Joseph Johnson, Wheelock’s “Indians” and the Construction of a Christian/Indian Identity, 1764–1776
Great Wonder! even marvelous in my Eyes, or rather the admiration of my soul that I, a hell deserving cursed Creature has been suffered to live in this World so long, Sinning, offending, and provoking the God of holiness, and the God of justice, and the God of vengance, and what is the joy of my Soul the God of love, and the God of mercy, through his dearly beloved and only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is admired by all them that believe, and in whom I humbly hope, I have been enabled by the Spirit of the living God, to put my whole trust & confidence, for time and for Eternity. O! that I might see more and more of my own wretchedness, and insufficiency, that Jesus Christ might be more and more precious to my Soul. Oh! I am nothing. Should I have the boldness to tell you, that I am hopefully converted, I should tell a news that I am not certain of. For since I first thought so myself, I have often doubted. I percieve Sin to be lurking within. Sometimes I greatly fear that I am altogether in my Sins, even under the power and Dominion of Sin, if so I am wretched wretched poor miserable creature sill, notwithstanding the World calls me blessed, notwithstanding I pass for a true Christian among all setts, and Denominations, as it were.1
The Rhetoric of Confession
For those of the Reformed faith, an ideal way to measure spiritual progress was through the act of writing. Writing allowed Reformed Christians to keep a permanent record of their thoughts and actions as each progressed in a personal quest for spiritual salvation. Equally important were the rhetorical devices these writers used to illustrate the authenticity of their desire to live in a state of grace. Such devices could include dramatic flourishes, repetition, anaphora, chiasmus, and parallelisms, among others. Similar rhetorical devices appear in many conversion narratives of well-educated New England ministers, trained in theology as well as the art of writing. What makes the above letter particularly interesting is that it was not written by a New England minister, but by a young Native American man engaged in the constant soul-searching common among his white, Euroamerican colonizers.
Joseph Johnson was a Mohegan Indian preacher and schoolteacher under the auspices of Eleazar Wheelock. His letters to Wheelock, an ordained minister of the Second Congregational Church at Lebanon Crank, Connecticut, and headmaster of Moor’s Charity School, span a period of twelve years from 1764 through 1776. These letters are an interesting scene of writing, illustrating for the reader a struggle in power relations between a dominant European civilization and a colonized people.
Looking at the above-quoted letter with twentieth-century eyes, one may find Joseph Johnson’s abjection and self-loathing to be off-putting, but the reader must bear in mind that religious doctrine required Christians to humble themselves before God and before their spiritual community. Nonetheless, there is still an element of discomfort when one is aware of Johnson’s position as an Indian in eighteenth-century colonial America. It is these two elements—Johnson as Christian and as Indian—that are of paramount significance to this work.
Johnson’s correspondence helps us to recognize the complex and problematic relationship that existed between Wheelock and the Indian students. The definition of that relationship was, as Johnson’s letters illustrate, of critical importance to Johnson’s struggle to unite two seemingly oppositional or incompatible identities: those of Christian and Indian. This paper will trace Johnson’s struggles to construct an identity through his appropriation of rhetorical Christian discourse and his interpretation of Reformed theology. Although both Christian discourse and theology were firmly embedded in Western civilization, Johnson was able to manipulate certain rhetorical and theological devices that made visible the power relations between him and Wheelock.
Most importantly, the correspondence reveals how Johnson, and others like him, responded to the imposition of Christianity on the Indian nations located within and around colonial America. Johnson’s letters and writings illustrate a refashioning of Christian doctrine that made it fundamentally different from the doctrine of Wheelock. The difference was founded not in race, but rather in understanding. Johnson’s definition and comprehension of regeneration tended toward Arminianism, Wheelock’s toward Calvinism.2 Johnson, and other students of Moor’s Charity School, stated on several occasions their choice to take part in activities deemed both improper and heretical. Many of these activities, as in Johnson’s case, took place after the writer had undergone a spiritual experience. Therefore, choosing to act in an improper manner meant that one was able to refuse a divine decree, the very point over which Arminians argued with Calvinist theologians.
On several occasions, Johnson bemoaned his failure to live a Christian life, yet consistently took responsibility for his own actions. In a letter written to Wheelock in 1774, Johnson asserted that he had “in times past crucified as it were, the Lord of Glory, even the Son of God, afresh and put him to an open shame.”3 Johnson’s words denoted action on his part: he crucified both God and Christ, not once, but many times afresh.
In laying claim to his actions, Johnson addressed a major dilemma inherent in Protestant doctrine: the relation between will and reason. According to Perry Miller, if will were to follow a regenerated reason, then grace would become no more than an intellectual exercise. On the other hand, if will were not subject to reason, then the Christian would be able to refuse God’s grace. Both views, according to Miller, were equally repugnant to Calvinists: the former discounts faith, the latter discounts divine decree.4 Yet, as we shall see, the writings of Wheelock’s Indians continually addressed one’s will as it related to the acceptance or refusal of God’s grace.
Eleazar Wheelock and the Function of Power
In order to examine the writings of Johnson and other members of Moor’s Charity School, I have turned to the work of both James C. Scott and Michel Foucault. Foucault and Scott chart the way in which subjugation and resistance are both material and discursive processes. Scott’s work focuses on two kinds of discourse that take place between the dominant and the subordinate: the public discourse, or transcript, and the critique of power that occurs “behind the back of the dominant,” the hidden transcript.5 Foucault, in both Discipline & Punish and The History of Sexuality, focused on the body as a site of power relations. The body is controlled through regimentation and surveillance. As we will see, Eleazar Wheelock’s civilizing mission included the strict control of activity, the constant gaze of authority, and the extraction of the confession.
In Johnson’s letters we can see the workings of Scott’s public and hidden transcripts as well as the workings of Foucault’s panopticism and his theory of the confession as a discourse firmly embedded in a power relationship, all of which contribute to the formation of Johnson as a colonized subject. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault wrote that confession is one method on which Western society relies for the production of truth; confession plays “a central role in the order of civil and religious powers.”6 By forcing Johnson and the others to confess their sins publicly, Wheelock constantly strengthened his power over them. Furthermore, these letters served as a permanent record of the students’ transgressions, allowing the confession to be alluded to repeatedly in order to reinforce the notion that the students were deficient in character and to cement the hierarchy of English over Indian.
Johnson’s letters illustrate that the formation of his subjectivity was not a steady affair. A closer look at them reveals a man who was trying to position himself in a changing world. And it is here, in the interpretation of Johnson’s letters, that I differ from James Scott. Scott argues that hidden transcripts take place away from, and outside of, dominant society’s observation. Johnson’s letters refute Scott’s argument, since they function as both public and private discourse: public because of their material existence, and private because they are the written conversation (confession) between pupil and mentor. This essay will demonstrate that a careful reading of these letters undermines one’s assumptions about the power relations that at first glance seem so obvious. Johnson was excruciatingly aware of the social hierarchy within his community. He attempted to come to terms with the racialist ideology of those in power and simultaneously construct an identity that would allow him to function fully in both the Indian and the white worlds, an identity that one cannot label Christian, in the Wheelockian sense, nor “Indian,” in the Krupatian sense.7
For European settlers in colonial America, the Christian school became a site for civilizing Native Americans. Wheelock, whose goal was to convert the Iroquois,8 founded the Indian Charity school, commonly known as Moor’s Charity School, in 1754; in its final incarnation, it became Dartmouth College. He referred to his efforts as a Great Design9 and was compelled as much by religious motives as he was by political and economic imperatives. France and England were in constant competition to win the allegiance of the Indians, and Wheelock believed that if half the money used to build and man fortifications had been spent on missionaries and schoolteachers, the “converted Indians ‘would have been a far better defence than all our expensive fortresses.’”10
Although a liberal thinker, Wheelock maintained that Indian conversion required a strictly regimented school day and constant surveillance:
They are obliged to be clean, and decently dressed, and be ready to attend Prayers before Sun-rise in the Fall and Winter, and at 6 o’clock in the Summer. . . . [T]he School begins with Prayer about 9, and ends at 12, and again at 2 and ends at 5 o’clock with Prayer. Evening Prayer is attended before the Daylight is gone &c. They attend the publick Worship, and have a Pew devoted to their Use in the House of God. On Lord’s-Day Morning, between and after the Meetings, the Master, or some one whom catachises them, discourses to them &c. . . . And in general they are orderly and governable.11
Wheelock was creating what Foucault termed the “docile body.” During the eighteenth century, the body was identified as an “object and target of power.” Institutions such as schools and the military found that a body that is “manipulated, shaped, [and] trained” is, in turn, compliant, responsive, and proficient.12 Although Foucault restricted his study to Europe, one can apply his theory to Wheelock’s methodology as it pertained to his Indian students.
By strictly regimenting the actions of his students, Wheelock increased the utility of the Indians’ bodies while decreasing their autonomy. In other words, he forced their obedience in order to increase their productive capability. If one substitutes Moor’s Charity School for the Gobelins school, Foucault’s analysis of pedagogical discipline summarizes Wheelock’s goal:
[Moor’s Charity School] is only one example of an important phenomenon: the development, in the classical period, of a new technique for taking charge of the time of individual existences; for regulating the relations of time, bodies and forces; for assuring an accumulation of duration; and for turning to ever-increased profit or use the movement of passing time.13
The motivation behind Wheelock’s strict regimentation of the Indian body was to transform the “savage” into a reasonable facsimile of an English citizen. The important word here is “facsimile.” Wheelock strongly believed that an Indian could never disregard his true “nature”; it could only be controlled through confession and surveillance. Therefore, when Joseph Johnson left school to begin his missionary work, Wheelock received reports of his progress in Johnson’s own letters and in letters from others, including Samuel Kirkland, a white student of Wheelock’s, and Ralph Wheelock, Eleazar’s son.
Writing as Public Transcript
Wheelock promoted the idea of using his Indian students as missionaries to the more remote tribes, believing that they had an advantage over English-speaking missionaries, given the similarities in their language and their knowledge of Indian culture. However, as Laura Murray points out, Wheelock’s motives were not purely philanthropic: he sought students as a financial supplement to his meager salary.14 Wheelock sent his students to work on nearby farms several days a week, causing one of his students, Hezekiah Calvin, to level charges of theft and misuse against the Reverend. In a letter to Wheelock, Edward Deake, a white teacher in Rhode Island, listed Calvin’s allegations:
you use ye Indians very hard in keeping of them to work, & not allowing them a proper Privelidge in ye School. . . . That Mary Secutor, & Sarah Simon has been kept as close to work, as if they were your slaves, & have had no privelidge in ye School since last Fall, nor one Copper allow’d ym for their Labour. . . . So yt ye Indians are ready to conclude, that their Fellow-Indians will never receive any great Benefit of ye Large sums of Money contributed by good People to promote so good a Cause.15
In addition to questioning the sincerity of Wheelock’s philanthropic motives, Calvin’s accusations illustrate the importance of the written word as it applied to the Indian student and his teacher. Evidently Calvin was unable to express his anger and frustration with Wheelock through a more direct communication such as a face-to-face confrontation or a personal letter. However, Calvin felt comfortable enough among his friends to express his concerns.
