Religion in the Americas is diverse and tumultuous. Its history is filled with stories of pluralism, syncretism, conversion, creative adaptation, and assimilation, and it is this way because of what happens when people of very different viewpoints, cultures, and belief systems come in contact with one another.
It is estimated that when Christopher Columbus arrived to the Americas in the late 15th century, there were five hundred and fifty different indigenous tribes inhabiting the land. Thus when Europeans were seeking out new lands and avenues for business, they immediately encountered peoples unlike any they had ever seen before. These indigenous natives dressed, acquired food and shelter, and even believed in their own gods in a manner far different from any European culture. The fact that the Americas were already occupied did not change the plans of Columbus or any European following him (that of occupying and profiting off this new land), and each European group that followed for the next several centuries sought to control the natives.
As part of this intent to control the native people, European conquerors and colonists brought with them religious missionaries who sought to convert them to Christianity. Occasionally, these missionary efforts had help. This was the case for the Franciscan friars who, under the protection of Spain and the soldiers accompanying them, set up Spanish Catholic missions in Pueblo villages. Their attempts to convert the natives were often reinforced by the threat of military force. Their efforts were aided by Spain because the monarchy felt that by converting the native people to Catholicism they would become more ‘civilized’ and be more willing to accept Spanish rule.
But in some cases, missionaries did not have reinforcements to aid them. For instance, the 17th century French Jesuits were alone in their religious mission to convert the Huron people. They would set up “longhouses” in Huron villages in northern America, and preach to the native people. In Brian Moore’s “Black Robe”, a fictitious account of the Jesuits’ experience, chief Taretandé of the Huron village Ihonatiria recounts a story of the “Blackrobe” (priest) of the village inviting “families with children into their longhouse and there had given the children presents of beads if the children would learn answers to questions which the Blackrobes taught about their god” (Moore, 227.) This is one such example of the conversion efforts of the French Jesuits. Most missionaries truly believed that the natives were a people of darkness, and that they needed to see the light of God. This was perhaps how they justified the suffering that they and their European conquerors inflicted on the indigenous people of America.
With the understanding that the Europeans and indigenous Americans had never come in contact with anyone like the other, one can see why it was necessary for religious missionaries to creatively adapt some of their teachings and language to fit the native perspective. This can be seen in “Black Robe”, when Fathers LaForgue and Jerome use a sudden eclipse of the sun to save themselves from being tortured and killed by the Huron people. A fever has almost completely wiped out the village, and believing that the “blackrobes” are sorcerers, the Huron accuse the Jesuits of causing the fever. Given that the natives derive religious meaning from their surroundings, such as the plants, animals, and weather, they understand the priests when they say that the eclipse in their God’s warning that he will be displeased with their deaths (Moore, 223.) Their adaptation of the natives’ belief system ultimately saves them from their possible demise. It was common for priests to be killed by the indigenous Americans they were trying to convert, as they were often seen as untrustworthy and dangerous. This meant that the French Jesuits had to be resourceful and flexible in order to survive. Towards the end of the novel, Father LaForgue performs a mass baptism of almost the entire Huron village. He does this because the natives believe that his God will be pleased with them taking the “water sorcery” and cure them of their deadly fevers (Moore, 246.) Despite his misgivings, the priest fulfills their wishes; he does so partly because of his desire to save their souls, but also with the understanding that by biding by their wishes, he is less likely to suffer at their hands. Thus Father LaForgue is adapting to his surroundings.
Father LaForgue’s baptisms of the Huron are also just one example of a mixing of cultural viewpoints and beliefs, and there is numerous more in American history. Often times, the syncretic blending of cultures was forced, as was the case for the enslaved West Africans who were shipped to the Americas in the 15th century onward. Slaves that were forced to work in the new world were exposed to its culture and to Christianity, and over time there was a blending of African and European religions. In the 18th century, slave owners were reluctant to integrate the enslaved Africans into their Christian practices, concerned that by baptizing their slaves, they were morally obligated to set them free. But as slavery grew in popularity, slaves were transported directly from Africa to America, rather than from the Caribbean (as they had been before), and thus had not experienced the conditioning camps that slaves before them had undergone in an effort to make them more ‘civilized’. As a result, slave owners began making efforts to convert their slaves to Christianity, believing that “religion sustained rather than threatened slavery” (Joyner, 183.)
Thus, Africans were encouraged to accept Christianity as their mode of faith. But this did not mean that they abandoned their former culture entirely. Rather, “Christianity had to compete in a religiously diverse environment” (Joyner, 182.) Different parts of African religion found their way in enslaved Africans’ Christian religious practices, depending on the region. For example, “one stream of inherited African cosmology [in South Carolina and George] included polytheism, the concept of rebirth, and spirit possession in religious ritual” (Joyner, 189.) Slaves from these parts “worshipped their new Christian God with the kind of expressive behavior their African heritage taught them was appropriate for an important deity” (Joyner, 189). In this way, African American Christianity was original in its syncretic interweaving of its African and Christian religious elements.
Though syncretism was a common way of coping with the diverse nature of two cultural perspectives colliding, it was also normal for migrants entering America to assimilate more fully to the dominant culture. For instance, though European migrant Jews had in the past integrated American culture into their religious practices, none were more assimilated than the “domestic” Jews of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The domestic Jew centered on the home rather than the synagogue. Being Jewish centered more on one’s family traditions and their private life (such as having a bar mitzvah), rather than on a regimented set of practices (such as eating kosher) that one had to follow in order to be a Jew. Domestic Judaism welcomed the American practice of consumerism. Being Jewish became synonymous with more elaborate ceremonies and weddings, as well as owning Jewish religious symbols to be displayed in the home. These changes made it easier for American Jews to live in the dominant American culture while also feeling like they still belonged to their Jewish culture.
The effort to assimilate to American culture and religion was common for migrants entering the United States. It was also normal for migrants of the same religion to join together and form their own sects within a denomination, but it did not always happen this way. Occasionally, pluralistic religious and ethnic groups were so different from one another that they instead chose to exist alongside one another as different sects of the same religion. This was true for the waves of Catholics who migrated from Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, which consisted of Irish, German, Italian and Polish migrants. They also had to compete with French-Canadian and Mexican Catholics who inhabited America as well. These Catholic groups chose not to assimilate or syncretize to one form of Catholicism, and often resented having to share the same religious space. Instead, migrants formed ethnic or national parishes, in which a group could worship alongside Catholics from their country of origin. These parishes had priests of their own ethnicities, services in their own languages, practices specific to their own culture, and religious statues and artwork from their own countries. These parishes were different from the territorial parishes of each region, and often several ethnic parishes of different countries were situation closely together near the original Catholic Church in the area. These ethnic parishes were the Catholics’ way of worshipping God separately while still living alongside one another in the same country.
American religious history is rich and tumultuous. Its history is filled with stories of pluralism, syncretism, conversion, creative adaptation, and assimilation, and it is this way because of what happens when different ethnic and religious groups come in contact with one another and attempt to live side by side.