Neolin's Vision

Neolin, a Lenni Lenape (Delaware) Indian, was a spiritual visionary who urged Native Americans to reject European influences and to revive tribal traditions that had waned in the generations since colonization. His philosophical movement drew from native faith as well as Christianity and was primarily concerned with moral improvement and attaining eternal salvation. At the same time, Neolin's themes of self-empowerment and native separatism helped shape the ideas behind the Indian uprisings of 1763-1764, including Pontiac's Rebellion. His message resonated with Indian audiences who shared a common sense of loss and desired to return their tribes to a life free of the intrusive British and French. As Neolin's teachings spread, they inspired many Native American tribes to unite against their common colonial adversaries.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware Indians, had become familiar with the disruptions to native life caused by colonial expansion. In the century and a half since European contact, the Lenape people had sold or involuntarily ceded most of their ancestral lands along the mid-Atlantic seaboard, with many relocating to the Ohio River valley. They saw contagious diseases devastate nearly three-quarters of their population, and they had entangled themselves in wars driven by the ruthlessly competitive European beaver fur trade. The Lenape of the 1760s were heavily dependent on European trade goods, and had developed complicated and sometimes fraught relationships with neighboring European officials, traders, and missionaries. The British and French, as well as stronger tribes such as the Iroquois, had economically and politically marginalized the Lenape.

Neolin lived in the Ohio country, somewhere in the vicinity of the Lenape settlements at Tuscarawas or Cuyahoga. He reported his first revelations as a young man in 1760. In Neolin's recounting of his visions, he had encountered a supreme deity called the Master of Life, or Great Spirit. The Master of Life declared to him that while Indians had a special relationship with their creator, they had been visited with divine punishments for both their moral failings and their abandonment of tradition. Wars between Indian tribes were offensive to the Great Spirit, as was striving after French trade goods, for these things had broken down the sense of native community. Most of all, however, the Master of Life was displeased that Indians had tolerated the arrival of Europeans, and especially that they had surrendered land to the newcomers. It was the Master of Life's wish that America be reserved for Indians alone; by defying him, Indians had jeopardized their entry into heaven.

Some components of Neolin's visions, including the idea of a distinctive covenant between the Master of Life and Native peoples, reiterated or built upon ideas that other Delaware prophets had espoused throughout the eighteenth century. His system of beliefs also clearly appropriated some elements from Christianity, with its native variations on heaven, hell, a single God, and the possibility of redemption from sin.

By 1762, Neolin had organized his visions into a plan for native spiritual renewal. Part of it involved purification of the body and soul. He outlined new dietary restrictions, praising the healthful virtues of corn while denouncing the destructive capacity of alcohol. He promoted new rituals for fasting and purging. He preached a return to native traditions, such as reviving the use of the bow and arrow for hunting and combat. Notably, he spoke out against longstanding native practices such as polygamous marriage and he condemned shamanic medicinal rituals as unholy witchcraft. In the long term, Neolin believed that only a complete separation from European society could save the souls of Native Americans. He exhorted natives to wean themselves from European (especially British) trade and return to a life of hunting and subsistence agriculture. This spirit of separatism, along with Neolin's emotional appeals to tradition, proved to be instantly popular. He unsparingly blamed Indians for losing their way and corrupting their culture with European influences. Yet that acceptance of guilt might have also proved empowering, for many Native Americans saw it as an opportunity to take control and actively reject European encroachments on their way of life.

Though Neolin's teachings were initially addressed to the Lenape people, his ideas spread rapidly. Native peoples hundreds of miles away, including the Ottawa chief Pontiac, adopted Neolin's ideas as their own. The Delaware prophet's visions amplified already strong Native resentments against the British, whose recent victories versus the French had generated deep anxieties about their future.

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