Protestant Mission And Native Americans

While the predominant model of Protestant mission in the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century involved missionaries working abroad, it is important to appreciate that a quite different model emerged in North America as Protestant settlers encountered Native American cultures. Missionary work began in New England in the seventeenth century as Puritan settlers made contact with local tribes. The Puritan missionary John Eliot (1604-90) became interested in the culture and language of the Native Americans who lived around Roxbury, and he learned Natic (as this regional variant of Algonquin was known) to preach to them. He was able to attract support for his missionary work in the region and in 1649 gained parliamentary approval for the establishment of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England. Between 1661 and 1663, he translated and produced a Natic-language Bible, using a professional printer, Marmaduke Johnson, sent over from England in 1660 on a three-year contract.

In the eighteenth century, mission work shifted into a higher gear as the Great Awakening kindled interest in spreading the gospel among Native Americans. Various groups were involved in this enterprise, including European émigrés influenced by the revivals in Germany and England. Unusually, Moravian settlers were prepared to live among, and even marry, Native Americans, much to the concern of the British colonial authorities. This special relationship with Native Americans proved to be of particular importance evangelistically.22

A quite different form of engagement emerged in the early nineteenth century in response to the religious changes of that era. The revivalism that developed in Kansas during the Second Great Awakening led to growing interest in evangelization of the native tribes of the area. Baptists and Methodists—the two denominations most affected by the Awakening—undertook major missionary enterprises at this time.

One of the most significant and effective forms of missionary work was education.23 Baptist workers set up a training school near Topeka, which became a major center for evangelism in the 1850s.24 Medical missions also played an important role. Jotham Meeker (1804-55) combined his professional expertise as a printer with a somewhat amateur interest in medicine, using both as a way of establishing contact and trust with the Shawnees, Stockbridges, and Ottawas during the 1830s and 1840s.25

The motivation of these Protestant missionaries to evangelize Native Americans was complex. Virtually all of the missionaries I studied in preparing this section believed deeply and passionately that the coming of the gospel would enlighten and liberate the people to whom they were ministering. Yet other motivations can be discerned, paralleling rather than contradicting their primary concern. One such motivation was a desire to preserve the identity and interests of Native Americans in the face of rapid social change. At times, this motivation was accompanied by a naïveté that led to serious misjudgments—such as Isaac McCoy's belief that reservations held the key to the safeguarding of the cultural identity of Native Americans.26

The case of the Canadian Baptist missionary Silas T. Rand (1810-89) illustrates this concern well, while also demonstrating the importance of Protestant missionaries for historical anthropology.27 Rand had aspirations to serve in foreign mission fields. However, his missionary interests were redirected in 1846. While ministering in Prince Edward Island, he became familiar with the Micmac language. Although the Micmac people of the Maritimes had already encountered Catholicism, Rand believed that he had a mission to them, and he was supported in this goal by a somewhat aggressively anti-Catholic group of supporters in Nova Scotia.

Rand believed that Christianity would deliver the Micmac from the predations and depravations of white culture, and he came to love and respect the Micmac language and folklore. Determined to preserve both, he acted as an advocate for the Micmac people in land rights disputes and published both the original texts and translations of their oral traditions. He was heavily criticized for doing so: why, a strict Baptist newspaper demanded, was Rand concerning himself with such "fables" when he was meant to be preaching the gospel? Here, as in so many other cases, our knowledge of the traditions, customs, and languages of America's first peoples were preserved and transmitted by missionaries, many of whom developed a deep respect for the cultures within which they were working.

Similarly, the Hawaiian language was preserved because missionaries in the 1820s insisted on learning the native language in order to explain the gospel—and then came to see its preservation as an important issue in itself. Hiram Bingham (1789-1869) even refused to teach the islanders English, believing that this would destroy their linguistic—and hence their cultural—identity.28

A similar pattern can be seen in the ministry of Asher Wright (180375), a missionary to the Seneca people in Buffalo Creek, New York. After graduating from Andover Seminary, Wright joined the Buffalo Creek mission and would spend forty-four years working with the Seneca. His missionary work was not especially successful; however, his commitment to the people and knowledge of their language and cus toms led to the preservation of their distinctive features.29 Wright's ministry is one of many examples that raise questions about the "colonial" stereotype of missionaries, until recently widely encountered in accounts of the Protestant missions of the nineteenth century.

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