Chapter 4 Drafted, and Thoughts on Gift Economies

After I returned from the AHA/ASCH annual meeting this January, I broke ground on my dissertation. My goal is to turn out a rough draft of a chapter every three months. For this first chapter to be drafted, I was helped in meeting the deadline by the fact that I’ve been scheduled to present the draft at a history department faculty/grad workshop in April. I sent draft to my committee on Monday, and I’ll send it to the history department later this week.

The first chapter that I’ve written will be the fourth chapter of the dissertation. It is a history of Cherokee conversions to Christianity in the first four decades of the nineteenth century.

A challenge for this chapter—as I expect it will be for every chapter—was telling a complete story in a very small frame. There is a good reason why very few histories of American religion outside surveys try to deal with multiple religious traditions at once. I tried to solve this problem by focusing on a few converts and then describing Cherokee conversions more generally. This technique was also necessary to give a narrative line to the chapter.

In thinking about what conversion meant for Cherokee Christians, I was especially helped by an essay written by Leigh Eric Schmidt: “Practices of Exchange: From Market Culture to Gift Economy in the Interpretation of American Religion,” in Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice, ed. David D. Hall (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 69–91. I haven’t seen this essay cited or used elsewhere in American religious history, but Schmidt’s ideas in this essay have much interpretative power.

Briefly, Schmidt argues that historians have mostly seen American religion as a competitive marketplace, but religion is replete with the ideas about gifts. Religion functions as a gift economy—even if it also functions as or within a market economy.

In reading the records of the Moravian mission at Springplace in Georgia, and the ABCFM mission at Brainerd in Tennessee, I was struck by the observation that missionaries and Cherokee alike experienced the gift economy as a material reality. (Maybe I’ve been reading too much Marx recently, but I keep looking for economic, material realities at the root of things.) The missions and the nearby inhabitants often did not have enough, let alone a surplus for market transactions. The missions had an obligation to be hospitable. And of course, the missions were able to function because they were recipients of gifts from churches and benevolent associations. It makes sense to me, then, to look at Cherokee conversions within the context of both a market and a gift economy.