxical imperatives: one, to write himself into creation as a speaking subject and, two, to write...

  9. 5 GENDER, CHRISTIAN SUFFERING, AND THE MINISTER’S VOICE: Submission and Agency in Abigail Abbot Bailey’s Memoirs
    (pp. 85-116)

    Abigail Abbott Bailey’s 1815Memoirsrecount years of brutal domestic abuse. Like the other narratives of suffering examined here, her account is embedded in interpretive attempts to determine the spiritual meaning of her experiences. Originally published after her death by her minister, Ethan Smith,The Memoirs of Abigail Abbot Baileywere republished in 1989 under the titleReligion and Domestic Violence in Early New England, edited and introduced by Ann Taves.¹ As far as we currently know, it is the only text of its kind from this period, describing domestic violence in a detailed personal account and offering vivid, though...

  10. 6 DEVOTION AND DISSENT: Jarena Lee’s Rhetoric of Conversion and Call
    (pp. 117-145)

    Jarena Lee’s 1836 autobiography records parallel concerns: her earnest desire to exhort readers toward Christian conversion and consequent religious sanctification, and her equally earnest account of her own resistance to masculine prohibitions that hindered the true workings of the holy spirit, workings that seemed most frequently to take a feminine form. Lee enacted a call to preach in a Christian religious tradition that (like most in her era and since) prohibited women’s public speech and barred women from the pulpit and ordination. Like the other writers discussed here, she composed her autobiography in response to the spiritual requirements of her...

  11. 7 FINDING A WAY IN THE FOREST: The Religious Discourse of Race and Justice in the Autobiographies of William Apess
    (pp. 146-170)

    Most of what is known about the work of William Apess comes from his own published autobiographical writing. A significant voice in the public conversation about Native American–white relations in the 1830s, Apess was an Indian rights activist, a Christian missionary concerned with Indian conversions, and an autobiographer. His texts, which blend Christian didactics with strikingly progressive social analysis, provide a record of Apess’s complex thinking about race and religion through the penetrating lens of his own experience. Barry O’Connell, in the introduction to his groundbreaking 1992 edition of Apess’s complete works, notes the ways Apess anticipates contemporary thinking...

    (pp. 171-186)

    Arguably the most prominent eighteenth-century writer of color in early America, certainly the most conventionally “literary,” the poet Phillis Wheatley did not leave behind a prose narrative of her own life story. She documented her self-construction, nonetheless, in the many, presumably more formal and less personal, texts she did leave behind—a significant body of published poetry that earned her notoriety in the form of both suspicion and praise. What we know of her biography suggests multiple connections to the writers discussed in this book: like theirs, Wheatley’s voice, her rhetorical authority throughout her poetry, depends upon an earnest commitment...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 187-200)
    (pp. 201-216)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 217-230)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 231-232)