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Book Review: R. Todd Romero, Making War and Minting Christians

20 May 2013

R. Todd Romero, Making War and Minting Christians: Masculinity, Religion, and Colonialism in Early New England (Amherst: MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011). 255pp.+xiii. $26.95.

The interaction of native tribes with early English settlers meant each culture had to change. That change included masculinity, argues R. Todd Romero in his attentive history of 17th century New England. Both natives and Puritan immigrants were concerned with manly ideals, ideals which would undergo significant changes through the Pequot War (1636-37) and King Philip’s War (1675-76). Sensitive to the underlying gender scripts, Romero’s book unspools a nuanced double-narrative.

In Part I of Making War and Minting Indians, Romero chronicles the cultural “counterpoint” between native and Anglo-American groups. A surprising similarity exists between the two. Each culture valued assertive, strong men with military skills. Each culture connected manhood to religious zeal. Nevertheless, Puritans and other Englishmen chose to highlight the differences. Manhood for them meant a carefully defined patriarchy, strenuous labor, educated western civility, and biblical, evangelistic zeal. The greatest commonality between the two worlds, it seemed, was martial culture. But the brewing of actual war between the parties made for a deep bifurcation.

In Part II Romero takes a deeper look at the colonizing efforts of Puritans with the Indian “praying towns.” Imposing western notions of manhood upon natives was a priority, even to the point of insisting (in the case of Thomas Shepard) that one must “make men” of Indians before “making Christians” of them. Puritans, especially at Massachusetts Bay Colony, struggled to get Indian men to abandon polygyny, as well as their lax posture of discipline that made children “sawcie, bold, and undutifull” (125). Assimilation efforts foundered after King Philip’s War destroyed remaining goodwill between Puritans, Christian natives, and traditional natives.

Part III of the book plays out the re-scripting of masculinities in and after the throes of war. Presented with annihilation through war or (especially) disease, some tribes sought to bargain with the Christian God. Other tribes felt a strong pull back to their traditional earth religion practices. Puritans, for their part, strenuously preached God’s providence in warfare – even as missionary efforts quickly devolved. While rhetoric between the groups transpired criticizing their inferior senses of manhood, Romero picks up on some unwitting crossovers. For instance, “The evolution of Anglo-American martial culture after the 1670s was especially ironic, given that successful colonial warriors often adapted the very Indian tactics they had formerly dismissed as dishonorable and unmanly” (191).

By necessity, Romero works from Anglo-American records. His deconstruction of their rhetoric smacks of ungraciousness at times, but he uses a hermeneutic of suspicion to render a better picture of actual native culture. Readers may find themselves frustrated that Romero does not choose to distill many conclusions from his study. A “cross-cultural” study through “gender counterpoint” does not yield larger anthropological or historical insights so much as make the reader feel the dialectical mutation between American societies. One might look to Ann M. Little’s Abraham in Arms to clarify a picture of the geopolitical legacy of New England.

Romero’s careful soundings of 17th century America amount to a genuine contribution to colonial studies. Researchers and local historians will benefit most from this sensitive narration of Anglo and Indian masculinities forged in a tumultuous era.

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