The Religious Crisis of Removal

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The Religious Crisis of Removal


The Cherokees and Accommodation. By the late eighteenth century the Cherokees, like other indigenous peoples in the Southeast, had made a tactical decision to adjust to the encroachment of settlers on their lands by relying less on hunting and moving toward sedentary, agriculture-based communities. One influential faction within the Cherokees advocated additional accommodation. Adopting the English language and Anglo-American dress, this group also welcomed offers from Protestant missionary societies to open schools for Indian children; in 1828 there were five different denominations working among the Cherokees. Despite the appearance of rapid acculturation, the civilizing mission triggered stress within the Cherokee communities. The first religious tensions appeared in 1811, when several minor prophets called for a reconciliation between old and new ways. In general, the adonisgi, or holy men, did not advocate complete repudiation of white civilization but a middle ground of accommodation that respected the traditions of the past while adopting whatever was useful to the Cherokee people. The movement was under way when the Shawnee leader Tecumseh made his tour of the Southeastern nations in 1811, and the news that other groups were experiencing prophetic awakenings probably lent strength to the Cherokee revivalas did the spectacular comet and the New Madrid earthquake of that tumultuous year. The War of 1812 halted any further religious ground swell, but thereafter traditional rites and ceremonies continued in tandem with the Christianization of the tribe.

Removal Policy. Even so, by the late 1820s the missionaries regarded the Cherokees as the very model of what could be accomplished among the sons of the forest. The annual reports of the societies proudly pointed to the Cherokees Christian, English-speaking leadership; their written constitution, which paid homage to the U.S. compact; and their farming economy. However, a troubling current endangered this success story: the impetus for removalthat is, for relocating all native peoples to an Indian territory west of the Mississippi Riverhad been gaining speed throughout the decade. Andrew Jackson, a determined advocate of the policy, became president in 1828, and at his behest Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 by a slim margin. In the meantime the state of Georgia had already asserted title to the Cherokee lands and declared that the autonomous polity of the Cherokee Nation was dissolved. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) sponsored a lawsuit on behalf of the Cherokees. Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Cherokees claims against Georgia, President Jackson refused to enforce the decision. Holding out for several years, the Cherokees were betrayed in 1835 when several chiefs signed a treaty with Jacksons commissioner and thereby agreed to removal. Although the action violated Cherokee law, which dictated that only treaties ratified by the council were valid, the federal government claimed it was legitimate. