Segment from Born Again

All Together Now

Historian Matthew Dennis and host Peter Onuf talk about a revival movement that swept through the Seneca nation, and helped its people hold on to their tribal lands.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

PETER: We’re back with “BackStory.” I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh.

Today on the show we’re revising the history of Christian revivalism in America. In the first partof our show we talked a little about what historians refer to as the First Great Awakening. Andas Peter mentioned, people apparently didn’t stay awake for very long, because a few decadeslater there was something called the Second Great Awakening.

ED: This was a series of revivals at the very dawn of the 19th century. It was especiallypronounced in Western New York, which became known as the burned over district for all thefires of religious conversion that engulfed the region.

PETER: This frontier region was in the throes of rapid and disorienting change as settlers andspeculators swarmed across the countryside. And it wasn’t just disorienting for the whitesettlers, because this was Indian country. This was the land of the five nations of the IroquoisConfederacy.

The Seneca Indians, one of the five nations were already in the midst of serious and wrenchingchange. Now they had to fight incursions by white farmers onto their traditional lands. All of thisset the stage for a Seneca religious revival.

Historian Matthew Dennis has written about this movement, a movement that centered on a65-year-old man named Handsome Lake. It began on a June day in 1799.

MATTHEW DENNIS: What happens is that Handsome Lake is sick. So he’s not feeling well.He’s in the house of his daughter. And his daughter notices that he gets up and says, “Whereare you going?” And she knows he’s not feeling well, so he says, basically, “I need to go outand I’ll be back in a moment.”

So he leaves, he goes around the side of his house and he collapses and he goes into thisstate and seems to die to many eyewitnesses. They called for his half brother, Corn Planter.People are gathering around, and he’s in this state for about two hours.

And then he wakes up and he talks to Corn Planter and tells him about what he’s seen, andwhere he’s been, and what he’s heard, and what he’s learned. And people come together andthey’re persuaded by his testimony of what happens.

So this happens on June 15, 1799 and it goes on from there with a series of other visions andrevelations.

PETER: So Matt, tell us about what Handsome Lake related from that revelation he had.

MATTHEW DENNIS: During his visions he somehow goes to this place, which seems heaven-like in many ways. And just before he gets there he meets a couple of other prophets. Onenamed Jesus Christ and the other named George Washington, which is pretty interesting.

And Jesus Christ welcomes him and affirms him and says, make sure that you carry out yourmission to revitalize your people, more or less. And he encounters four angels, emissaries froma Great Creator, and they conveyed the message of the Creator to him.

And one of things that was important is that they stressed the sins or transgressions thatshould be avoided. They went through and delineated those, and then Handsome Lake passedthose on to his people.

Among the most important is whiskey, so there’s this message that’s very strong thatHandsome Lake conveys that they should forswear alcoholic beverages, which puts them rightin the center of the kind of larger movements or temperance in American society.

PETER: Well, Handsome Lake knew what he was talking about. He was a heavy drinkerhimself, right?

MATTHEW DENNIS: He was. And in fact, in the kind of gospel-like writings that emerged later,beginning in oral tradition and then in writings, he kind of embodies that himself. He’s theexemplar of that.

And he goes through his drunkenness and comes out of it. And that’s supposed to really modelhow Seneca people should act. And what seems to be most important is dealing with some ofthe chief dangers and transgressions that are causing peril in Seneca society.

So through a series of visions, until he dies in 1815, he laid out, ultimately, this kind of new kindof social gospel for Senecas, which they could follow. And it would bind them together basedon their traditional beliefs and their confidence that they could endure in a really changedworld.

PETER: The power of Handsome Lake’s teachings is that it’s a blend of Christianity andtraditional Seneca beliefs so that even if it requires this renovation or reform of the community,it’s in affirmation of Seneca identity.

MATTHEW DENNIS: Exactly. And the things that will affirm that identity and allow them tosurvive continue. So for example, Handsome Lake is against dancing and frolicking andgaming. But he’s not against traditional kind of dancing, and he’s not against traditional kind ofgames that are incorporated into, say, the midwinter festival or other events in their ritualcalendar.