Another important aspect of Calvin’s accusations, as they relate to Joseph Johnson and the students of Moor’s Charity School, is the very survival of these accusations in the written record. Wheelock was extremely careful in preserving the letters his students wrote to him, but few of his responses exist. Deake’s letter allows us a rare glimpse into Wheelock’s character and his relationship to his Indian students. As this essay will demonstrate, letters from Kirkland and Ralph Wheelock that inform Wheelock of Johnson’s behavior and actions were likewise preserved.
Letters written by the Indians who attended Moor’s Charity School were extremely important to Wheelock’s fundraising efforts, which is why the Reverend took such pains to save them. Wheelock often sent copies of the letters to patrons in England and Scotland as proof of his capability to educate and convert the “savage and brutish” Indians.16 Johnson and his fellow students were aware of Wheelock’s methods, as the postscripts of letters from Johnson and David Fowler indicate. In a letter sent to Wheelock in May of 1765, Fowler closed with the following: “Sir, I hope you won’t let this letter be seen, I have no Table to write upon, besides I have not writ so long my Hand’s out of order.”17 In February of 1768, Johnson wrote a lengthy letter to Wheelock, adding, “Please sir to overlook my hast, an the many Blunders which I Suppose are in the paper. I have no time to write it over or correct it. Dont Expose it.”18 Thus, Johnson and his peers were aware that they were writing for a larger audience and that their “performance” affected Wheelock’s purse.
If Johnson and his peers were aware or their power over Wheelock, albeit limited, why this willingness to participate in his Great Design? To answer this, one must return to Scott’s work on power relations and resistance. Scott divides social subordination into two distinct, but related, areas: the public transcript and the hidden transcript. The public transcript is the open interaction between the dominant and the subordinate. The hidden transcript, as defined previously, characterizes subordinate discourse that “takes place ‘offstage,’ beyond direct observation by powerholders.” Hidden transcripts thus “confirm, contradict, or inflect what appears in the public transcript,” which Scott defines as “subordinate discourse in the presence of the dominant.”19 If one only looks at the public transcript, one fails to see the complete workings of power relations. For example, in the following quotations from Johnson and Fowler, one may discern little more than deference and consent.
And may the Blessings of Heaven rest on you &c &c and continue you a long and rich Blessing in the World, may the Heathen in the Wilderness feel the goodness of thy Labours. May you have Double Measure of the Spirit of God, and fill your Heart with Love of God and Compassion to poor perishing Souls, and may the Giver of all things, give Strength and Health, Wisdom and Authority to rule govern and teach those who are commited to your Care in Fear of the Lord: which is the sincere Prayer of him who desire the Continuance of your Prayers.
tho: unworthy Pupil,
Suffer me as an Indian and a good for nothing one, to Subscribe myself your dutifull Pupil, or one that will Endeavour to be dutifull, for time to come.
Pray that he would grant me wisdom from on high, Such as none but a God can give; that he would grant me wisdom So to behave myself as not to dishonour or bring to Religion, that he would make me a blessing to the Children which he has commited to my charge.
This is the true and Sincere, hearty desire, of me, thy Dutifull tho Unworthy Pupil.
But was this deference a tactic used to appease Wheelock? Is the obsequiousness that runs throughout Johnson’s letters a true indication of his relationship with Wheelock? Both questions can be answered in the positive. As Murray points out in her study of the letters of Calvin and Fowler, the relationship between Wheelock and the Indians was intense and complex.22 Following Scott’s argument, it is imperative that the subordinate fulfill the expectation of the dominant society. Scott goes on to state that “the public transcript will typically, by its accommodationist tone, provide convincing evidence for the hegemony of dominant values . . . ”23 Therefore, the public transcript between Johnson and Wheelock on its own shows Johnson playing the role of social subordinate.
Johnson’s first letter to Wheelock was written in 1764, while he was still attending the Indian Charity School. The circumstances surrounding the letter indicate that some type of altercation had occurred between Johnson and Eleazar Sweetland, a fellow student.
With A great deal of consideration would I inform you Sir what past between Eleazar Sweetland & I. This is the true meaning According to the best of my Memory, that as we was playing the Misfortune was this that Sweetland took up A Stone, Gourdains being present and he Sent the Stone not knowing that the dog was there. Gourdain told me of it.
In a mean & Sordid Manner I told him that I would do the Same to him, As he would do to the dog, But All in Jest, Sweetland Witnesses to it.
And I Also threw him down not Violantly & there held him down About A quarter of An-hour he Witnesses himself. In A shorst time After I had got him down I Asked him what if I keept him All the Night then he said he would not Stay here 2 hours longer. Then I told him I did not Intend he Should. Then he said he would not Stay one hour longer. Then I Askd him how he could help himself In no Anger but All in Jest Eleazar Sweetland witnesses.
Your Humble Servant
Although Johnson’s letter was a confession, he explained that Wheelock and those who witnessed the occurrence misunderstood his actions. He stated that the “true meaning” of this skirmish was “All in Jest,” confirmed by Sweetland himself, who “Witnesses to it.” Johnson was aware, however, that he must still confess to behaving inappropriately. He went on to say that “In a mean & Sordid Manner, I told him that I would do the Same to him. As he would do to the dog.” Johnson acknowledged his anger toward Sweetland for the latter’s treatment of a dog, but continued to affirm that both he and Sweetland were no more than playing around. If we take this letter in its social context, we see nothing more than a thirteen-year-old boy roughhousing with his peers. Wheelock, however, turned this normal activity into an opportunity to increase his control over Johnson and the other students by requiring a public and permanent confession.
Wheelock compelled his students to structure their confessions in the form of a letter, ensuring both the public knowledge of their sins and, by association, their public humiliation. What does this tell us about the power relations between Wheelock and the Indian students? One thing the letters illustrate is Foucault’s theory of surveillance as a form of disciplinary power.
The exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to sec induce effects of power, and in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible.25
Confessional letters written by Hezekiah Calvin, David Fowler, Nathan Clap, Hannah Nonesuch, Mary Secutor, and Jacob Wolley, as well as Joseph Johnson, are still extant. In addition, some letters were composed while the writer was still attending at Moor’s Charity School; others, including Johnson’s letter quoted below, were written from the student’s assigned missionary post.
Wheelock’s control over his Indian students reached much farther than mere physical proximity, as a letter to Wheelock from Hezekiah Calvin illustrates. Calvin, who entered Wheelock’s school in 1757, left in 1765 to teach among the Mohawks in Fort Hunter, New York. He wrote the following letter two years later:
With shamefacedness & humbleness of Heart I write you these Lines, owning & Confessing my heinous Crimes.
the last evening being the 25th of Xber I Confess I was Drunk: Swearing & Curseing followed, which I knew not of only as I was infor’d so this Morning, & am Sorry for it—I hear that they say I make mock at your Night Discourses; which I think is false, But But I promise never to Drink Liquor again & Promise to Attend my Life & Conduct for the future God assisting me I am willing to Suffer any thing that might make my Schoolmates know the wickedness of getting Drunk or that they might not take that example of me.
Sir I am thy Disobedient
& undutiful Servant
Calvin’s statement that his “[s]choolmates . . . not take that example of me” indicates that he was aware of the public nature of the confession as employed by Wheelock. However, even more startling is the need Calvin felt to confess his behavior to Wheelock two years after leaving Moor’s Charity School. In this letter one can discern the extent of the power Wheelock had over his students and the students’ awareness of his “all-seeing” gaze. Confessing to Wheelock was tantamount to confessing to God. Calvin directed his promise to refrain from liquor not to God, but to Wheelock. In fact, the only mention of God is an appeal for assistance in keeping that promise.
Three of the confessions cited above were written in Wheelock’s handwriting, and at least one is believed to have been dictated by Wheelock. We have no way of knowing whether Wheelock copied these confessions or wrote them himself. Based on Foucault’s theory of the confession as a production of truth, I would argue that Wheelock impelled his students to produce their own confessions and then copied the confessions for use in his fundraising efforts. For the confession to produce truth, the speaking (or writing) subject must acknowledge his or her behavior. Foucault wrote that the confession is “a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile . . . ”27 As letters such as Calvin’s and Johnson’s show, Wheelock was always present in the minds of the Indian students.
The Confession and Reformed Doctrine
Several of the confessional letters began as Mary Secutor’s did:
I May [sic] Secuter do with shamefacedness acknowledge that on the evening of the 8th Inst I was guilty of going to the tavern & tarrying there with much rude & vain company till a very unreasonable time of night where was dancing & other rude & unseemly conduct, & in particular drinking too much spiritous liquor whereby I was exposed to commit many gross sins, which offence is doubly aggravated in that it is a direct violation of a late promise I have publickly made before this school—all which wicked & sinful conduct of mine, I am fully sensable is much to the dishonour of God & ver prejudicial to the design & reputation of this school, and in opposition to the good of my own soul & the souls of my mates—for which I deserve to be turned out of this school & be deprived of all the privileges of it—I desire to lie low in the dust therefor & do now ask forgiveness of Cod, the Revd Doctr Wheelock, his family and school, and all others whom I have hereby offended—and I desire now with my whole heart to renew my former engagement that I will never more drink any spiritous liquor on any occasion where necessity does not require it, and I do promise that (by the grace of god) I will amend my past life & never offend by any of the like or any other misconduct, for time to come—And desire once more to warn all my mates not to take occasion by this or any other instance of my misconduct, to commit the like or any other evil—and I beg the privilege of continuing still a member of this school & that I may enjoy the privileges of it, for a trial of the sincerity of this my confession & my engagements for an amendment of life
Lebanon March 11th 1768 Present
Secutor’s confession illustrates the views that Wheelock and other colonists held concerning Indian character. Exposure to drinking, dancing, and other “rude & unseemly” conduct was all that was needed to turn the Indian from civilized to savage. Secutor was unable to refrain from sinning because her very character prevented her from making that choice. The fact that she was a young girl who had been removed from a culture steeped in community gatherings was not considered. Mary Secutor and the other Indian students were expected, even obligated, to act as members of an English Protestant community, notwithstanding their upbringing as Indian children prior to their attendance at Moor’s Charity School.
The circumstances surrounding Secutor’s foray to the tavern provide evidence of yet another shortcoming. Her descent into sin followed a “publickly made” promise before the school not to “drink any spiritous liquor.” The fact that Secutor did so after she vowed to refrain from such behavior caused such abjection that the rest of her confession is almost too painful to read. However, what one finds striking in her statement is not the tone, but her will to sin. She was “fully sensable” [sic] that her conduct was both “wicked & sinful,” an action for which she was completely responsible after promising to refrain from such behavior. Secutor’s will to sin came some three months after an earlier transgression, after which she promised “by divine Grace to walk morally and in all Respects circumspectly, for time to come.”29
Protestant congregationalists strongly held that one could not refuse divine decree, that once justification had occured a person had experienced regeneration and was then a covenanted member of the community—a “visible saint.” Secutor’s two confessions clearly indicate a person who was not covenanted according to any Protestant definition. Furthermore, she had proactively engaged in committing “many gross sins.” Her ability to withstand “divine Grace” placed her squarely in the Arminian camp.
In several ways, Secutor’s confession was strikingly similar to that of Hezekiah Calvin. Both individuals stated that with God’s help they would rehabilitate themselves and abstain from such behavior in the future. In addition, both Calvin and Secutor warned others not to mimic their behavior, so as to avoid falling into the wickedness that had consumed them.
