"'Sons of the Forest': The Native American Jeremiad Materialized in the Social Protest Rhetoric of William Apess, 1829-1836" by Willie J. Harrell, Jr.
Willie J. Harrell, Jr. is associate professor of English at Kent State University where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in African-American Literature. He is author of Origins of the African American Jeremiad: The Rhetorical Strategies of Social Protest and Activism, 1760-1861 (McFarland, 2011) and editor of We Wear the Mask: Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Politics of Representative Reality (Kent State University Press, 2010). Email:
Until they began to tell their own stories and develop their own voices, the history of the mistreatment of Native Americans was filled with discords and inconsistencies. As Robert Yagelski argued, “Most of the texts…of speeches by Native American leaders…are…given in the context of negotiations over treaties or of surrender to white armies, and nearly all were recorded by white observers” (67). William Apess, the Pequot author, Methodist minister, and political activist, set out to remind Euro-Americans of this fact when he wrote his 1829 autobiographical work, A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apess, A Native of the Forest, Comprising a Notice of the Pequod Tribe of Indians, Written by Himself. “The Indian character,” wrote Apess, “…has been greatly misrepresented. Justice has not and, I may add, justice cannot be fully done to them by the historian.” Lamenting that the white man had poorly characterized his brethren’s struggle for egalitarianism, Apess furthered:
My people have no press to record their sufferings or to make known their grievances; on this account many a tale of blood and woe has never been known to the public. And during the wars between the natives and the whites, the latter could, through the medium of the newspaper press, circulate extensively every exaggerated account of ‘Indian cruelty,’ while the poor natives had no means of gaining the public ear. (Son 60)
In his determined rhetoric, Apess argued that the decentralization of his culture was a direct result of whites’ subjugation. Therefore, his purpose was to articulate the abundant social and political grievances within the Native American community. He wrote:
Ever since the discovery of America by the celebrated navigator, Columbus, the ‘civilized’ or enlightened natives of the Old World regarded its inhabitants as an extensive race of ‘savages!’ Of course, they were treated as barbarians, and for nearly two centuries they suffered without intermission, as the Europeans acted on the principle that might makes right—and if they could succeed in defrauding the native out of their lands and dive them from the seaboard, they were satisfied for a time. With this end in view, they sought to ‘engage them in war, destroy them by thousands with ardent spirits, and fatal disorders unknown to them before. (Son 53; emphasis in original)
Apess contradicted Euro-Americans’ idea that Native Americans were “savages.” As he unequivocally attacked the causes of his brethrens’ disenfranchisement, Apess was able to map out inconsistencies in the construction of what Euro-Americans called the Republic in which all would acquire basic civil liberties. Although he may have produced a certain dissonance by criticizing white hegemony, for Native Americans Apess’ actions signified the emergence of a new era.
In recent years, scholars have devoted critical attention to Apess’ works. Foremost Apess critic Barry O’Connell, for example, contended that Apess’ consciousness of the “nature of Euro-American racism” represented the earliest form of Native American identity. Apess’ developing racial awareness “anticipates…pan-Indianism and political sensibility” that was implied a century and a half later by the emergence of the term “‘people of color’” (xiii, xv). Maureen Konkle, however, argued that Apess’ dismissed an “innate Indian consciousness.” Apess’ rejection of Native American identity was positioned with regard to a “history and a criticism that recognize Native literary works” (460). Konkle concluded that scholars should read Apess’ works in an effort to understand “colonization and its enduring effects on non-Native culture as well as Native people” (477). In discussing the role of evangelical Christianity in Apess’ works, Karim M. Tiro concluded that Apess’ “experiments with Methodism” belied the intricate methods in which “Natives adapted to the dominant culture” that subjugated them (672). Peter L. Bayers, Carolyn Haynes, Sandra Gustafson, Laura J. Murray, Laura L. Mielke, Arnold Krupat and Hillary E. Wyss were added to the recent pool of critics who conceptualized Apess’ discourse in terms of denouncing colonial hegemony. In his didactic texts, Apess employed the rhetoric of the jeremiad, a discourse that has undergone significant social, political, and intellectual changes since its initial conception and demonstrated by its architects an astounding literary authority. Scholars’ divergent discussions have been sluggish, however, to identify the jeremiadic rhetoric embedded in Apess’ discourse.
Apess’ reminiscent call to Euro-Americans to accept the responsibility of ensuring that all men benefit from their own credence that “all men are created equal” resounded with a form of rhetoric rooted in America’s consciousness since the days of the Puritans. Serving as an introductory approach to examining the issues surrounding the growth and development of Native American jeremiadic discourse during America’s antebellum years, this essay examines the emergence of the jeremiad in Apess’ prose to uncover the distinctive rhetoric embedded beneath and challenge scholars to revisit Apess’ work for its contribution to the emerging Native American jeremiadic tradition. This essay further suggests that Apess’ employment of the jeremiad represented the ongoing conflict between Euro-American and Native American cultures as Apess’ jeremiadic rhetoric—as was customary in this kind of discourse—was shaped by that encounter. Moreover, Apess’ employment of the jeremiad reflected the important use of rhetoric by Native Americans as a tool for political struggle and cultural survival. In essence, Apess’ jeremiads underscored the complex connections among politics, rhetoric, and culture in the early Republic as viewed by Native Americans. An important element in ethnic jeremiads in America was the yearning to eliminate oppression and the call for a collective struggle that would advocate restructuring the American democratic system. Even if Apess was not aware of it, his writings served as political jeremiads to call attention to Native American duress and his jeremiadic rhetoric established the platform from which progress would grow. The elements of the jeremiad—the criticism of a system that went against the natural laws of humanity and a criticism of America’s ideals of democracy—appeared not in any particular order and without any particular defined structure throughout Apess’ discourse.
Native American Jeremiadic Discourse Emerged in the Early Republic
A distinctive discourse exchanging with cultures and governments to aide in the shaping of a tranquil society, jeremiadic rhetoric has always been intrinsically deep-rooted throughout the advancement of civilizations, especially those who were victims of oppression. As James Darsey has argued, the American jeremiadic tradition demonstrated a long “practical understanding of the principle” of crisis (69). According to Sacvan Bercovitch, the American jeremiad matured as “an ancient formulaic refrain, a ritual form imported to Massachusetts in 1630 from the Old World…The American jeremiad owes its uniqueness to this vision and mode of rhetoric” (6). If considered today as a lamentation, the jeremiad would become more than just prophecy and warnings; it would manifest in many forms of social protest and would become what Bercovitch conceptualized as a “political sermon—what might be called the state-of-the-state-covenant address” that would summon its audience to acknowledge rather than question the basis of their present tribulations. Puritan jeremiadic discourse, Bercovitch wrote, “set out the sacred history of the New World; the eighteenth-century jeremiad established the typology of America’s mission” (4, 93).
