The Attempt to Convert the Indians to Memetic Puritanism (part 3/3 ruminations on Indians and Puritans)

(Part 1: Oppression is in the Eye of the Beholder; part 2: Species of Exit: Memes, Genes, and Puritans.)

Before I got distracted by pre-Civil War election data, we were discussing the Puritans.

Where, exactly, ideas and behaviors come from is always a matter of debate in conversations like these; were the Puritans Puritans because of their conversion to a particularly strict version of Calvinism, or was it just something genetic? (Or could it be both?)

Interestingly, the Puritans decided to do an experiment on the subject, in their attempt to convert the local Indians to memetic Puritanism.

Once the Massachusetts colonies got off the ground (that is, once they stopped losing half their population to starvation and disease every winter and had enough food to start thinking about the future,) they began taking seriously the Biblical injunction to preach the Gospel to all four corners of the Earth. In 1651, the Puritans established Natic as the first “Praying Town” for Indian converts. Soon many more popped up across Massachusetts and nearby Connecticut.

The Jesuit missionaries up in Canada had attempted to convert the Indians without significantly changing their lifestyles–to create Christian Indians, if you will. By contrast, the denizens of the new Praying Towns were expected to become Puritans.

A Puritan, I suspect, could see it no other way. Divine election was manifest in one’s behavior, after all, and Puritans took behavior seriously. And being Puritans, they outlined the Rules of Conduct for the “Praying Indians” of the Praying Towns:

I. If any man shall be idle a week, or at most a fortnight, he shall be fined five shillings.
II. If any unmarried man shall lie with a young woman unmarried, he shall be fined five shillings.
III. If any man shall beat his wife, his hands shall be tied behind him, and he shall be carried to the place of justice to be punished severely.
IV. Every young man, if not another’s servant, and if unmarried, shall be compelled to set up a wigwam, and plant for himself, and not shift up and down in other wigwams.
V. If any woman shall not have her hair tied up, but hang lose, or be cut as a man’s hair, she shall pay five shillings.
VI. If any woman shall go with naked breasts, she shall pay two shillings.
VII. All men that shall wear long locks, shall pay five shillings.
VIII. If any shall crack lice between their teeth, they shall pay five shillings.

Aside from the lice cracking, which seems more of a petty hygiene concern (crack lice with nails, not teeth,) the list likely preserves for us the behaviors Puritans valued most, and those at most at variance between the Puritans and Indians.

Idleness tops our list, coming in both at number 1 and again at number 4. The Puritans definitely believed in hard work; that is how they managed to build a civilization in the wilderness.

The low-key hunter-gatherer / horticulturalist lifestyle of the Indians, (without draft animals, they had little ability to plow or pull wagons,) did not require the kind of constant effort and energy inputs as the more intensive Puritan agricultural and technological systems, so this may have been a matter of contention between the groups.

Rules 2 and 3 protected women, 2 from the predations of unmarried men and 3 from domestic violence. (Of course, prominent historians like Howard Zinn would have you believe that such rules show how much the Puritans oppressed women.)

And 5-7 details Puritan clothing norms–they still thought it morally imperative to dress like they were in blustery England, even during the wretched Massachusetts summers.

The existence of the Praying Towns is credited largely to Reverend John Elliot, who devoted his life to converting the Indians and printed America’s first Bible, Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God, translated into the Massachusett-Natick language. Elliot received funding from “A Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England,” created by the British Parliament, which raised about £12,000 pounds sterling. (How exactly this corporation was supposed to make money, I’m not sure.)

How successful were the Praying Towns?

