The lost sounds of religious history

What does religion sound like? Across the United States today, you can listen for it in the tolling of church bells, the Muslim call to prayer, or sirens announcing the coming of Shabbat in some Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. In a few American cities, you might at times hear all these sounds at once—the glorious cacophony of religious freedom at work.

In early America, religion sounded much different, and yet in some ways it was the same. Even then it was formed by many voices singing competing songs that occasionally found an unlikely harmony.

Large hardcover book, mostly dark brown with gold-colored details.

There has rarely been an opportunity to hear the sounds of religion in the colonial era like the one available on November 5–6, 2016, at the National Museum of American History. In two performances, educators from the Plimoth Plantation, a Smithsonian Affiliate, will present "Waking the Ancestors," exploring the meeting of two religious musical traditions: hymns and psalms from the Church of England and Calvinist congregations, and the sacred song and dance of the Wampanoag, the indigenous people of southern Massachusetts.

Hardcover book with handwritten and printed text

While interactions between the original residents of New England and the newcomers from England are sometimes reduced in popular memory to either rose-colored views of the past inspired by Thanksgiving legend, or darkly monochromatic tales of an alien culture destroying ancient ways of life, the true history is far more complex. Like a song put to a new melody, both sides of any such interaction rarely come away unchanged.

Such changes often take generations to unfold.

Arriving in Boston in 1631, the Puritan missionary John Eliot resolved to make preaching to the Native peoples of Massachusetts his life's work, despite the fact that his initial efforts were mostly in vain. "When I first attempted it, they gave no heed unto it," he wrote, "but were weary, and rather despised what I said."

Sometime later, however, he learned that a few among his original audience had developed a taste for "English fashions" and a desire to "live after their manner." Perhaps they were interested in what he had to say, after all.

"When I heard, my heart moved with in mee," he wrote, "abhorring that wee should sit still and let that work alone, and hoping that this motion of them was of the Lord… and therefore I told them that they and wee were already one."

Eliot soon undertook a monumental work of translation, which he published in 1663 as The Holy Bible Containing the Old Testament and the New; Translated into the Indian Language (shown here in images recently taken at the American Bible Society, for inclusion in the museum's Religion in Early America exhibition, opening in 2017). Through the arduous translation process, Eliot became a lifelong student of the language and lifeways of the Wampanoag tribe. Though he hoped to teach them to live after the English manner, he first had to learn to speak in their own language.

Image of a psalm in a non-English language in a book

For the Wampanoag, Eliot's efforts had a range of effects. Some converted and joined his evangelical efforts, while others continued to give "no heed unto" the message of the new religion. The most unexpected result, however, came hundreds of years later.

By the late 20th century, the Wampanoag language had fallen into disuse. Some members of the community began to look for ways to relearn elements of their language that had been lost. In search of materials with which to reconstruct how their ancestors might have sounded, they turned to the language's most complete record: Eliot's Bible.

Such complex linguistic and religious tensions can be difficult to grapple with. The work of missionaries like Eliot led, in part, to the circumstances in which the language he struggled to learn began to fade in the first place. And yet this very interaction eventually became invaluable to preserving the culture it once sought to change.

As the colonial and Wampanoag educators of Plimoth Plantation will show on November 5–6, such interactions in early America could be heard not only in spoken language, but in song.

To learn more about the museum's Religion in America initiative and collaboration with Plimoth Plantation, listen to Plimoth's podcast, in which I spoke with podcast host Hilary Goodnow. 

Peter Manseau is Lilly Endowment curator of American religious history in the Division of Home and Community Life.