When Native Americans employed this formulaic refrain, their discourse advocated “red capitalism” (Bercovitch 160), which was given birth by their attempts to maintain their cultures and in the face of Euro-American supremacy. Often directed toward Euro-American audiences, the Native American jeremiad lamented the immorality and treachery of Euro-Americans on Native American culture. The foremost distinction between the Native American jeremiad and its American predecessor, however, rested in Native Americans’ degree of refusal to accept racial degradation and dehumanization. Although they “immortalize white cruelty,” Native Americans also “immortalize Indian heroism, brilliance, and perseverance” (Bergland 143). Apess asked “if there cannot be as good feelings and principles under a red skin as there can be under a white” (The Experiences 156). Since Native Americans had no ontological background for jeremiadic rhetoric to exist, however, the Native American jeremiad would become a perceptive adaptation of its American predecessor. According to Perry Miller, “the jeremiad would be obliged to comment on the social scene in terms recognizable to those who knew it” (33). Because Native Americans’ “subjugated status called into question the very terms upon which America sought to claim a special identity” (Walker 57), they were exceptional models for the employment of jeremiadic discourse. For example, in Sons, which represented one the earliest narratives published by Native Americans, Apess chastised Euro-Americans for their barbarous designs. “Every European vice that had a tendency to debase and ruin both body and sound was introduced among” the Natives (53), he lamented. Gustafson argued that Apess took “up the Israelite origins theory [for Native Americans] as a means of validating non-European, non-Christian cultures…in the course of his life [to] transform it into a justification for native independence” (36). Apess continued:
[Europeans] avowed object was to obtain possession of the goodly inheritance of the Indian, and their ‘enlightened’ estimation, the ‘end justified the means.’ When I reflect upon the complicated ills to which my brethren have been subject, every since history has recorded their existence—their wanderings, their perils, their privations, and their many sorrows, and the fierceness of that persecution which marked their dwelling and their persons for destruction—when I take into consideration the many ancient usages and customs observed religiously by them, and which have so near and close resemblance to the manners, etc., of the ancient Israelites, I am led to believe that they are none other than the descendants of Jacob and the long lost tribes of Israel. (Sons 53)
Apess appropriated “the language of American democracy in the name of Native Americans” (O’Connell 164).
Since this essay is an examination of the use of rhetoric, it is important to explore the term for the purposes of placing a distinctive Native American rhetorical discourse into American literary studies. Rhetoric has been identified as a vehicle of uplift, an instrument of language, while on the other hand, an art of deception (Ampadu 39). It has been defined as “an ideological discourse in process, constantly responsive to the exigencies of the contingent situations in which it operates” (Gordon 5). As an influential tool used to influence or persuade audiences, rhetoric has also been described as “the faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever” (Matsen, Rollinson and Sousa 120). As Yagelski argued, Native American rhetoric “both grew out of and facilitated public affairs and was integral to a tribe’s social and political life.” It became “the tool by which individual members participated in and shaped a tribe’s collective decision-making.” A study of how Native Americans employed rhetoric “in their struggles against whites reveals the importance of public discourse in Native American societies and offers us rich territory for inquiry into the ways in which rhetoric figures into racial and cultural conflicts” (69, 75). As it became an ideological force of deliverance from Euro-American oppression and called for basic civil liberties for its constituents, the Native American jeremiad, then, highlighted the tensions between Native American and Euro-Americans cultures by drawing attention explicitly to the significance of Native Americans’ subjugation. Apess confronted, however, two rhetorical challenges in persuading Euro-Americans to accept his claims concerning the treatment of his brethren. First, thorough knowledge and experience, he fashioned a determined discourse to call the nation to fulfill its duties by reminding them that all would receive God’s grace. Second, he reminded them of the connections between the two cultures. To negotiate these rhetorical challenges, Apess turned to his skillfully structured jeremiads that stressed the need for action and linked those needs with his commitment “to an egalitarian Christianity” (O’Connell 99).
If jeremiads are characterized today as discourses that reflect the continuous tribulations of an oppressed people that hold out hope for a brighter future in times of crisis, these treaties become extremely political in nature as they seek to alter the social order of the day. Transforming into a justification for Native American autonomy, this development spawned rhetorical strategies by Native Americans that advanced in significant ways from the traditional rhetoric of American jeremiadic discourse. Why, though, did Native Americans employ jeremiadic discourse separate of the American jeremiad? Sprinkled throughout his narrative, Apess left clues to the answer of this question:
I presume that no person will doubt that great injustice has been done to the Indians, and I also think that no liberal mind will say that they are the only savages. It is a matter of sober fact that the natives, on their first acquaintance with the Europeans, manifested themselves generous, high-minded, kind, and hospitable, and these feelings marked all their intercourse with the whites, while they were treated with humanity; and it was not till after repeated aggressions on the part of the whites, not until they were overreached, and their friends and relatives carried into hopeless captivity, that they exhibited that deep and settled hatred to the whites, which may very properly be termed a hereditary animosity. (Son 59; emphasis in original)
According to Apess’ assessment, there was no ontological reason for Euro-Americans ill treatment of his brethren. There were many reasons behind why Apess employed the jeremiad, but mainly his appeal for social exchange, his need to necessitate moral and educational development, and his need for a political voice defined the principal motives.
In the their “errand into the wilderness,” Miller suggested that the initial purpose of the Puritans’ mission was to establish in America “the due form of government…the aim behind that aim was to vindicate the most rigorous ideal of the Reformation,” and the final outcome would be that “Europe would imitate New England” (12) instead of New England being a by-product of Europe. This purpose, however, was not applicable to Native American jeremiadic discourse. As David Murray suggested, “As [Native Americans] became subject peoples, they became, ironically, objects of white attention” (70). Apess lamented not only the plight of his people, but he vividly criticized whites’ “manifest destiny.” He wrote:
No doubt there are many good people in the United States who would not trample upon the rights of the poor, but there are many others who are willing to roll in their coaches upon the tears and blood of the poor and unoffending natives—those who are ready at all time to speculate on the Indians and defraud them out of their rightful possessions. Let the poor Indian attempt to resist the encroachments of his white neighbors, what a hue and cry is instantly raised against him. It has been considered as a trifling thing that the whites to make war on the Indians for the purpose of driving them from their country and taking possession thereof. This was, in their estimating, all right, as it helped to extend the territory and enriched some individuals. But let the thing be changed. Suppose an overwhelming army should march into the United States for the purpose of subduing it and enslaving the citizens; how quick would they fly to arms, gather in multitudes around the tree of liberty, and contend for their rights with the last drop of their blood. And should the enemy succeed, would they not eventually rise and endeavor to regain liberty? And who would blame them for it? (Son 31)
Since Native Americans were viewed as hindrances to “manifest destiny,” Apess’ jeremiads demonstrated the dangers of their refractory stance toward white racism. As Walker argued, Apess turned “the table on his white readers, asking them to imagine themselves transpositionally in the position of the Indian” (47). Throughout his jeremiads, Apess consistently criticized Euro-Americans because he felt that “the treatment of the Indians of his own day descends in a direct line from Puritan treatment of Indians in an earlier day” (Krupat 100). Therefore, Native Americans self-consciousness was usually a product of some form of oppression. “The enormities of the Indians,” Apess argued, “form no excuse for the enormities of white men.” Native Americans, as Apess illustrated, realized that their consciousness demanded them to take action and “show the [Euro-Americans] how they were treated” (Son 5, 68). Although in the early Republic the sense of that action remained vague, Native American activists evoked unity and advocated a moral basis for the elimination of the oppression of their people. In order to understand the origins of Native American jeremiadic rhetoric, then, one needs to look beyond its Puritan predecessor’s influence because Native American jeremiadic discourse did not rely solely on an adaptor tradition.