Unfortunately, the websites I’ve found on the subject, (Wikipedia etc.,) don’t give many details about life in the Praying Towns or what the Puritans–and other Indians–thought of them. There are indications that things were not going as well as Elliot would have liked–the Wikipedia claims, broadly:

“While the idea of praying towns was somewhat a success, they did not reach the level John Eliot had hoped for. While the Puritans were pleased with the conversions, Praying Indians were still seen as second rate citizens and never gained the degree of trust or respect that they had hoped the conversion would grant them. It has also been argued that the Natives had a difficult time adjusting to the impersonal English society, since theirs had been built upon relationships and reciprocity, while the English were more structured and institutionalized. According to this view, this difference made it hard for Natives to see the institutionalized structures as a whole, and John Eliot had failed to see the need for adaptations appropriate for smoother transitions.[4]

In other words, the Indians were more tribal than the Puritans. They probably didn’t have the same ideas about compulsive working, too. If you want compulsive workers, hire Germans or Japanese. They have been selected for the past 1,000 years or so for their ability to work hard in feudal agricultural systems. If you want someone who’ll ignore the hungry cattle lowing to be let into the pastures, hire a hunter-gatherer. Horticulturalists lie between these two extremes; if you want to convert horticulturalists to intensive farmers, then it’ll take at least a few generations.

Chances are good that few people on Earth could ever quite live up to the Puritans’ standards of behavior, including the Puritans themselves.

The experiment came to an abrupt and terminal end as war broke out in 1675 between the colonists and some of the local Indians. The Puritan population had grown from 0 to 50,000-80,000 people in 55 years, bringing them into competition with the Indians for land and other resources. Estimates of the Indian population vary; a colonial census in 1680 came up with 1,000 Indians; others estimate 20,000. Given the tech levels and disease (epidemics caused by exposure to European germs had wiped out potentially 90% of the local population before the Pilgrims arrived,) I suspect the number was about 5,000 to 10,000 Indians.

Conflicts intensified until the Indians decided to kick out the colonists, attacking and massacring a bunch of towns. The colonists fought back and, obviously, won–the time to go slaughtering the colonists was back when a few smallpox-ridden fishermen showed up on the beach, not once the Indians were massively outnumbered in their own land. Like most wars, it was brutal and nasty; thousands of people died, most of them Indians.

The colonists weren’t sure what to do with the Praying Indians, who weren’t quite Puritans, but also weren’t the guys massacring Puritans.

So the Puritans moved the Praying Indians to an island off the coast, where winter + no food promptly killed most of them.

As I’ve said before, once you are a demographic minority, there is absolutely nothing to stop the majority from herding you into concentration camps and murdering you and your children, except for how much they pity you.

John Elliot seems to have been truly concerned about the fate of his Indian friends, but his attempts to help him were thwarted by other, more militaristic colonists. In this the colonists sinned; they showed themselves bad allies to their brothers in faith. If they felt they could not be certain about the Indians’ loyalty, then they should not have been moving them into little towns in the first place.

It’s not clear what happened to the few Praying Indians after the war, or how long some of the towns lasted, but the Indians are still around and still Christian, unlike the Puritans.

(Part 1 in this series: Oppression is in the Eye of the Beholder; part 2: Species of Exit: Memes, Genes, and Puritans.)

8 thoughts on “The Attempt to Convert the Indians to Memetic Puritanism (part 3/3 ruminations on Indians and Puritans)

  1. I read this post while quite sleep deprived so I guess I was pre-disposed to be depressed.

    “once you are a demographic minority, there is absolutely nothing to stop the majority from herding you into concentration camps and murdering you and your children, except for how much they pity you.” Dang.

    The Natick Praying Indians page is fascinating though.


  2. (Wrote this a month ago; found it today, figured I’d actually post it this time.)

    I remember you saying you’re a descendant of the Jamestowners… I’m a descendant of the Puritans (and as you say, I’m an atheist and so are my parents ;) ) but…

    “once you are a demographic minority, there is absolutely nothing to stop the majority from herding you into concentration camps and murdering you and your children, except for how much they pity you.”

    You’ve overlooked something: Another restraint is how much their hearts go out to you.

    It’s different from pity. When I say “pity” I mean an emotion that includes scorn. When I say “your heart going out to” someone or something I mean an emotion that makes you start mentally treating them/it like they/it were you or your parent. You want to do for them/it what you would want done for you/Mom in the same situation.

