Excerpt: The Life of William Apess, Pequot, by Philip F. Gura

gura_lifeThe Pequot Indian intellectual, author, and itinerant preacher William Apess (1798–1839) was one the most important voices of the nineteenth century. Philip F. Gura offers the first book-length chronicle of Apess’s fascinating and consequential life. Following Apess from his early life through the development of his political radicalism to his tragic early death and enduring legacy, this much-needed biography showcases the accomplishments of an extraordinary Native American.

In the following excerpt from The Life of William Apess, Pequot (pp. 68-71), Gura examines a pamphlet written by Apess addressing race, rights, and privilege in America in the 1830s. Apess called one essay a “looking-glass” in hopes that white people would be able to view themselves as they were perceived by individuals of color. 


A “Looking-Glass for the White Man”

One result of Apess’s circulation among Boston’s abolitionists was the publication in the early spring of 1833 of his Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe, a pamphlet to which he appended a brief essay, “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” intended for the self-reflection that its title indicates.[1] The five Natives about whom Apess offered personal religious narratives were his wife, Mary; Hannah Caleb; his aunt on his father’s side, Sally George; Anne Wampy; and himself. In his own account, Apess reprised the story he had related at greater length in A Son of the Forest; his wife’s narrative is in her own voice. The other three narratives are “as-told-to” accounts; Apess had interviewed the women and redacted their words.

Emphasizing these individuals’ spiritual progress, the pamphlet as a whole—but especially the “Looking-Glass”—displayed a radicalization of Apess’s rhetoric that owed much to his exposure to Boston’s African American and abolitionist circles. In the account of his own conversion, Apess related some of the chief episodes that he had discussed in more detail in A Son of the Forest, reemphasizing how the Methodists’ message of Christian brotherhood had moved him. “I felt convinced,” he said of listening to the preaching of one “Brother Hill,” “that Christ had died for all mankind; that age, sect, color, country, or situation made no difference” (127). Not only had his own heart changed, he recalled, but everything around him had too. Apess had a compelling desire to press any human near him “to his bosom,” he wrote, for his love now embraced the entire human family (129). He also voiced the complaint that he had deemphasized in the second edition of A Son of the Forest: after about four years, he had joined the Protestant Methodists rather than remain among the Episcopal Methodists because it had become clear that the latter’s “government was not republican” (133).[2] This was his polite way of saying that the Episcopal Methodists no longer shared his views of the dignity of each individual and, thus, of mankind’s final unity.

Mary Apess’s experience took the form of more mystical devotion. She did not appreciate Methodism’s egalitarian emphasis as much as the spiritual peace it brought her: at camp meetings she thought that she had arrived in “the suburbs of glory,” so much did God’s love sweep her away (142). Hannah Caleb, on the other hand, remembered bitterly the racial prejudice that she had experienced before she found her faith. Her husband’s death while fighting with the French army in Canada and then that of all of their children, who had succumbed to one illness or another, had brought her to the brink of despair.

At first, religion offered Hannah no solace because, although the Christians she knew “openly professed to love one another . . . and every people of all nations whom God hath made,” they would “backbite each other, and quarrel with one another, and would not so much as eat and drink together.” Worse still, the “poor Indians, the poor Indians, the people to whom [she] was wedded by the common ties of nature, were set at naught by those noble professors of grace, merely because [they] were Indians” (145). After experiencing a striking conversion in which “the heavens seemed to descend, and with them an innumerable company of angels,” she joined a Free-Will Baptist Church and found the love and respect she sought. Hannah Caleb, Apess added, found her Christian work in teaching young Native children to read and spreading the Gospel to any who would listen (147–48).

Apess’s next example of true piety was his Aunt Sally George of Groton, Connecticut, another who found solace in the Baptist faith. This remarkable woman “was counted almost a preacher” as well as a healer, and when she died at the age of forty-five, all who knew her remembered how remarkably “useful” she had been to all with whom she came into contact (150). Finally, there was Anne Wampy, a Pequot who was “not able to speak plain English” and for a long while had derided and rejected anything said to her about salvation. With the help of other Native women who had become Christians (including “Sister Apess”), at the age of seventy through the love of Jesus, Anne Wampy was able to rid herself of her hatred for “everybody.” Like the other exemplary Christians in this pamphlet, Anne Wampy found self-worth, as well as connection to others, through sincere Christian devotion (151–52).