Who was the first Native American to employ jeremiadic discourse? What factors lead to this development? Mielke argued:
Many Euro-Americans attempted to answer the Indian Question with sympathy, whether by promoting removal as the benevolent act of caring guardians, pitying the race as ‘doomed’ to extinction, or (less often) challenging federal Indian policy as hypocritical and heartless. As is perhaps apparent, the sentimental treatment of Native Americans and their relationship with Euro-Americans entailed the assertion of racial difference as well as affective similarity. (248)
What was certain, however, was that ethos rested at the heart of Native American jeremiadic discourse. Every ethnic group that has fallen victim to colonization, imperialism and, or, despotism has devised a way to deal with the realities of their oppression and, at the same time, confront the domineering ideologies of their oppressors by addressing the day-to-day problems they experienced. The rhetoric of the jeremiad, then, can aptly be applied to Apess’ discourse of dissent as he blatantly attacked the moral fabric of hegemony and the subjugation of his brethren. No one was free from Apess’ criticism. Even the work of the missionaries was examined under his jeremiadic microscope:
I am bold to aver that the minds of the natives were turned against the Gospel and soured toward the whites because some of the missionaries have joined the unholy brethren in speculations to the advantages of themselves, regardless of the rights, feelings, and interests of the untutored sons of the forest…The natives are on the whole willing to receive the Gospel, and of late, through the instrumentality of pious missionaries, much good has been done—many of them have been reclaimed from the most abandoned and degrading practices and brought to a knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus! (Son 33; emphasis in original)
Apess’ jeremiads were radically affected by a range of social and intellectual changes in the early Republic as he attempted to bring to light the pejorative effects of Euro-American culture on his own. Apess’ 1829 A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apess, a Native of the Forest became an eloquent example of Native American jeremiadic rhetoric because in it readers find “issues of identity and the formulation of modes of representation characteristic” (O’Connell 2) that was customary for this kind of ethnic discourse to exist. Religion, a major ingredient in jeremiadic discourse, provided Apess—more specifically Methodism—with the “means to articulate Native grievances to the broader culture” (Tiro 672). Furthermore, the title of Apess’ narrative appeared to be in response to the Puritan’s “errand into the wilderness.” Conceivably, what Apess proclaimed was that when the Puritans trampled into their metaphorical “wilderness,” they found his people: “son[s] of the forest,” the true “worm[s] of the earth” (4). In Apess’ hands, a determined rhetoric critical of white oppression developed and was supported through his assessment of Euro-Americans’ mistreatment of and devaluation of his culture.
Mastering the Oppressor’s Language Through Jeremiadic Discourse
Vine Deloria, Jr. and Clifford M. Lytle have argued that Native Americans “preserved the idea of nationhood” throughout their encounters with the “non-Indian world but have had great difficulty communicating the essence” of their strife to “the larger society” (263). No doubt the jeremiad found a place in the rhetoric of Native Americans in their struggle for equality. Sluggish in its development, by the early 1830s the Native American jeremiad was emerging amidst the budding social protest rhetoric of American descent.
As with the developing African-American jeremiad, the Native American jeremiad was formulated with a definite rhetorical purpose: to arouse Euro-American readers against subjugation of their brethren. African-American Jeremiahs such as James Forten, Paul Cuffe, and Prince Hall, through their mastery of the oppressor’s language, had begun already to develop a distinctive jeremiadic discourse of social protest. This connection, for example, was furthered when runaway slaves marooned in the forests with the Native American tribes. According to William Loren Katz, they formed “armed Black Indian communities named ‘Hide Me’ and ‘The Woods Lament For Me’” (12). This uniting with Native Americans showed not only a joining of two oppressed groups of people but also a consciousness of white manipulation and mistreatment. Thus, the titles they gave their maroons mirrored and became laments of their socio-political circumstances. No doubt their rhetoric helped to shape and influence Apess’. As an itinerant preacher, he preached frequently to African and Native American audiences (O’ Connell xxxi). “If black or red skins or any other skin of color is disgraceful to God,” Apess lamented, “it appears that he has disgraced himself a great deal—for he has made fifteen colored people to one white and placed them here upon this earth” (The Indian’s Looking-Glass 157). Gustafson argued that Apess’ voice of social protest was comparable to “African-American prophets urging violent resistance” (45). Apess positioned his rhetoric in Sons in the revolutionary tone that some African-American Jeremiahs, such as David Walker, would utilize in order to deconstruct the Euro-American ideology that oppression is justified. Although Apess was probably not heavily involved in the American Abolitionism movement, it was possible that he was aware of Walker’s work (Krupat 81). Published in 1829, Walker attempted to beseech white Americans to atonement through his Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America:
I ask O ye Christians!!! who hold use and our children, in the most abject ignorance and degradation, that ever a people were afflicted with since the world began—I say, if God gives you peace and tranquility, and suffers you thus to go on afflicting us and our children, who have never given you the least provocation, —Would he be to use a God of justice? If you will allow that we are MEN, who feel for each other, does not the blood of our fathers and of us their children, cry aloud to the Lord of Sabaoth against you, for the cruelties and murders with which you have, and do continue to afflict us. (16)
In Eulogy on King Philip, as Pronounced at the Odeon, in Federal Street, Boston, Apess echoed Walker’s convictions by condemning Euro-Americans’ egregious behavior. However, Apess asked the reader to judge the subjugation of his brethren merely, yet, passionately on the basis of justice:
In 1619 a number of Indians went on board of a ship, by order of their chief, and the whites set upon them and murdered them without mercy…Is this insult to be borne, and not a word to be said? Truly, Christians would never bear it; why, then think it strange that the denominated savages do not? O thou white Christian, look at acts that honored your countrymen, to the destruction of thousands, for much less insults than that. And who, my dear sirs, were wanting of the name of savages—whites, or Indians? Let justice answer….O Christians, can you answer for those beings that have been destroyed by your hostilities, and beings too that lie endeared to God as yourselves, his Son being their Savior as well as your, and alike to all men? (282-283, 286)
Apess’ rhetorical approach in the Eulogy “effectively seeks to disable white Americans’ ready assumption of a seamlessly glorious and singular American story” (O’Connell xxi). He consistently “reverses [his] audiences’ expectations” and refuses to “portray Indians as evanescent or extinct” (Bergland 143). Labeling Euro-Americans “Christians” and calling them to reform (“O Christians, can you answer for those beings that have been destroyed by your hostilities”), Apess evaluated their violence against Christianity in order to argue for a socio-political opposition to his brethren’s subjugation (“Truly, Christians would never bear it; why, then think it strange that the denominated savages do not?”). Apess’ view of evangelical Christianity and the “republican rights and liberty…make the ground for granting Native Americans equality, subverting their conventional function of defining natives as pagans and savages who, at best, might be convertible to minor status” (O’Connell xxi). As he devalued and deconstructed Euro-Americans’ perceived notions about true Christianity, Apess’ lamentation of the Eurocentric hegemony was further developed when he lamented:
