Friday, January 11, 2019

Restoration Missionaries among the Indians, Pre-1830 (1)

Prior to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, missionaries from various traditions made efforts to evangelize Native Americans. The Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics were among the most prominent.[1]

At least a few early restorationists made similar attempts. As one might expect, almost all of them were close neighbors to the Indians. They lived along the frontier of the Old Southwest, and thus identified with the "Christian" movement centered in Kentucky. On this topic, Joseph Thomas, commonly known as "the White Pilgrim," is an important source. In his 1817 memoir titled The Life of the Pilgrim, he implies that there were times when he preached "to some of the friendly tribes."[2]

Thomas was acquainted with a man he identifies simply as J. Smith. He had been "a great politician, a great commander in the revolutionary and Indian wars, and one of the first explorers of the Tennessee and Duck river countries." In his youth, Smith had spent many years as a prisoner of a certain unnamed tribe. Knowing their language, and having since become a preacher of the gospel, he had tried several times to convert them, with mixed results.[3]

More generally, Thomas relates that during the earliest years of the nineteenth century, at least some Christians along the western frontier, because "their hearts swelled with such love and desire for sinners," refused to stop at "the borders of the white people."[4]
Some of them, not counting their lives dear unto them, directed their courses through the wild deserts into the Indian nations. They there laboured [sic] with that success which gave them to know that their labour was not in vain in the Lord, though they had to encounter unavoidable difficulty and distress. One of those men was among the Indians for months, and I believe years, teaching them to read the holy scriptures. In which time he had the pleasure of seeing not only a reformation from their heathen traditions to pure and undefiled religion, but an unexpected improvement in English reading among his pupils.[5]

[1] The literature about contact and interaction between American Indians and various types of Euro-American Christians is vast. For example, William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983) tells a story of the colonization of New England that takes into account the environmental impact of both Native Americans and the English Protestants known as Puritans, the changes both groups brought to the land. Allan Greer, Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) explores the mission of French Jesuits in present-day New York state and the St. Lawrence River Valley during the late seventeenth century. Greer focuses on the life of a single, striking character who was canonized in 2012. The book provides a good example of what might be called the new missions historiography, a sort of religious borderlands approach that examines Mohawks as well as Jesuits. Linford D. Fisher, The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) recounts a variety of stories about the Native American encounter with Puritanism in southern New England from 1700 to 1820. Fischer highlights how indigenous people appropriated the Awakening in ways that made sense to them. He also points out that vestiges of that moment in history have survived to this day in southeastern Connecticut and the eastern tip of Long Island. In a later era, missionaries also attempted to convert those Indians of the southeast who in the nineteenth came to be known as the "Five Civilized Tribes." Among histories that relate something about these missions, see, for example, Arrell M. Gibson, The Chickasaws (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971) and Clara Sue Kidwell, Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi, 1818-1918 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995).

[2] Joseph Thomas, The Life of the Pilgrim, Joseph Thomas (Winchester, VA: J. Foster, 1817), 115.

[3] Ibid., 157-58.

[4] Ibid., 185.

[5] Ibid., 185-86.

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