Like Mary Secutor’s confession, all those written within the school proper conclude with some type of attestation, usually by Eleazar Wheelock himself, Bezaleel Woodward, or Ralph Wheelock. As Murray states, writing down one’s actions serves as a reminder to “the confessor of the inferiority of his judgement and [causes] him to relive the embarrassment of misconduct reproved.”30 In addition, the attestation provides evidence of social hierarchy, not only that of Moor’s Charity School, but of the European colonizers and their Indian subjects. Wheelock’s signature (or that of Woodward or Ralph Wheelock) offered a validation to the confessor. Without the acknowledgment of one in authority, the confession would be ineffectual.
As noted above, Calvin’s confession was written after he had left Moor’s Charity School. As such, it is not an anomaly, as the correspondence of Johnson and others proves. Several of these letters are confessional in tone; Johnson penned one of them in 1768, two years after he had left Wheelock’s school and taken a position among the Oneida Indians as an assistant teacher to Samuel Kirkland. During this, Johnson’s final year among the Oneidas, he evidently engaged in behavior that was, by “Christian” standards, opprobrious. He “kept . . . strumpets . . . nigh two months last spring—drank up near three Galln of wine . . . & between 6 & 7 Galln of Rum.” In an even more heinous act, Johnson “turn’d pagan for about a week—painted, sung—danc’d—drank & whor’d it, wh some of the savage Indians he cou’d find.”31
Johnson’s letter to Wheelock, written in December of 1768, reveals a man deeply ashamed of his behavior, yet oddly defiant. In it, he repeated the word deceitful, a direct reference to his perceived treatment by Wheelock himself. It is evident from a previous letter that Johnson was not trusted with any money and was hurt by this slur on his character. As he stated in a letter dated September 27, 1768, “I have not as yet been trusted with one Copper not So much as in sight . . . I have not yet been lavish of any of Christ money, or been found Dishonest. . . . Or ask Mr Kirkland if I Ever proved dishonest to any of the Money He has from time to time trusted me with, or to your Honoured son . . .”32 Johnson’s reference to his mistreatment undermines Scott’s theory that the hidden transcript takes place away from the gaze of the dominant. Johnson’s subtle, but obvious, criticism of Wheelock contrasts sharply with the rest of the December letter, which is filled with deep shame and misery.
Revd and Ever honoured Doctr.
Forgive me for my Repeated presumtion in Writing to you; But this once more give me leave to acquaint you my Once kind Benefactor, the Case I at present am in; But as I have so Often been found deceitfull, I know not as you will have patience to Read over this my pretended Confession, as I said, Seeing I have showed So much Deceitfullness in my pretentions, & Undertakings, Since I have been capable of being Improved in some good way; But for Grant—Which way to Betake myself—I know not, I am at a stand. Hond Sir; to return to you whom I have so greatly grieved, I dare not; I am ashamed, & Concience stings me to the Measure the down Cast Spirits of Cain when He received his curse; but no Equal to his; tho my Crimes are more than Equal. The thoughts of your School haunts my Mind dayly, and to turn my face that way I dare not. I see nothing; but my Actions in the deepest dye of Ingratitude stare me in the face which Causes my heart to faint Under the thoughts of Returning; but what Course to take. I know that god is Everywhire, and is Acquainted with Actions past, and will punish without Mercy those that Be DisObedient to his Laws, and Commandments Er long.33
Johnson’s letter serves as both confession and explanation. As much as he felt compelled to confess his sins, he also evinced the need to explain his behavior. In the first paragraph, Johnson asked Wheelock to forgive his presumption in writing, but deemed it necessary to present his “Case” so that Wheelock might hear about his actions firsthand, as it were. Johnson’s writing depicts a young man unsure of his position within his world. He had behaved, according to Christian standards, in a most heinous manner. For a young Native American man, however, Johnson’s actions were quite normal.
Johnson now stood firmly between two worlds: the world of the white Christian and the world of the Indian: “. . . Which way to Betake myself—I know not, I am at a Stand.” This “stand” marked a significant point in Johnson’s religious conversion. That God had bestowed his Grace, Johnson had no doubt: “Good God seems to be lengthening out his mercy to me, tho I have so Openly Rebeled against Him, and has graciously guided my Doubtfull steps . . .” Johnson had experienced justification, but was not living the sanctified life. In doing so, he separated elements not separable according to Calvinists, who argued that justification and sanctification are complementary: out of justification came sanctification. Thus, Johnson chose, at various times, to live the unsanctified life, a choice that placed his determination over God’s determinism. As evidenced by the above letter, Johnson’s understanding of grace could be easily defined: it was necessary for salvation but could be refused.
However, the power that Eleazar Wheelock held over his students cannot be discounted or minimized, as this letter proves. Johnson had an almost overwhelming desire to return to Wheelock’s school, but his shame prevented him from doing so: “Hond Sir; to return to you whom I have so greatly grieved, I dare not; I am ashamed. . . . The thoughts of your School haunts my Mind dayly, and to turn my face that way I dare not.” The powerful presence of Wheelock was constantly felt. Johnson’s words illustrate the depth of his pain and despair as well as his confusion. He had been removed from his home, his family, and his way of life. He was expected to become civilized, but never to become white. Wheelock sent Johnson, along with the other Indian students, as missionaries and teachers to other tribes without regard for the diversity of their languages and customs. Nevertheless, as Laura Murray points out, the students of Moor’s Charity School were meant to consider themselves as better than those whom they were sent to teach.34 How could these young men and women reconcile their position between cultures? In so many ways they were not quite Indian and not quite white. It would appear that the tensions inherent in such a reconciliation led to Johnson’s fall from Wheelock’s grace.
