Interview with Douglas Winiarski, Author of the Spring 2024 Free Access EAS Article

Why did you choose to research your topic? What interested you about the topic?

My article, “Revisioning the Shawnee Prophet,” began as a COVID project. I was already familiar with the journal of Quaker philanthropist William Allinson, in which he described his dinner conversation with Hendrick Aupaumut, and I was intrigued by the idea that Laloeshiga/Tenskwatawa started receiving visions several years earlier than historians had previously thought. With special collections archives closed during the pandemic, I decided to take a closer look at the Prophet’s origin story. Frankly, I was stunned by what I found in the standard nineteenth-century sources. None of the supposed facts of Laloeshiga’s early life seemed to hold up to scrutiny—especially the famous incident in which he allegedly experienced his first vision while in a drunken stupor during the winter of 1805. I wrote this article, in part, to set the record straight. But I also wanted to think about how we might reconceptualize the field of Native American religious history in the future. What started with some basic background research evolved into a meditation on potential new methods in the study of religion and their applicability to the field of Native American and Indigenous Studies.

Figure 1. Charles Bird King’s portrait, which presents Tenskwatawa as a slim, cosmopolitan figure, contrasts markedly with George Catlin’s well-known, but significantly embellished image of a half-dressed, corpulent mystic (Figure 2 below). “Prophet, Shawanese – Brother of Tecumsi,” Charles Bird King, 1829. oil on wood panel, 60.6 × 51.6 cm (23 7/8 × 20 5/16″), Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

What do you think is the most interesting source you looked at as part of your research?

I’m fascinated by the journals and letters of Shaker missionary Benjamin Seth Youngs. In fact, his exceptionally vivid writings are the cornerstone of my current book project, which explores the powerful relationship that developed between the Shawnee Prophet and the Shakers, the most dangerous Protestant religious sect in the early American republic. Youngs’s description of the Shakers’ visit to Greenville during the spring of 1807 is one of the few positive accounts of the Prophet that survives from the early nineteenth century. The Shakers were the only missionaries willing to accept his visions as authentic. They believed that Laloeshiga was animated by the same Christ spirit that dwelt among their own peculiar, celibate sect. They were wrong about this, of course, but the Shakers’ desire to take Laloeshiga seriously as an inspired religious leader set them apart from their contemporaries. They were honest and candid in their assessments; and their writings contained none of the bile that their contemporaries heaped on the Prophet. In the end, I wound up using Youngs’s Greenville journal as a kind of baseline from which to judge the accuracy of other documents from the period, as I explain in the first part of the article.

Figure 2. George Catlin’s well-known, but significantly embellished image of a half-dressed, corpulent mystic contrasts markedly with Charles Bird King’s portrait, which presents Tenskwatawa as a slim, cosmopolitan figure (Figure 1 above). “Ten-sqúat-a-way, The Open Door, Known as The Prophet, Brother of Tecumseh,” George Catlin, 1830. oil on wood panel, 60.6 × 51.6 cm (23 7/8 × 20 5/16ʺ), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your article?

Two things. First, I hope this article will encourage readers to resist the urge to attribute the emergence of charismatic Native American religious leaders solely to experiences of loss and deprivation. That narrative has been plowed deep into our histories, from the Delaware prophets of the 1740s to the Ghost Dance of 1890s. There’s a lot of excellent new scholarship emerging on the phenomena that anthropologist Anthony Wallace once dubbed “revitalization movements.” “Revisioning the Shawnee Prophet” joins books and articles by historians and religious studies specialists such as Jennifer Graber, Joel Martin, Richard Pointer, Louis Warren, Tisa Wenger, and Rachel Wheeler—all of whom have worked to reposition Native American new religious movements in a more positive light.

Second, I’d like to think that my work on origins of the Shawnee Prophet will help turn conversations in the field of early American history back to the topic of religion. During the past decade or so, many historians have started writing in what we might call a structuralist mode. Scholarship on settler colonialism, in particular, emphasizes the “logic of elimination,” to quote Patrick Wolfe’s celebrated phrase. We’re in a professional moment in which those structures, which are mostly economic, political, or ideological, define what drives historical change. But all things have a history, even “reality” itself. Ontologically speaking, the world of the early American republic was so much more than we’re willing to admit as historians. It was a world in which stories of angels appearing on a North Carolina mountaintop went viral in the newspapers and plain folk traded stories about blood raining from the sky in Ohio, as Adam Jortner has recently explained. Both Native Americans and white settlers were enmeshed in vast networks of other-than-human beings: from ghosts and windigos to the Holy Spirit and Gitchi Manitou, the Great Spirit. These “networks” joining “heaven and earth,” as one of my graduate mentors, Robert Orsi, explains, exerted as much force on historical events as, say, treaties negotiations and land speculation schemes. My article aims to open up a space to talk about a more “abundant” history by taking such relationships seriously.

Douglas Winiarski (he/him) is the current Fritz and Claudine Kundrun Fellow at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello and professor of religious studies at the University of Richmond. His first book, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (2017), received the Bancroft Prize. Doug’s current research explores the unique relationship that formed between the Shawnee Prophet and the Shakers during the years leading up to the War of 1812. Readers can contact him at To learn more about his work, visit

Read Winiarski’s article “Revisioning the Shawnee Prophet: Revitalization Movements, Religious Studies, and the Ontological Turn” in EAS’s Spring 2024 issue.