There is a deep-rooted popular opinion in the hearts of many that Indians were made, etc., on purpose for destruction, to be driven out by white Christians, and they to take their places and that God had decreed it from all eternity…If God wants the red men converted, we should think that he could do it as well in one place as in another. (287)
Walker argued that Apess understood that “subjugated groups may appropriate the oppressor’s language for their own purposes” (58). Mastering the oppressors’ language, then, became the fundamental vehicle for not only Native Americans’ moral and religious uplift, but also required them to employ vivid portrayals and well-defined language. Apess achieved this by connecting the oppressors to the plight of the oppressed as a way to forge social change. He sought to evaluate Native Americans’ struggles in terms that whites would be able to comprehend:
Not doubt there are many good people in the United States who would not trample upon the rights of the poor, but there are many others who are willing to roll in their coaches upon the tears and blood of the poor and unoffending natives—those who are ready at all times to speculate on the Indians and defraud them out of their rightful possessions. It has been considered as a trifling thing for the whites to make war on the Indians for the purpose of driving them from their country and taking possession thereof….But let the thing be changed. Suppose an overwhelming army should march into the United States for the purpose of subduing it and enslaving the citizens; how quick would they fly to arms, gather in multitudes around the tree of liberty, and contend for their rights with the last drop of their blood. And should the enemy succeed, would they not eventually rise and endeavor to regain liberty? And who would blame them for it? (31)
Apess’ lamenting Americanism suggested that the objective of the Native American jeremiad echoed social change in the early Republic by forcing the oppressors to come to terms with issues that surround the subjugation of Native Americans. Apess became more agitated by white behavior when he called on the nation’s sacred promise to grant the rights all men were entitled by natural law:
Why are not we protected in our persons and property throughout the Union? Is it not because there reigns in the breast of many who are leaders a most unrighteous, unbecoming, and impure black principle, and as corrupt and unholy as it can be—while these very same unfeeling, self-esteemed characters pretend to take the skin as a pretext to keep us from our unalienable and lawful rights? I would ask you if you would like to be disfranchised from all your rights, merely because your skin is white, and for not other crime. I’ll venture to say, these are very characters who hold the skin to be such as barrier in the way would be the first to cry out, ‘Injustice! Awful injustice!’ But, reader, I acknowledged that this is a confused world, and I am not seeking for office, but merely placing before you the black inconsistency that you place before me—which is ten times blacker than any skin that you will find in the universe. (The Indian’s Looking-Glass 156-157)
According to Krupat, Apess used “black” “an an adjective to describe morals—principles—that have become corrupted by an aversion to black or colored skin…the extremely bad ‘principle’” (85; emphasis in original) of placing derogatory connotations to skin color. In his jeremiadic fashion, Apress lamented the evils he saw proliferated against his brethren while drawing on the Euro-Americans’ mythic promise that all men should receive the natural and inalienable rights promised them. As he saw it, God was “the maker and preserver both of the white man and the Indian, whose abilities are the same” (The Indian’s Looking-Glass 155).
Apess’ use of jeremiadic discourse indicated how Native Americans adopted and transformed the colonizers’ languages and cultures to their own purposes and for their own empowerment. Readers should keep in mind Apess’ affirmation of such empowering appropriations while considering his reclamation of America. For example, at the onset of Son, Apess, “the hero of the wildness” (O’Connell xix) attempted to unite all of humanity—Native Americans, Africans, and Euro-Americans—under one blood and “overtly connects his own heritage to that of King Philip” (Bayer 137). He wrote:
My grandmother was, if I am not misinformed, the king’s [of the Pequot tribe] granddaughter and a fair and beautiful woman. This statement is given not with a view of appearing great in the estimation of others—what, I would ask, is royal blood?—the blood of a king is no better than that of the subject. We are in fact but one family; we are all the descendants of one great progenitor—Adam. I would not boast of my extraction, as I consider myself nothing more than a worm of the earth. (4; emphasis in original)
Clearly Apess meant for Native Americans to be the connection to unifying all races.
Apess, born in Colrain, Massachusetts on 31 January 1798, was ordained a Methodist minister in 1829. Indentured at the age of five to white families, who consequently provided him with education, Apess eventually joined the military in New York and fought in the War of 1812 (Tiro 657). White chronicling the events of his life in The Experiences of Five Christian Indians, Apess attempted to appeal to whites’ sympathies when he lamented, “Little children, how thankful you ought to be that you are not in the same condition that we were, that you have not a nation to hiss at you, merely because your skins are white” (120). Of Pequot descent, Apess took part in the Mashpee Revolt (also Marshpee) of 1833. Enhanced by lack of humanitarianism in the Republic, Apess’ jeremiadic discourse was further shaped by occurrences such as the Mashpee Revolt. The Mashpees, who were Christians, lived autonomous of Euro-American hegemony and who sought to maintain their independence from governmental oversight and to replace their inattentive white minister with Apess.
Apess organized the tribe, issued a series of declarations, succeeded in satisfying the Mashpee’s demands and “worked successfully to obtain for the tribe a greater degree of sovereignty” (Krupat 86). On 21 May 1833, the Mashpee of Cape Cod signed what measured to a Native American Declaration of Independence. The Mashpee reiterated to Boston bureaucrats that “all men are born free and equal, as says the Constitution of the country” (Indian Nullification 175). Language has often been used as a tool of oppression by those who compromise the ruling class in order to continue their subjugation and dominance over a culture. The Mashpee epitomized the intellectual anguish that Native Americans in the early Republic experienced when they tried to find meaning amid the Founding Fathers’ language, “We hold this truth to be self-evident, that GOD created all men equal.” In their document, the Mashpee indicated the particulars of what they considered an insufferable condition—the misappropriation of their woodlots, hay fields, pastures, and shellfish attitudes by whites. The Mashpee acknowledged that they would oppose additional infringement by white colonists. A group of farmers resolved to test the Mashpee’s steadfastness. When the farmers came to cut wood on Mashpee land, they were met with resistance. A violent conflict pursued; the Mashpee saw themselves as warriors battling an oppressive foreign government. Fearing an insurrection, the government approved the Mashpee’s right of self-government in 1834. This political move would ensure civil liberties for Native Americans and was just the beginning of a discourse of dissent.