Johnson’s desperate attempt to obtain forgiveness from Wheelock is apparent in his rhetoric. His powerful use of anaphora illuminates his mindset and reveals his expertise in the art of writing: “But how, it seems as if there was some probability, some glimpse of hope yet, Some ways of Being Recovered from this Unhappy State . . .” Rhetorical questions indicate Johnson’s futile desire to erase his behavior and obtain Wheelock’s forgiveness: “But how can I make my sorrow Credible—which none can Believe . . . ” “What would I give Even all that I have or all that my care or Industry would gain Could I Recall these fatal hours which I consumed in sensless Vanities . . . ” If Johnson had learned anything from his tenure at Moor’s Charity School, he had learned the power of the written word. He had been compelled to bare his soul on the page. His progress—as a Christian, as a civilized human being, as a teacher, as a missionary—could only be determined through the written word.
The Letters of Joseph Johnson
The first extant letter written by Johnson after he left Wheelock’s school is from the Oneida country, where he was sent in 1766 as an assistant teacher to David Fowler and Samuel Kirkland. As mentioned previously, Fowler was another Indian student of Wheelock’s, described by Murray as “a teacher’s pct.”35 Samuel Kirkland was one of the Reverend’s white students, considered to be “a key agent of Wheelock’s hopes for converting the Iroquois.”36 Wheelock kept up a constant communication with Kirkland, on whom he relied for information about the behavior of the Indian missionaries, and his willingness to respond to Kirkland’s letters was a point of contention with the Indians. In a 1767 letter written to Wheelock, Fowler complained that “others have received Folio’s after Folio’s,” while “I have not received one Line.”37 The “others” to whom Fowler referred were, of course, Kirkland and, most likely, Ralph Wheelock.
Johnson’s letter opens with a reference to a letter no longer extant. He apologized for its contents, saying, “I have not Acknowledged the kind reception it meet with and the affectionate messages you have Sent me in your Letters to Mr Kirkland.”38 Although subtle, Johnson made it a point to mention that messages for him were relayed through Kirkland. In communicating with Johnson through Kirkland, Wheelock continued to reestablish the hierarchy of power between himself and Johnson, as well as the hierarchy between the white man and the Indian. In other words, Johnson did not merit a response from Wheelock himself. Johnson was aware of his position within this hierarchy; moreover, he was aware of the Indian’s position as it related to white society.
In the same letter, Johnson wrote, “That God may grant you an ample reward in the upper world, for all your Labours of Love towards the poor Indians, and me in perticular. . . .” Although his tone was one of deference and humble gratitude, Johnson’s view of himself and his people underlay this statement. He closed the letter, “your most Obedient though unworthy Servent Poor good for nothing Indian Joseph Johnson.” Johnson’s humility and obsequiousness served a dual purpose. On the one hand, he engaged in proper Christian rhetoric, since it was commonly expected that Christians would humble themselves before God and before their religious superiors. Laura Murray points out that many of Wheelock’s white students used similar rhetorical devices in their letters. However, she goes on to point out that Christian rhetoric “takes on particular valences” as it pertains to the subordinate status of Native Americans.39
Nevertheless, there is more to Johnson’s language than Christian rhetoric. Through it we witness a young man’s struggle to establish a place in a world that has attempted to negate his existence. Johnson realized that men such as Wheelock played a large part in determining the fate of Native Americans. At the same time, he was trying to come to terms with his own role in shaping that fate. Neither the Mohegans, nor the Oneidas, nor any other tribe could survive without acknowledging European domination. Yet, with this acknowledgment came the awareness that Wheelock (and the majority of Europeans) viewed Indians as inferior; that even as he attempted to educate and train his Indian students, Wheelock always thought of them as savages.40
Johnson’s confusion about his place in God’s plan and his position as a Christian Indian among the “pagan” Iroquois is evident in a letter he wrote to Wheelock in December of 1767:
Revd & ever hond Doctr.
I would once more attempt to write to you Hond Benefactor: Notwithstanding I find my mind so Discomposed, it is as if their was no Solidness in my mind; Sometimes Encouraged, & at other Time Dishearted; So yt I cant be Resolute in what I do. At present things look dark—They all wear a Garment of Discouragement, but I hope that Before long Some will change their present Garments, & Look Encourageing to your poor Labourers in the Wilderness.
As do Puritan writings, the above quotation incorporates an important element of the Christian writings of the time. Recording one’s despair and sinfulness offered a purgation of that sinfulness as well as relief from despair. Nevertheless, the language employed sounded not only a note of sorrow, but also of hopefulness, as Johnson’s writing illustrates: “. . . but I hope that before long Some will change their present Garments, & Look Encourageing to your poor Labourers in the Wilderness.” Johnson was aware that God would only hear the appeal for salvation from one who was actively seeking that salvation.41 Therefore, the “Wilderness” of which Johnson spoke was not only the physical space he occupied in Oneida country, but a spiritual space in which all Indians resided.
Johnson’s desperate search to create a solid, viable identity among a society that thought of his people as less than human is poignantly displayed in the second paragraph of the letter:
I Fear that God is about to give up these poor Ignorant heathen to walk after their own hearts, and cut them of Intirely from his Earth; I think at present their is Some concern amongst these Indians I would hope a Real concern. I hope that God is about to carry on his own work amongst us, and bring out Some of our Souls from this darkness into his Marvelous Light. I am yet in the Gall of Bitterness and in the bond of Iniquity. I hope that God will yet Enable me to See the pride of my heart, & the great Sin of Unbelief and the Necessity I stand in of Christ Jesus. I believe that unless God be pleased to Open my Eyes that I may See the wickedness of my heart I greatly fear I Shall never Obtain the One thing needfull.42
Johnson’s ambiguous position within this society is markedly evident in the above quotation. Murray points out his shifting pronouns, which reveal his confusion, but she fails to analyze the importance of these grammatical changes.43 To whom should Johnson have related? Did he belong with those “poor Ignorant heathen,” or did he belong with those who could see the damnation to which those “poor Ignorant heathen” were condemned?
