Native Americans and Christianity
Religious Diversity. There were more than three hundred Native American tribes in the United States in the nineteenth century, and each had a distinct culture with its own religious beliefs and practices. Because of this diversity it is difficult to provide a single accurate description of Native American religion. Such an effort is further complicated by the fact that spiritual beliefs permeated the social and cultural life of most Indian tribes so deeply that they were often inseparable from community life as a whole. Ceremonies that might have seemed specifically religious to whites were often for Indians simply an extension of daily life. But one thing all tribes shared in common was that at some point they faced an encounter with white Christians.
White Attitudes. Among whites there were two common religiously based attitudes toward Native Americans. One was expressed in the notion of Manifest Destiny, the idea that white Christians had a God-given mission to expand their civilization and its ideals of liberty and democracy across the entire North American continent. From this point of view Indians who occupied valuable lands could be removed or even exterminated with few moral qualms. A second point of view held that the Indians did not have to be seen as a hindrance to white progress. Rather, they were simply ignorant heathens who could become part of American society if they were allowed to benefit from the civilizing instruction of whites. The first step toward civilization was believed to be conversion to Christianity. Although earlier missionaries to the Indians had produced few converts and much antagonism, the revivals of the early nineteenth century brought new impetus to the missionary movement. Most Protestant denominations as well as the Roman Catholic Church sent men and women to Indian tribes across the country, where they preached, distributed Bibles, and established schools.
Indian Responses. Indian responses to missionaries were as diverse as their forms of religious practice. Most tribes at least initially welcomed the missionaries, although reactions were mixed even among members of the same tribe. Impressed by white technology, many Indians believed that white culture must hold some spiritual power as well, and they were willing to hear what the missionaries had to offer. Some became practicing Christian converts while others were violently opposed to any white influence at all. Perhaps most common were those who were attracted to specific elements of Christianity that could be incorporated into their own belief systems. Native American religions, like the African ones brought by the slaves, were generally inclusivist, open to the addition of new religious experiences, stories, or visions. Thus many Indians found it possible to “accept” Christianity without actually relinquishing their own beliefs. Much to the frustration of the missionaries, however, most Indians were uninterested in the fine points of doctrine. Many found original sin and the fall of man to be particularly odd concepts. Others were puzzled (as were many whites) by the multitude of denominations. One Seneca chief wondered, “If there is but one Religion, why do you white people differ so much about it?”
Mission to the Cherokees. One of the most successful efforts at evangelization, at least by white standards, was the mission to the Cherokee tribe in the southeastern United States. Moravians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists all sent missionaries to the tribe in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, and they were pleased with the response they received. Not only did the Cherokees become Christians in large numbers, but they also chose to adopt many other aspects of the white culture that surrounded them. They constructed roads and developed a political system and constitution based on that of the United States. Sequoia created a written form of the Cherokee language, and the tribe began publishing its own books and newspapers. Unquestionably, there was resistance to missionary and “civilizing” efforts. As in many other tribes, periodic revivals of wholly native religion occurred among the Cherokees, and at those times tribal leaders encouraged the total rejection of white civilization. Nonetheless, the missionaries were proud to hold the tribe up as an example of the successful integration of Indians into American society. In late 1828, however, gold was discovered in northern Georgia, and
the push to move the Cherokees to the West grew strong. With the full support of President Andrew Jackson, a forced removal was begun. Many missionaries were dismayed, and the most dedicated took a formal stand against Indian removal and against their own government. They argued that their progress in civilizing and converting the Cherokees placed a moral obligation on the United States to accept the tribe’s ownership of its hereditary lands. But their pleas went unheeded. Thus the tribe that had been most willing to accept the gifts of some white Christians found themselves marching to an uncertain fate on the “Trail of Tears” created by other white Christians—who were equally certain that they acted in the name of God and country.
Robert F. Berkhofer Jr., Salvation and the Savage: An Analysis of Protestant Missions and American Indian Response, 1787–1862 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965);