Heavily criticized as an advocate of the Mashpee Revolt by white critics, Apess published the documentary of the revolt, Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Marshpee Tribe; or the Pretended Riot Explained in 1835. Apess, “one of the earliest indigenous leaders of an Indian rights movement” hoped that he revolt would raise important questions “about the political rights and status of America’s first people” (O’Donnell 163). Considered one of the most powerful examples of political writing in Native American literature, Apess employed Puritan rhetoric as a means to “establish the injustice of the treatment” the Mashpee received (Walker 55). Euro-Americans, he grieved, “had done all they could to extinguish all sense of right among the Indians.” Apess was cautious to explain that “He writes not in the expectation of gathering wealth or augmenting the number of his friends. But he has not the least doubt that all men who have regard to truth and integrity will do justice to the uprightness of his intentions” (Indian Nullification 168, 175). After arriving to visit his “brethren of Marshpee,” Apess wrote that he was “greatly disappointed in the appearance of those who [had] advanced”:
All the Indians I had ever seen were of a reddish color, sometimes approaching a yellow, but now, look to what quarter I would, most of those who were coming were pale faces, and, in my disappointment, it seemed to me that the hue of death sat upon their countenances. It seemed very strange to me that my brethren should have changed their natural color and become in every respect like white men….they had been taught to be sectarians rather than Christians, to love their own sect and to hate others, which was contrary to the convictions of my own experience as well as to the doctrine of Jesus Christ (Indian Nullification 170, 172)
The racial attitudes of Euro-Americans in the early Republic certainly affected the content of the Native American jeremiad. Writing in regard to the Mashpee Revolt, Apess confronted the stereotypical and racist attitudes of whites “as untrustworthy” (Bayers 141), “The Indians wished to do nothing in a comer, but rather to proceed with an open and manly spirit, that should show that they were unjustly accounted abject and willing Slaves” (Indian Nullification 194). He remained firm and steadfast in aiding the restoration of the Native American community. Apess understood the basic ideologies inherent in the discourse of American democracy: acknowledgment, acceptance, and representation. Criticizing America for its failure in tutoring the “sons of the forest,” Apess mourned, “America has utterly failed to amalgamate the red man of the woods into the artificial, cultivated ranks of social life” (Increase 107). He also understood that Native Americans’ culturally sanctioned exclusion, as it existed, was built on their similarities with whites, not their differences. “It is often said of the ‘savages’ that their mode of carrying on war, and the method of treating their prisoners,” Apess lamented, “is cruel and barbarous in the extreme—but did not the whites set them the brutal example?” (Son 53; emphasis in original). In The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes, which not only sought to situate Native Americans within their rightful place in world history, but also outlined the atrocities perpetuated on them by whites, Apess posited:
Is not the white man as sinful by nature as the red man? Uneducated, and unrenewed by divine grace, is he not a heathen, is he not an enemy to God and righteousness, prone to the commission of every crime, however flagrant in its nature and its tendencies? Does not the white man, however gifted, and eloquent, and learned, and popular, grow up and sicken and die? (113)
As seen here, the pejorative affects of Euro-American culture on Native Americans surfaced throughout Apess’ frustration. He furthered:
Hundreds of thousands perished before the face of the white man. Suffice it to say, what is already known, that the white man came upon our shores—he grew taller and taller until his shadow was cast over all the land—in its shade the mighty tribes of olden time wilted away. A few, the remnant of multitudes long since gathered to their fathers, are all that remain; and they are on their march to eternity (The Indians 115)
Furthermore, Apess lamented the ways in which Euro-Americans viewed and educated him about his brethren. He told readers that because of Eurocentric edification, he was “completely…weaned from the interests and affections” of his people:
It may be proper for me here to remark that they great fear I entertained of my brethren was occasioned by the many storied I had heard of their cruelty toward the whites—how they were in the habit of killing and scalping men, women, and children. But the whites did not tell me that they were in a great majority of instances the aggressors—that they had imbrued their hands in the lifeblood of my brethren, driven them from their once peaceful and happy homes—that they introduced among them the fatal and exterminating diseases of civilized life. If the whites had told me how cruel they had been to the ‘poor Indian,’ I should have apprehended as much harm from them. (Son 11)
An increasing awareness in opposition to injustices and discrimination marked a remarkable responsiveness in Apess’ jeremiads—a critical awareness of the historical, social, political, and economic position—concerning the philosophies of Euro-American oppression, while he acknowledged the struggle to end racial inequality.
The central problem, then, for early Native American jeremiadic discourse was not finding grounds in which to criticize the many afflictions Euro-Americans placed on their culture by mastering their language, but the construction of an elevated consciousness against the racial ailments that had been formulated and placed by Euro-Americans. In his eyes, Euro-Americans destroyed two nations when they colonized America: an ideological one and a real one. Apess charged that Euro-Americans not only deprived “a nation almost of their whole continent, and murder[ed] their women and children,” but also robbed “another nation to till their grounds and welter out their days under the lash with hunger and fatigue under the scorching rays of a burning sun” (The Looking-Glass 157). Apess’ employment of the jeremiad signified his acceptance, yet, rejection of Euro-American “denigratory view” of his culture as he both “embraced and denied” his own heritage (Haynes 32). Painstakingly, for example, he lamented that as a child he “thought is disgraceful to be called an Indian; it was considered a slur upon an oppressed and scattered nation.” The “‘Natives’” of America, he lamented through his own Christian perspective, are the only “people under heaven who have a just title to the name, inasmuch as we are the only people who retain the original complexion of our father Adam.” Apess concluded that the term was “imported for the special purpose of degrading us” (Son 10; emphasis in original). Of America, he lamented through his own Christian perspective, are the only “people under heaven who have a just title to the name, inasmuch as we are the only people who retain the original complexion of our father Adam.” Apess concluded that the term was “imported for the special purpose of degrading us” (Son 10; emphasis in original).
By mastering the domineering language, Apess was not only able to communicate with Euro-Americans, but also his adaptation of the domineering language illustrated his fortitude to fight to reclaim his brethren’s sense of empowering honor. He wrote:
Who were the first aggressors, and who first imbrued their hands in blood? Not the Indian. No: He treated the stranger as a brother and friends, until that stranger, whom he had received upon his fertile soil, endeavored to enslave him and restored to brutal violence to accomplish his designs. And if they committed excesses, they only followed in the footsteps of the whites, who must blame themselves for providing their independent and unyielding spirits, and by a long series of cruelty and bloodshed drove them to arms. (Son 55)
After the publication of Son, Apess became an increasingly outspoken critic of the evils Euro-Americans perpetrated against Native Americans. Therefore, the fundamental thematic concern in Apess’ jeremiadic discourse was the failure of Euro-America to confront the paradox of their oppressive ideologies and their hypocrisy in refusing Native Americans the civil liberties assured “all men” by their own Declaration of Independence and in labeling them as “heathens” while regarding them as savages. In his search to reclaim civil liberties—rights that included equal citizenship and representation—Apess constructed a visionary language and liberation philosophy that set in motion a sense that equality and liberty should include social equality and citizenship for all man kind. Apess’ mastery of the oppressor’s language helped him to conceptualize the problems Native Americans faced and offered his Euro-American audiences alternative methods of achieving their perceived “national identity.”