The above paragraph begins with Johnson distancing himself from the Oneidas as he stated that “. . . God is about to give up these poor Ignorant heathen,” yet the next sentence brings the fear of damnation closer to himself as his pronouns shift to the first person and the possessive. “I hope that God is about to carry on his own work amongst us and bring out Some of our Souls from this darkness . . . ” However, in the next sentence, Johnson moved completely inward, focusing solely on himself and his fear that he would never receive God’s grace: “I am yet in the Gall of Bitterness. . . . I hope that God will yet Enable me to See the pride of my heart. . . . I believe that unless God be pleased to Open my Eyes that I may See the wickedness of my heart I greatly fear I Shall never Obtain the One thing needful.” This transition illustrates the complexity of Johnson’s constant struggle to create an identity that would allow him to function in both the Indian and the white worlds.
Furthermore, Johnson believed that although God had not yet opened his eyes, He still might. Then Johnson would “Obtain the One thing needfull”: salvation. That Johnson was still seeking salvation shows his belief in his own determination to achieve grace. In order to create a specific place in this new world order, Johnson would have to step outside of Wheelock’s Calvinist theology and refashion a theology that would allow him and other Indians to survive and prosper in Christian America. As he struggled to determine his fate, Johnson’s understanding of grace, regeneration, sanctification, and justification illustrated a subtle, but important, difference.
To all Enquiring friends, or to all Strangers that my Cast their Curious but dying Eyes upon these lines. Disdain not the feble attempt of a Poor Indian, who wishes well, to all mankind, wishes the well being of mortals, in this World; but above all Sincerely desires their well being, in the World to Come. But O! friend would you know more Concerning me. I am, kind friend, an Indian of the Mohegan tribe, known by the Name of Joseph Johnson. . . . As for my great Undertaking, I can assure you it was not the Purpose of my heart; till of late. My dear friend, let me freely tell you, that I was 21 years in this World, before I was horn, and as Soon as I was born, I had my Eyes Opened. . . . But let me tell you, before I let you go, that I am but one year, and three months old properly, and my friend, you Cant expect that in such a short time, I have arrived to manhood. No. I confess, I am but a child in the knowledge of Jesus my Lord, and a babe in Understanding.44
Joseph Johnson, along with other students of Moor’s Charity School, personified a constant struggle between Euroamerican Christianity and Native American identity. In order to unite these seemingly incompatible parts into a coherent whole, Johnson and his colleagues strove to fashion a Christianity that would allow them freedom to create an identity fundamentally different than that being created for them by Wheelock and others like him.
Calvinistic theology contended that human depravity and, therefore, divine salvation were not a matter of choice: God elected individuals prior to creation and those individuals, because of that election, lived a life of faith. Wheelock’s constant demand for confessions of misbehavior and backsliding reinforced the idea that God had not chosen any of Wheelock’s Indian students to receive salvation. To accept this interpretation of Christianity would lead to nothing but despair, a despair to which many, even Johnson himself, succumbed for a time.
Nevertheless, Johnson was able to overcome this despair through his own understanding of the Christian God and reinterpretation of the Christian faith. Johnson’s understanding of Christianity was much closer to Arminianism than to Calvinism. Arminian theology allowed humans to acknowledge their sinful state, repent and believe. God elected those whom He knew would accept salvation, but it was up to the individual to make that choice. Therefore, one could acknowledge divine grace, but still struggle to accept the gift. According to Calvinistic theology, Johnson’s failure to lead a Christian life ensured his damnation. Johnson believed differently. His spiritual struggles, although many, culminated in a life of faith as evidenced by his later writings and the founding of the Brotherton settlement. Those writings show a man secure in his faith and in his belief of God’s salvation and mercy.
Although he would die before Brotherton was completed, Johnson, along with Samson Occom, was a driving force behind the creation of the community. Within this community, Native Americans could live together, free from the constant concern that they might lose their land. Brotherton would embrace European agriculture and Christian religion combined with the Indians’ sense of community. Brotherton became for Johnson and the others the perfect amalgamation of European and Indian ways.
1. Joseph Johnson to Eleazar Wheelock, May 2, 1774, in Laura J. Murray, To Do Good to My Indian Brethren: The Writings of Joseph Johnson, 1751–1776 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), 228. I am indebted to Laura Murray for her exemplary edition of Joseph Johnson’s writings. Spelling in this quotation, and all subsequent letters, has not been corrected. The term “Wheelock’s Indians” is meant to illustrate the mindset of the Euroamerican colonizer. I use the terms Indian and Native American interchangeably, realizing that each is flawed in a particular way.
2. On this point I differ from other scholars who have focused on Johnson and Wheelock’s Indians. Murray argues that Johnson’s Christian discourse is the discourse of all Christians in the eighteenth century, as shown by his humility. Johnson’s discourse, although a strong example of Christian humility, depicts a man struggling with the issue of will in regeneration and justification, an issue that would be considered heresy by Wheelock or Wheelock’s colleagues. See Murray, To Do Good to My Indian Brethren, 12.
3. Joseph Johnson to Eleazar Wheelock, May 2, 1774, Eleazar Wheelock Papers, Dartmouth College, 774302 (emphases mine).
4. See Perry Miller, esp. “The Means of Conversion,” in Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954), 280–99.
5. James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), xii.
6. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 58.
7. The Wheelockian definition of Christianity is firmly embedded in Protestant Congregationalism: the community is formed by covenanted members of the Church, among them “visible saints” and those whose regeneration had been confirmed by the educated ministry. Arnold Krupat, The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). Krupat argues that one can determine Indian “authenticity” in autobiographical writings: the true Native American autobiography is dialogic representing both a collective self and a collective society. Autobiographies by Native Americans (his distinction) are monologic, representing the singular self in an effort “to accommodate themselves to a reigning authorative discourse” (134). Johnson’s writings create a textual self that refuses both the Wheelockian and Krupatian definitions.
