Jesus and Pochahontas

Gospel, Mission, and National Myth

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Howard A. Snyder
  • Cambridge, UK: 
    The Lutterworth Press
    , October
     2015.
     284 pages.
     £17.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780718894191.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Howard Snyder, theologian, historian, and pastor writes “Pocahontas has been useful in American history. A utility. Since her death, she has appeared and reappeared in multiple guises and disguises, always for a purpose, always with a role to fill in the larger American story. She has been a Rorsach inkblot. People see what they want or are predisposed to see” (151). At different points in history, Pocahontas has been Eve, Joan of Arc, an angel, the Virgin Mary, “a justification for colonization,” and more. In Jesus and Pocahontas, Snyder argues that many persistent Pocahontas myths have been egregiously inaccurate and often used to legitimate colonization: Pocahontas has been repeatedly constructed as the “good” or “ideal” Indian, who converts to Christianity, marries a white man, and assimilates into European culture.

The first half of Snyder’s Jesus and Pocahontas describes Pocahontas’s early life, what she was like as a child, and her relationship with her father, Chief Powhatan. Snyder’s descriptions humanize Pocahontas, highlighting her vibrant and often mischievous personality. Further, Snyder’s rich portrait of the Powhatan Nation in the seventeenth century maps relationships between the colonial communities that attempted to settle Jamestown during this time and the surrounding indigenous communities. Acknowledging the racial and ethnic bias that has built up around the Pocahontas myth, Snyder also attempts to paint a historically accurate portrait of Pocahontas’s legendary relationship with Captain John Smith. For instance, he debunks the idea that Smith and Pocahontas were romantically involved: they were not—in fact, Pocahontas’s relationship with Smith was more akin to that of a father and daughter, or even of siblings. Snyder’s sympathy toward Pocahontas, and his sincere attempts to consider her perspective, drives his efforts to situate Pocahontas’s relationship with Smith more accurately with regard to hegemonic colonial discourses.

Pocahontas’s life ended tragically on her first visit to London in 1617. By then she had converted to Christianity, had taken the name of Rebecca, and was married to Captain John Rolfe, with whom she had a young son. She was taken ill and died before she could return to Virginia. However, Snyder focuses on a powerful exchange during this visit when Pocahontas sees John Smith again for the first time in many years. Her exchange with Smith in England shortly before her death is particularly poignant in that she shames him for reneging on his word, for betraying her, and for disrespecting her father—Smith, it seems, had been avoiding Pocahontas, knowing that he might indeed be taken to task for his behavior. Snyder writes “she meant that the bond between John Smith and her father, Chief Powhatan–the adoption—still held. Smith had not honored or lived up to it. Yes, the English ‘lie much’ but she had expected better of Smith—the man who owed her his life, and to whom she owed her insider understanding of the English” (131). This, in addition to many of the other details that Snyder provides about Pocahontas and her relationships with the British, help readers to see beyond the passivity so often been assigned to her by historians. Snyder reveals Pocahontas’s anger, her sadness, and frustration, but also her spirit of forgiveness, warmth, and grace. Further, in an attempt to counter nearly four centuries’ worth of historical record by patriarchal colonial powers, Snyder draws on multiple secondary sources that discuss Pocahontas—from feminist, postcolonial, and Native American viewpoints—referring to the work of Genevieve Wachutka, Camilla Townsend, Randy Woodley, and Annette Kolodny. With these references, Snyder demonstrates the importance of examining historical accounts of the Pocahontas narrative from multiple critical perspectives, considering varying interpretations of specific events in Pocahontas’s life.

Despite Snyder’s earnest acknowledgment of Native Americans’s vexed relationship with Christianity, it can be difficult to convince the reader that Pocahontas’s conversion to Christianity was as willing and sincere as it is portrayed here. Pocahontas allegedly found Jesus while imprisoned by the British, which suggests that she had little choice but to go along with the religious doctrine that her captors foisted upon her. Yet, chapter 12 reflects Snyder’s conviction that the man ultimately responsible for Pocahontas’s conversion had the best of intentions. According to Snyder, Alexander Whitaker, an Anglican missionary, was “a conscientious seeker for truth” (136). But, while Whitaker apparently tried to convey a pure Christian doctrine to the young captive, Snyder concedes “it was a twisted gospel Pocahontas received” (136). In this discussion of Whitaker, Snyder’s own Christian faith strongly informs how he tells this story—however, Snyder is clear from the outset of this book that his intention was not to produce a seemingly objective and traditionally academic exploration of the Pocahontas myth. Further, although Snyder identifies with Whitaker, he also explores how Christian doctrine was so bound up in discourses of capitalism and British citizenship that it was often difficult to tell them apart. He also discusses the colonists’ exploitative relationship to the land—in contrast to the Native American ideal of “sensitivity to the created order,” arguing that the Native American philosophy on human relationships to the earth was more biblically accurate, and more genuinely “Christian,” than that espoused by the British.

While Pocahontas’s conversion to Christianity was a central component of the colonial narrative early in the history of the Republic, Pocahontas’s Christianity has been given less emphasis in later representations of her story—particularly in the twentieth century Disney versions. It remains unclear as to why an element of history that was once given so much emphasis in terms of legitimizing the British presence in Virginia was later submerged and forgotten. Further, although Snyder condemns centuries of genocide, oppression, and exploitation leveled against Native Americans, he asserts his belief that there is still a chance that Christianity could help to heal the extraordinary damage done to the land, and to the Native American communities since colonization. Since the memory of forced conversions to Christianity remains a profoundly contentious issue with respect to indigenous populations, it can be difficult for a secular reader to find such arguments convincing, yet Snyder’s book offers a valuable perspective on the story of Pocahontas in that it attempts to account for conflicting historical discourses and raises salient questions pertaining to the role of religion and spirituality with respect to ethnicity and culture.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elizabeth Lowry is lecturer in writing, rhetoric, and language at Arizona State University.

Date of Review: 
May 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Howard A. Snyder is Visiting Director of the Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. He has served as a pastor and as a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary (1996–2006), Tyndale Seminary in Toronto (2007–2012), and elsewhere. His books include The Problem of WineskinsThe Radical WesleyModels of the Kingdom, and Salvation Means Creation Healed (with Joel Scandrett).

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