Apess’ Jeremiads Advocated Temperance
Apess appealed to the mythopoetic tradition in a way that both illuminated his jeremiads and produced a significant critique of America’s ethical shortcomings. He accomplished this through a laundry list of practical advice about how his brethren were treated and through his own performance. Throughout his jeremiadic discourse, for example, he advocated temperance in the framework of moral improvement. He admonished consuming intoxicating beverages and chastised whites for introducing “spirituous liquors” into the Native American culture. Apess revealed that the cruel treatment he received from his grandparents, who were alcoholics, was because of the introduction of alcohol. He wrote:
I attribute it in a great measure to the whites, inasmuch as they introduced among my countrymen the bane of comfort and happiness, ardent spirits—seduced them into a love of it and, when under it unhappy influence, wronged them out of their lawful possession—that land, where reposed the ashes of their sires; and not only so, but they committed violence of the most revolting kind upon the persons of the female portion of the tribe who, previous to the introduction among them of the arts, and vices, and debaucheries of the whites, were as unoffending and happy as they roamed over their goodly possessions as any people on whom the sun of heaven every shone. The consequence was that they were scattered abroad. Now many of them were seen reeling about intoxicated with liquor, neglecting to provided for themselves and families, who before were assiduously engaged in supplying the necessities of those of those depending on them for support. I do not make this statement in order to justify those who had treated me so unkindly, but simply to show that, inasmuch as I was thus treated only when they were under the influence of spirituous liquor, that the whites were justly chargeable with at least some portion of my sufferings. (Son 7)
Using his own sufferings as a starting place, temperance, Apess believed, was an essential vehicle to elevate the masses to a consciousness concerning oppression. To rid his culture of this evil, Apess attacked white racism and discrimination. Apess, who, earlier in life, was “addicted to drinking rum and would sometimes get quite intoxicated” (Son 31), wrote:
My sufferings certainly were through the white man’s measure; for they most certainly brought spirituous liquors first among my people. For the burning curse and demon of despair came among us: Surely it came through the hands of the whites. Sure the red man had never sought to destroy one another as this bane of hell would! And we little babes of the forest had to suffer much on its account. Oh white man! How can you account to God for this? Are you not afraid that the children of the forest will rise up in judgment and condemn you?…Little children, if you have parents that drink the fiery waters, do all you can, both by your tears and prayers and friendly admonitions, to persuade them to stop; for it will most certainly ruin them, if they persist in it. (The Experience 121)
Although he addressed the children of the forest, Apess was no doubt appealing to adults as well.
How much better would it be if the whites would act like a civilized people and, instead of giving my brethren of the words ‘rum!’ in exchange for their fur, give them food and clothing for themselves and children. If the course were pursued, I believe that God would bless both the whites and native threefold. (Son 33)
By adding his voice to the emerging temperance movement, Apess placed the alcohol question in an unequivocal struggle against white racism and suggested to his brethren that by refusing alcoholic beverages, they would reveal their dedication to fighting intemperance on every front.
The “Voice of Native Prophecy”: Apess’ Prophetic Rhetoric
In order to fully appreciate Apess’ jeremiads, it was necessary for his audiences to understand the major intellectual concepts that influenced his thought. Apess’ theology and philosophy developed from his encounter with Methodist liberalism; his use of the prophetic rhetoric of the jeremiad reflected this influence. The jeremiad, then, would further become appropriate for Apess because of his insistent use of Bible-based language as the renewed awareness in religious tenets in the early 1800s stirred a rejuvenated display of social activism. Despite the accepted analysis of the jeremiad as a discourse of despair, prophetic jeremiads were profoundly sanguine. “Let poor sinners beware lest they reach that point from whence there is no more redemption,” Apess sermonized, “Let them remember the solemn words—the redemption of the soul is precious, and it ceaseth forever” (Increase 111).
The revivalism of the Second Great Awakenings (1820s-1830s) no doubt influenced Apess’ jeremiadic rhetoric. “A reprise of the Great Awakening of the early 18th century,” the Second Great Awakening, “was marked by an emphasis on personal piety over schooling and theology. It arose in several places and in several active forms. In northern New England, social activism took precedence; in western New York, the movement encouraged the growth of new denominations (“Second Great Awakening”). As Colin G. Calloway argued, “all vestiges of tribal life and culture” (350) had to be eradicated in order to preserve white nationalism. Because of this revivalism, the jeremiad was appropriate for Native American resistance. As the motion of the jeremiad cascaded throughout his works, Apess used its polemics to lament the socio-religious ailments of white Christianity imposed on his brethren. His works showed a remarkable connection to “the nature and significance of prophecy in Judeo-Christian and Native American cultures” (Gustafson 44). Take, for example, Apess’ conversion to Methodism revealed in Son. Methodists have “perhaps done more toward enlightening the poor Indians and bringing them to a knowledge of the truth than all other societies together.” Revealing his conversion to the reading public, Apess wrote that after being “convinced that Christ died for all mankind—that age, sect, color country, or situation made no difference,” he felt assured that he was “included in the plan of redemption with all my brethren” (Son 34, 19). The jeremiad, then, was uniquely suited for Apess because it attempted to reawaken the evangelical faith consisted of renewed personal salvation experienced through revival meetings that were sweeping the nation. While bound out to Gen. William Williams and prohibited from attending Methodist meetings, Apess recalled that he “generally attended” such meetings “once in each week”:
So when the time came round I went off to the meeting, without permission. When I returned, Mrs. Williams prepared to correct me for action contrary to my orders; in the first place, however, she asked me where I had been; I frankly told her that I had been to meeting to worship God. This reply completely disarmed her and save me a flogging for the time. But this was not the end of my persecution or my troubles. (Son 22)
Providing an exceptional example of conversion to Methodism and jeremiadic discourse within Native American culture, Apess’ text showed that the Second Great Awakenings had a profound affect on Native Americans who were included in its polemics. His prophetic voice takes on an “overtly political significance” (Gustafson 45). Readers familiar with Apess’ account will note that he ignited a seemingly critical conclusion (religious Euro-Americans could be worse than non-religious ones) and transformation (amalgamating the Methodism into his own social pantheon), by showing allusions of his brethren in their plight as contemporary children of Israel, “the only people who retain the original complexion of our father Adam” (Son 10). In this light, then, Apess’ “voice of native prophecy” (Gustafson 45) became an implicit call to consciousness and action. Later, in his “most orthodox Christian expression” (O’Connell 99), The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ: A Sermon, Apess advanced his call, “Arise, ye nations in your strength, and glorify your Redeemer with a voice that all creation may hear—with a song of praise that shall sound like the roar of many waters” (109). The “rhetoric of the sermon is arguably regressive” (O’Connell 99). To his brethren, Apess showed that those who were in Christ were His children, not to be subjugated by Euro-Americans, but they were part of the family of God. “We have the most sure word of prophecy to rely upon,” Apess revealed, “as in our text, which foretells the spread of the kingdom of grace” (Increase 103). Apess wrote:
All who do not belong to the kingdom of Christ must of necessity, belong to the kingdom of the adversary; for there is no middle kingdom…A high wall and a wide gulf separate the two states in this eternal world. Sinners, the day may come when you shall gaze from an unapproachable distance upon scenes of joy and glory and have for yourselves not a drop of water to cool your parched tongues. (Increase 110)
An established ingredient of jeremiadic discourse was prophecy, a prediction uttered under divine inspiration. Indeed, as Gustafson claimed, prophecy afforded Apess a critical situation of “hybridization or rhetorical counterpoint” (44). Surfacing in Apess’ rhetoric, prophecy served as a forewarning to his Native American brethren, of whom he believes to be one “of the long lost tribes of Israel,” (Son 5, 53) and to Euro-America, who had “most cruelly oppressed his red brother,” (Increase 102) of the judgment to come. Taken as a whole, however, the prophetic was at once marginal, yet pervasive. Most prophets, as it were, never really recognize their role as a prophet, therefore, marginalizing their rhetoric. It was the task of the prophet to champion the provisos of “the covenant to a people who had fallen away, to restore a sense of duty and virtue amidst the decay of venality” (Darsey 18).