    I could never leave hungry cattle lowing to be let into the field, not out of a “drive to work” but because my heart would go out to them. If Mom were hungry and couldn’t feed herself, would I have to feed her? Of course! Even if I were sick in bed? Of course! So I’d also drag myself out of a sick bed to let in the cattle–I’d have to. (That makes it sound like my heart reasons this through, but of course the feeling just makes you act–I’m just analyzing now after the fact.)

    Puritan descendants’ mistake is they expect others’ hearts to go out to them as much as theirs go out to others. Peter Frost has logically convinced me this may not always be true. But most Puritan descendants haven’t heard from Peter Frost. ;)

    I might be overgeneralizing but I’d say Anglos in general are high-trust because they expect everyone’s hearts to go out to everyone else. They make themselves vulnerable to exploitation by strangers because they instinctively assume the stranger will be restrained by–I call it “your heart going out,” Peter Frost calls it “affective empathy.”

    But either way, it’s not the same thing as pity. When you pity someone, you feel smug about how much better off you are than they are, and you magnanimously deign to spare them–this time. (I have to confess I’ve never actually felt this, but I have read about it. ;) ) When your heart goes out to someone, you can’t bear to hurt/exploit them because–well, it’s Mom!

    I’m currently wracked with guilt; do you know why?

    I decided this season for the first time I would save cucumber seeds.

    This requires letting them mold for at least a week.

    I’ve let it go on much too long, partly because it’s gross, partly because I cut my finger pretty badly and I didn’t want to get the mess into the wound.

    I’ve let down the cucumber plants whose babies I had planned, had in a sense “promised,” to protect.

    My heart has gone out to them, you see.

    It’s funny, I know, but actually, I genuinely feel quite guilty.


    • My condolences on your cucumbers. Coincidentally, I have some posts on the connection between empathy and animal domestication coming up this week. I suspect that empathy is really important to successfully keeping an animal alive. People seem to have a harder time extending this same empathy to other humans, though. You hear a lot more about saving the gorillas than saving the Pygmies; heck, a tribe of Pygmies got kicked out of their village by a group making a gorilla sanctuary. Humans are tricky.


      • I’m sure you’re right, and I think it can help with growing plants too. Truck farmers are always discussing what various plants do and don’t “like”–hijacking their “empathy modules” to help them remember what conditions help the plants do well. And this especially applies to the more complicated short-season methods. Seeds started early in pots (indoors or in a cold frame) really need to be checked every day…and if you’ve “bonded with” the seedlings, checking them every day becomes a pleasure and not a chore. It’s the difference between, “Damn, do I *have* to go out into the cold / down the stairs / lift this heavy watering can *again*,” and, “Let’s see how the babies are doing today!”

        This is probably too recent to apply to what you’re talking about, but–we have a lot of sheep here and it occurs to me that working with a sheepdog is another task that greatly benefits from empathy. “People from away” often think working with a sheepdog is like programming a computer, teaching absolute obedience to commands that mean the same thing every time. But it’s really about teamwork and “shared attention”–it’s about *you and the dog having the same goal* so that the dog will independently see and exploit opportunities to advance the goal. I can’t imagine how you’d induce the dog to replace its goals with your own in that way without having a close bond with the dog.

        When it comes to other humans, the uh “community defense module” also comes into play. You know, the one responsible for the infamous witch trials. ISTM it’s culturally related to the Anglo-Saxon concept of the “outlaw.” As in, the way they signified that someone had been outlawed by writing, “Let his head be a wolf’s head,” or IOW, “He is no longer a person, he deserves to be hunted down like vermin.” Flip the “he’s an outlaw” switch on a target and the way the Anglo (or Germanic) treats him looks sociopathic.

        Frost claims (based on Ruth Benedict’s earlier claims) that you can’t have the empathy without the witch hunt module. That if you try, the community gets overwhelmed by free riders. Benedict and Frost’s argument reduced my angst over the phenomenon. Two sides of the same coin, take the bad with the good, etc. ;)


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