8. Laura Murray writes, “[Wheelock’s] ultimate ambition was to gain influence among the Six Nations, who were what he called ‘a much better breed.’” Murray, To Do Good to My Indian Brethren, 54.
9. Wheelock wrote to George Whitefield, 1756: “My dear, dear brother, I feel in behalf of the poor, savage, perishing creatures like a covetous, craving beggar, as though I could not tell them when to ha’ done, or how to leave begging for them, till the Great Design of their being brought to Christ be accomplished.” In James Dow McCallum, Eleazar Wheelock, Founder of Dartmouth College (Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College Publications, 1939), 75.
10. McCallum, Eleazar Wheelock, Founder of Dartmouth College, 76.
11. Eleazar Wheelock, A plain and faithful Narrative of the Original Design, Rise, Progress and present State of the Indian Charity-School at Lebanon, in Connecticut. (Boston: Richard & Samuel Draper, 1763), 36.
12. Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 138, 136.
13. Foucault, Discipline & Punish, 157.
14. Murray, To Do Good to My Indian Brethren, 50–51.
15. Edward Deake to Eleazar Wheelock, June 21, 1768, Wheelock Papers, 768371. 2.
16. Eleazar Wheelock, A Continuation of the Narrative of the State, &c, of the Indian Charity School at Lebanon, in Connecticut. (Hartford: Ebenezer Watson, 1775).
17. James Dow McCallum, The Letters of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indians (Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College Publications), 91.
18. Joseph Johnson to Eleazar Wheelock, May 2, 1768, Wheelock Papers, 768302.
19. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 2, 4.
20. David Fowler to Eleazar Wheelock, June 24, 1765, McCallum, Letters of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indians, 97.
21. Joseph Johnson to Eleazar Wheelock, November, 10, 1767, Wheelock Papers, 767610.
22. Murray, To Do Good to My Indian Brethren, 17. Although I agree with her statement, Murray does not address the complexity of doctrinal differences that lie between Wheelock and his students. As I have stated earlier, Wheelock’s understanding of grace is that of the Congregationalist, while Johnson’s understanding—like that of several other of Wheelock’s students—is closer to the Arminian definition of will and the role human reasoning plays in one’s acceptance of grace.
23. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 4.
24. Joseph Johnson to Eleazar Wheelock, September 6, 1764, Ayer Collection, MS 453, Newberry Library. Eleazar Sweetland went on to become a minister after graduating from Dartmouth College in 1774. Gourdain may be the nephew of Samson Occom Gourdain Wyyougs (Murray, To Do Good to My Indian Brethren, 60).
25. Foucault, Discipline & Punish, 170–71.
26. McCallum, Letters of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indians, 60 (emphases mine).
27. Foucault, History of Sexuality, 61.
28. McCallum, Letters of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indians, 237 (emphasis mine). Bezaleel Woodward was Preceptor in Moor’s Charity School.
29. McCallum, Letters of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indians, 236 (emphasis mine).
30. Laura J. Murray, “‘Pray Sir, Consider a Little’: Rituals of Subordination and Strategies of Resistance in the Letters of Hezekiah Calvin and David Fowler to Eleazar Wheelock,” in Early Native American Writing: New Critical Essays, ed. Helen Jaskoski (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 26–27.
31. Samuel Kirkland to Eleazar Wheelock, December 29, 1768, in McCallum, Letters of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indians, 140–41.
32. Joseph Johnson to Eleazar Wheelock, September 27, 1768, Wheelock Papers, 768527.
33. Joseph Johnson to Eleazar Wheelock, December 28, 1768, Wheelock Papers, 768678.2
34. Murray, To Do Good to My Indian Brethren, 34.
35. Murray, “‘Pray Sir, Consider a Little,’” 24. Murray presents a masterful reading of resistance in the letters of David Fowler and Hezekiah Calvin, another student of Wheelock’s. Although a teacher’s pet, several of Fowler’s letters show a disenchantment with Wheelock, especially Wheelock’s refusal to communicate with Fowler and his obvious preference for Samuel Kirkland.
36. Samuel Kirkland entered Moor’s Charity School in 1760, where he remained for two years before attending the College of New Jersey (Princeton). From 1764 through 1766, Kirkland served as missionary to the Oneidas and the Senecas before returning to Lebanon, Connecticut, to be ordained. He returned to the Oneidas with whom he worked for more than forty years. Kirkland severed relations with Wheelock in 1770, in a dispute over the use of funds for Dartmouth College. See Samuel K. Lothrop, Life of Samuel Kirkland: Missionary to the Indians (Boston: Little Brown, 1848).
37. McCallum, Letters of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indians, 108.
38. Joseph Johnson to Eleazar Wheelock, December 1, 1766, Wheelock Papers, 766651.3, emphasis mine.
39. Murray, To Do Good to My Indian Brethren, 294, n. 12.
40. Eleazar Wheelock to George Whitefield, July 4, 1761, in McCallum, Eleazar Wheelock, 84: “None know, nor can any, without experience, well conceive of, the difficulty of educating an Indian. They would soon kill themselves with eating and sloth, if constant care were not exercised upon them at least the first year. They are used to set upon the ground, and it is as natural for them as a seat to our children. They are not wont to have any cloaths but what they wear, or will without much pains be brot to take care of any. They are used to a sordid manner of dress, and love it as well as our children to be clean.”
41. Again, a specifically Arminian view where the sinner chooses Christ. This contrasts with the Calvinist idea of God choosing the sinner.
42. Joseph Johnson to Eleazar Wheelock, December 29, 1767, Wheelock Papers, 767679. 2.
43. Murray, To Do Good to My Indian Brethren, 58.
44. Wheelock Papers, 772900.2.