According to his interpretation of biblical text, the Israelites had to bear similar hissing and reproach as his brethren. In The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes, Apess wrote:
The Indian tribes…are no less than the remnant of [a] people, the records of whose history has been blotted out from amount the nations of the early—whose history, if history they have, is a series of cruelties and persecutions without a parallel. That nation, peculiarly and emphatically blessed of God—his own highly favored and chose people, preserved by the wondrous interposition of divine power, brought up out of Egypt and their cruel bondage by miraculous means, inducted into the promised land flowing with milk and honey, but strong in the purposed of rebellion—their murmurs rose to heaven, calling loudly for vengeance. (113-114)
Apess felt that his achievements would better the lot of all Native Americans regardless of their geographical location. Because of Euro-American colonialism, imperialism, and expansionism, Native Americans saw themselves as the chosen ones, children of Israel. Apess wrote “the Indians are indeed no other than the descendants of the ten lost tribes.” He held faith that the day was fast approaching when “ample justice shall be done the red man by his white brother—when he shall be allowed that station in the scale of being and intelligence which unerring wisdom designed him to occupy” (The Indians 114). Apess’ approach was related to what was found in speeches and orations of some early African-American Jeremiahs. In both narratives and oratory, African Americans offered their brethren hope that with God’s providence, a brighter future was inevitable. For example, in his jeremiadic dissertation “A Winter Piece,” Jupiter Hammon, the first African-American to publish a poem, approached “his brethren” with zeal that God would deliver them from their present wilderness when he alluded to Moses’ deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt:
My brethren, many of us are seeking a temporal freedom and I wish you may obtain it; remember that all power in heaven and on earth belongs to God. If we are slaves, it is by the permission of God; if we are free, it must be by the power of the Most High God. Stand still and the salvation of God. Cannot that same power that divided the waters from the waters for the children of Israel to pass through make way for your freedom? (“A Winter Piece”)
However, often times the prophet’s vision was overt and definite, sometimes so pervasive it became visible. Not considering himself a prophet, though, Apess did take on the role of Jeremiah of his people and answered the call to activism: believing that the “Spirit of Divine Truth, in the boundless diversity of its operations, visits the mind of every intelligent being born into the world,” Apess revealed that “The Spirit of the Lord moved upon” his heart, and he felt his “duty to call sinners to repentance.” At a camp meeting in the spring of 1817, Apess was “moved to rise and speak.” Believing in the “duty required” of him by his “heavenly father,” Apess felt that it was his duty to “warn sinners of their danger and invite them to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Son 8, 41). Attending Methodist meetings and deliberately provoking his “Congregationalist and Baptist employers” who condemned interracial religious congregating (“William Apess”), Apess’ accepts Methodism as his religion of choice. “It is great gain to belong to Christ,” he lamented (Increase 111). In the Methodist sermons, he discovered a foundation of understanding his experience:
The Lord moved upon my heart in a peculiarly powerful manner, and by it I was to believe that I was called to preach the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…I commenced searching the Scriptures more diligently, and the more I read, the more they opened to me understanding; and something said to me ‘Go now and warn the people to flee from the wrath to come!’And I began immediately to confer with flesh and blood, excusing myself, saying, Lord, I cannot. I was nothing but a poor ignorant Indian and thought the people could not hear me. But my mind was the more distressed, and I began to pray more frequently to God to let this ‘cup pass from me.’ In this manner was I exercised day by day; but in the evening I would find myself in our little meetings exhorting sinners to repentance and striving to comfort the saints. On these occasions I had the greatest liberty. Now I did not acquaint my brethren with my feelings or exercises, for the devil tempted me to believe that they would take no notice of it. At length, the spell that bound me was broken. (Son 43-44)
The Native American jeremiad warranted credit in helping to forge and create this awareness concerning the oppression of Natives by challenging whites to take a stand on the issues surrounding their oppression. Methodism, as Bayers wrote, revitalized Apess “giving him a tool with which to frame his Native voice. As a result of his conversion, Apess questions the legitimacy of just who is and is not a man when measured against Anglo males in other denominations” (132). Echoing Matthew 3:7—“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”—Apess believed that he was not worthy of such a call. It was within moments of searching Scripture like these that ethnic cultures often experience a conversion of self denied by larger social constructions of subjectivity. Indeed it was within this dialogue that Apess’ subjectivity was produced even as his agency was acknowledged and affirmed. Aligning his plight with that of Moses, for example, who was sent by God to free the Israelites, he responded, “Lord I cannot. I [am] nothing but a poor ignorant Indian” and he believed that “people would not hear me.” Notwithstanding, Apess answers the call and delivers sermons at meetings “exhorting sinners to repentance and striving to comfort the saints” (Son 44).