These accounts were prefatory to what in the Puritan era would have been termed the “application” of Apess’s texts, specifically, how they served as “looking-glasses” or mirrors for white people to see themselves as they were. Look at the “reservations” in the New England states, Apess commanded, home to “the most mean, abject, miserable race of beings in the world,” places of “prodigality and prostitution” where rum corroded the inhabitants’ moral fiber, and sexual exploitation often was the result. “Agents” or overseers appointed by the state offered no help and often participated in the Natives’ exploitation, neglecting to educate them as the law required and helping themselves to wood and other cash crops on tribal lands. And why? It was because of racial prejudice, whites’ unwillingness to acknowledge the simple humanity of the Indians. “I would ask,” Apess wrote, “if there cannot be as good feelings and principles under a red skin as there can be under a white” (155–56).

His recent experience in Boston had confirmed Apess in this realization: there reigned in the breasts of many whites, including their leaders, “a most unrighteous, unbecoming, and impure black principle,” the use of skin color “as a pretext to keep us from our unalienable rights.” And yet herein lay a “black inconsistency,” for “if black or red skins or any other skin of color is disgraceful to God,” He had disgraced himself a great deal, “for he has made fifteen colored people to one white and placed them here upon the earth” (156–57). “Assemble all nations together in your imaginations,” Apess suggested, and “let the whites be seated among them.” “I doubt not it would be hard finding them,” he observed wryly, for they made up so small a part of total humanity. Yet this minority had brazenly robbed “a nation almost of their whole continent,” murdered their women and children, and deprived them of the “remainder of their lawful rights.” Did Christ, Apess asked, ever teach his disciples that they ought to despise someone because his skin was different from theirs? (157–58). Indeed, he continued, Christ was a Jew, and Jews were “colored people, especially those living in the East,” where he had been born. Would he, too, be shut out from rights and privileges in the United States? (160).

Buttressing such pointed observations and arguments with scriptural texts, Apess broached an even more sensitive matter: interracial marriage.[3] He condemned a recent law passed by the Massachusetts legislature that levied a fine upon any clergyman or justice of the peace who “dare[d] to encourage the laws of God and nature by a legitimate union in holy wedlock between Indians and whites” (159). How many of his readers, Apess asked sarcastically, were blushing because they themselves had married someone of another color? Whites had taken the liberty, he continued, to choose Natives, “hundreds and thousands of them, as partners in life,” so why did they not have as much right to choose their wives from among whites, if they wished? In light of such legal and moral inconsistencies, people had to uproot the “tree of distinction” between races and tear “the mantle of prejudice . . . from every American heart” (160–61).

Apess chose his trope of the “looking-glass” from his own experience with racial prejudice and linked it to that of nonwhite people in general. He thus began to realize more fully that the physical and psychological oppression he knew linked him to all Native Americans, to the Cherokee, say, so much in the news. But even more, he realized that racial discrimination was part of an extensive, interconnected ideological system through which whites rationalized and justified their cupidity toward other peoples, including African Americans, whose paths he crossed in Boston. He still framed his criticism of racism as well as his hope for its elimination in scripture, but he recognized that prejudice was as much institutional as it was moral obliquity. Racism, as crusaders like James Walker and William Lloyd Garrison knew, was not just a matter of temperament but of law and politics. In Massachusetts, all three came together in the plight of the Mashpee tribe.


From The Life of William Apess, Pequot by Philip F. Gura. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Philip F. Gura is William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His many books include Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel and American Transcendentalism: A History, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Life of William Apess, Pequot, is now available.

  1. [1]He dropped the “Looking-Glass” from the second edition he issued in 1837, substituting a briefer “Indian’s Thought.”
  2. [2]This suggests that he may have composed the “Looking-Glass” before 1831.
  3. [3]Daniel R. Mandell, Tribe, Race, History: Native Americans in Southern New England, 1780–1880 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 42–69.