Thomas Kidd, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, is a prolific author. He has now written standard works on the religious history of the American revolution and on the Great Awakening, has explored the history of Baptists in America and the history of evangelical interactions with Muslims in America, and has also composed well-received biographies of Patrick Henry and George Whitefield, He is currently working on a religious biography of Benjamin Franklin.
His latest book, just published by Yale University Press, is on American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faiths.
He recently answered a few questions I had about the book’s focus and purpose.
The book goes way, way back in time, to the beginning of human settlement in the Americas. But the bulk of it covers the period from the start of European colonization in the Americas (Columbus’s journey in 1492) to the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. In the epilogue, I look forward to the imperial crisis that led to the American Revolution.
The geographical frame is mostly the future United States, but I also consider the European and African backgrounds of voluntary and forced immigration to the New World. I also take into account the early American west, which often gets less attention than England’s thirteen Atlantic seaboard colonies. The book concludes, for example, with a comparison of what was happening in Philadelphia, St. Louis, and San Francisco in 1776. From the vantage point of the center of the continent, or the far west, the Revolution looks a lot different.
You are known for writing books that are popular both inside and outside of the classroom. What are the various audiences you envisioned as you wrote this book?
Yale University Press commissioned me to write this book as an overview of American colonial history. So it definitely has relevance to history courses on that topic. But, knowing that many people read my books who are already out of college, I try to tell the kinds of stories that general audiences enjoy. But of course, that style of writing works well with students, too.
At the end of each chapter you reprint selected relevant primary texts. Why is it important for us to hear early Americans in their own voices rather than merely to have a historian quote and interpret them for us? Does a particular example stand out to you among the documents you chose to include?
The documents lead us into the past in raw, unfiltered ways that historians can’t do. Sometimes historical documents seem inaccessible because they use unfamiliar or confusing language, but that’s the point: the past is like a foreign country, as they say.
There are tons of fascinating, and sometime troubling, details in the documents. I love the testimonies of Native American converts from John Eliot’s Tears of Repentance (1653). Eliot was the most influential Puritan missionary to Native Americans, and he recorded the personal accounts of Native Americans who accepted Christ.
One man named Waban said that before he heard of the Christian God, he wanted to be a witch or a shaman. But when he heard the Christian message, he began to realize his sin and need for forgiveness. “Only Christ can help me,” he confessed.
But—and here you see the cultural gulf between Native Americans and the English missionaries—some of the English were not sure that Waban fully understood the gospel. They said his testimony was “not so satisfactory as was desired,” because Waban could not articulate all of the Christian message. Many Puritans were ambivalent about whether to admit such native converts to full church membership.
There are a number of textbooks on the market for those teaching the history of colonial America. What makes your contribution distinct?
There are three features that make my book different.
One is that I use a writing style and compelling stories that will hopefully make the book enjoyable for more readers.
Second, the book is more focused than many sprawling textbooks. I zero in on themes of religion and conflict, showing that all groups brought religious beliefs with them into the colonial clashes, beliefs which helped them to make sense of the unsettled, violent world in which they lived.
Finally, the book is based on my reading of the most up-to-date scholarship in the history of early America, but is presented in such a way that readers don’t have to sift through the scholarly debates (which can be arcane) themselves.
As a historian, what are some of the challenges in reconstructing the religious beliefs of groups like early Native Americans and Africans?
Many of the people living in Native American or African societies before European colonization did not have written languages, or at least they left few documents that have survived. Therefore, we must piece those cultures together through oral traditions and the tools of archaeology and anthropology.
Early Native Americans and Africans lived in pervasively religious worlds. In some ways, their worlds were even more suffused with religion than the Europeans’ were.
For Native Americans, in particular, we might say that they were spiritual, but not doctrinal. They had religious leaders, but their religions were more about interacting with and appeasing spiritual powers than teaching any particular doctrines about God, or the “gods.” They typically did not have a word in their language for”religion.” To them, religion was just the stuff of everyday life.
Native Americans and Africans often believed that the world was teeming with spiritual forces, and that a wise person would be careful to respect and never to offend those forces. Europeans in the Age of Exploration had pervasively religious worldviews, too, but they understood religion as having more to do with institutions, churches, and doctrines.
So how, as a Christian scholar, did you handle the fact that Christian Europeans often treated Native Americans and Africans so badly?
As a Christian, I reject the idea promoted by many secular scholars that the coming of Christianity was an exclusively negative development for Native Americans and Africans. But one of the book’s biggest challenges was to explain how deeply connected Christianity was with the spread of European empires, and with the rise of slavery in America.
Much evil was done in the name of Christianity during the colonial era. (Some Christian critics even said so at the time.) When given the chance, Africans and Native Americans could treat people in awful ways, too. But Europeans had the most power to colonize and conquer. Still, I believe that many Africans and Native Americans in early America genuinely found hope and salvation in the Christian gospel. That reality helps to account for the persistence of Native American, African, and African American Christianity today.