PETER: And this galvanized the community? I mean people were really excited about this?

MATTHEW DENNIS: It’s complicated because you have Handsome Lake as a kind of center.And then you have those who are traditional in a way that’s kind of pre-Handsome Lake andthey’re suspicious of him– props maybe politically or socially.

But increasingly, I think his messages are very, very strong and they’re widely disseminated,because they seemed to offer a way to survive. You can’t overestimate the dangers thatSenecas and other native people in Western New York felt and experienced.

So I think he affirmed their identity and their integrity and their solidarity, and it allowed them, inparticular, to come together to prevent the thing that would most likely destroy them which wasthe loss of their land. And so one of the things that Handsome Lake emphasized is no landsales, and in that, he was broadly affirmed by his followers.

PETER: So what were some of the other injunctions or teachings that Handsome Lake passedon from the Great Spirit in this effort to reform himself and his people?

MATTHEW DENNIS: Well, in addition to his efforts to stamp out drink, he offered some wordsthat seemed to really run against the trends in Seneca society, especially with regard to genderorganization of families.

One of things I think he was really committed to, and I think this is something that reallyresonated among his people, was to reconstruct Seneca families. But his way of doing it wasquite different from tradition because what he prescribed was a kind of patriarchal organizationwhere men would have much greater power than they had traditionally in Iroquois life.

Iroquois society is matrilineal, which means that they would reckon descent through themother’s line. The people would live in their mother’s houses. Clans were organized this way.So women were really very important in that way, and they were the key of subsistence inSeneca life as the agriculturalists, the people who produce most of their food.

So what he seemed to be pushing was a new structure where men would be much more incontrol and in charge of families in a way that seemed much closer to the white societysurrounding. Most Senecas themselves didn’t ultimately agree. The women pushed back anddidn’t give up the kind of status that they had acquired.

And so the prophecies themselves went through a lot of negotiation and were controversial,and although they were adopted and effective, they shifted a lot over time. And ultimately,became much less patriarchal than the original revelations would suggest.

PETER: So Matt, let’s look out into the distant future– that would be our present. What’s thelong term effect of Handsome Lake’s teachings for the Seneca people?

MATTHEW DENNIS: Well, Handsome Lake’s revival led to the survival of the Senecas. Theywere able to hold onto their land base and to fend off speculators and maintain theirsovereignty. And so their traditional beliefs as revitalized by Handsome Lake were really at thecenter of this.

And so while the so-called frontier pushed West and native people in the East were removedacross the Mississippi, they were able to stay. There were attempts to remove them. Thesewere fought off.

And so today, there are reservations, vital communities that continue to exist in New YorkState. And I think without this revitalization or something else like it, that wouldn’t be the case.

PETER: Matthew Dennis is a Historian at the University of Oregon. He’s the author of “SenecaPossessed: Indians, witchcraft and power in the Early American Republic.”



View Resources

Born Again Lesson Set

Note to teachers:

The lesson materials that follow focus on helping students become discriminating readers of text material, learning the value of reading widely and critically in order to frame questions and evidence-based perspectives. The materials are designed to help students learn to write concisely and persuasively. They also give students an opportunity to discover how things change and how they remain the same, often differing more in the words and media used than in the purpose and message.

The materials and activities in this lesson ask students to look critically at the words chosen to convey the message, the context in which information is presented, and the effect these choices have on their understanding and feelings about individuals and their times. As students read critically to discern differences between evidence and assertion and to frame useful questions, they will engage in reasoned debate and evidence-based interpretation. The materials provided include primary sources from the 1920s and 1930s as well as history and biography from 1931 to 2015. Students are asked to consider how these accounts differ in regard to word choice, descriptions of the time period, and the impressions created by the writings. Change over time can be observed in evolving narratives constructed from available sources, cogent inferences, and changing interpretation.