Increase of the Kingdom of Christ: Apess’ “Most Orthodox Christian Expression”
What made Apess’ rhetoric a prophetic voice crying from the “wilderness”? Laced with his biblical exegesis, Apess’ The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ: A Sermon, “increases” the prophetic rhetoric of Native American jeremiad while developing into the kind of political sermon that Bercovitch identified as “state-of-the-state-covenant address” (4). Influenced by John 3:30, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” the very title of the sermon alone dictated its prophetic message. In a hermeneutic sense, Apess’ interpretation of biblical text, his “most orthodox Christian expression” (O’Connell 99), suggested that God wanted followers to put Christ foremost in their lives. God wanted Americans to be as John the Baptist, “the mighty prophet of the wilderness,” who said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Increase 101). Citing and invoking scriptural references to substantiate his claims, Apess also referred to specific events to prove his charge. Therefore, Apess enlisted religion to disapprove the injustices Euro-Americans imposed upon the natives. Early in Apess’ sermon, he attempted to connect with his audience through anamnesis, a recalling intended to move his audience from the biblical past to the present:
It is a blessed thin to stand on some of the great landmarks of time and be able to look back on a long line of prophecy fulfilled; and thus to have an unwavering confidence in what God has promised for future times. Ancient saints were happy to take on trust and realize by faith those things which have now become matters of history and present themselves before us to comfort and inspire us with new confidence in all our Heavenly Father has promised to his church. (Increase 102)
The very walls of his address loitered an intertext of anamnesis primarily by encoding an interpretive relationship to biblical text. Apess contrasted the justice due to Native Americans against the judgment to come for Euro-Americans. “The lamp of Israel shall burn again,” he prophesized, and “the star of Judah shall rise again.” Apess’ belief that sacred history was eminent sealed the destruction of Euro-Americans’ subjugation. Believing that Native Americans, “among our scattered and benighted brethren,” have reasons to warrant “greater increase of the kingdom of Christ,” Apess believed that it would “be in vain for sinners to oppose the increase of Christ’s kingdom.” Insisting that Christ “must increase” (Increase 107; emphasis in original), Apess further prophesized:
Earth and hell—the congregated hosts of bad men and devils—cannot blot out those words of prophetic import of prevent thief fulfillment. The greater the number or the array against truth, the greater will be the overthrow of the enemy and the triumph of Christ—for he shall put all things under his feet. (Increase 108)
The preeminent Native American Jeremiah, Apess stated:
As this chosen people fell from their lofty eminence of religious knowledge, the clouds broke away over the heathen world, and the sun of righteousness shone through the ancient gloom of idolatry and superstition; but when they shall rise again in the grandeur of holy affections having repented of their great sins, and looked on him whom they pierced and mourn, then shall unspeakable glory from heaven baptize all nations. (Increase 106)
In his jeremiad, then, Apess saw his brethren as the chosen people within the boundaries of the early Republic’s classic civil myth. Attempting to align Native American’s plight as present day “sons of the forest” with the plight the chosen Israelites endured, Apess challenged his audience to consider new and changing dimensions of the role of Native Americans in society. “The ancient chosen people,” he lamented, “shall then be no more a scorn and a hissing among men” (Increase 106). Evoking Jeremiah 29: 18—“And I—will persecute them with the sword, with the famine, and with the pestilence, and will deliver them to be removed to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a curse, and an astonishment, and an hissing, and a reproach, among all the nations whither I have driven them”—Apess’ jeremiadic anamnesis kept his audience rooted in the greater standard of biblical witness through “Israelite-Indian identification” (Gustafson 36). His prophecy suggested that when judgment day comes, Native Americans, “the discarded jewels of Israel” (Increase 106), would no longer be a mockery, a “hissing, and a reproach” (Jeremiah 29: 18) among Euro-Americans:
The Indians of the American continent are a part of the long lost ten tribes of Israel, have not the great American nation reason to fear the swift judgments of heaven on them from nameless cruelties, extortions, and exterminations inflicted upon the poor natives of the forest? We fear the account of national sin, which lies at the doors of the American people will be a terrible one to balance in the chancery of heaven. (Increase 106-07)
Believing that Native Americans were one of “long lost ten tribes of Israel,” Apess further claimed that “on the sheer volume of wrongdoing” his brethren suffered at the hands of European colonialism (Murray 222). Apess’ jeremiadic prophecy stood as unequivocal proof of divine revelation he envisioned, that “national sin” of “the American people will be a terrible one to balance in the chancery of heaven.” The tenets of the above passage were apparent, but it should also be noted how this passage could serve for more than one function: it stood as a detailed declaration of what Apess determined as the fundamental sequence of Native Americans prophetic discourse, namely a period of marginality on Earth because of the injustices Euro-Americans, followed by a period of enlightenment in heaven. Apess painstakingly warned sinners, Euro-Americans, of the judgment to come. “The steady and overwhelming increase of the kingdom of Christ,” he warned them, “sounds the knell of death to the incorrigible sinner’s hope of impunity” (Increase 110). He believed that the “congregated hosts of bad men and devils” cannot “blot out those words of the prophetic import or prevent their fulfillment”—“He must increase”: “The greater the number or the array against truth, the greater will be overthrow of the enemy and the triumph of Christ—for he shall put all things under his feet.” Apess’ exegesis of the “words of the Baptist” (Increase 108) served various roles for him: it made claim, it disclosed, and brought with it an encounter with the “truth” of oneself and the “truth” of God. The roots of Apess’ prophetic vision, then, rest in the very structures of biblical text: like the opening of many prophetic books of the Old Testament, Appess’ message began with his call, “The glory of God shall be vindicated by the overthrow, the writhings, and the chains, and the torments of the old serpent, who has long deceived the nations” (Increase 106). This identification allowed Apess to deliver his jeremiads in radical fashion, figuratively putting words in the Maker’s mouth by suggesting that He would not grace non-Christians and the tormentors of his brethren. Unless they “pray with earnest agony of desire for the increase of Christ’s kingdom, they will fee no gladness when the event has some in its fully glory” (Increase 108). At the very heart of his prophetic jeremiads, Apess’ identification with God communicated a profound awareness of His future presence and activity. As was normal with prophets, in their inspired state, Apess was closer to the realm of the spirit than his audience. His jeremiadic discourse illustrated hope to his brethren that they will finally receive the earthly rights promised to them, “Bless God for all his goodness, for it shall increase more and more on the earth—Till like a sea of glory, / It spreads from pole to pole” (Increase 112).
Conclusion: The Native American Jeremiad Disrupted Euro-American Ideas of Subjugation and Oppression
The jeremiad played a vital role in Native American consciousness, empowerment, and activism. As a rhetorical strategy, the jeremiad grew heavily from the regression rhetoric of the American jeremiad as Native Americans relied immensely on the power of their words to persuade Euro-Americans to end their unjust treatment of their brethren. Apess—donning the robe of America’s pre-eminent Native American Jeremiah—continuously sought to understand from where Euro-Americans’ subjugation of him brethren stemmed. He revealed that upon their arrival, “the whites were treated by the natives of New England with the utmost kindness there is no doubt” (Son 56). Apess’ jeremiads, then, were in part enlightened by the ways in which he negotiated white conceptions of Americanism. In this respect, the jeremiad certainly contributed to the establishment of the Native American literary tradition. Absorbing jeremiadic discourse, early Native American activists attempted to re-establish their own freedom against Euro-American domination as they simultaneously evolved and re-claimed their own cultural, religious, and socio-political values as people who were deserving of equal rights. Apess’ employment of jeremiadic discourse only chafed at the authoritarian regimen of a Euro-American institution in an era when his brethren shared the nameless values of community and equality. Apess’ aided in his mastery of the dominate discourse in America during his time. Jeremiadic discourse did not, however, jettison Apess into power and prestige, but it did provide him a way to gain a larger Euro-American audience in which he was able to critique America’s treatment of his brethren. Uncovering the jeremiadic discourse in Apess’ works illuminates the complex ways in which Euro-America sought to control every aspect of Native Americans’ culture; therefore, Apess’ jeremiads were aimed at disrupting Euro-American notions of subjugation and oppression of the true “sons of forest.”
- Ampadu, Lena. “Modeling Orality: African American Rhetorical Practices and the Teaching of Writing.” African American Rhetoric(s): Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Eds. Elaine B. Richardson and Ronald L. Jackson, II. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. 136-54.
- Apess, William. A Son of the Forest (1829). On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot. Ed. Barry O’Connell. Amherst: The U of Massachusetts P, 1992. 1-97.
- —-. The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ: A Sermon and The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes (1831). On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot. 99-115.
- —-. The Experiences of Five Christian Indians (1833). On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot.119-161.
- —-. The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes (1833). On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot. 113-115.
- —-. The Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man. On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot.155-161.
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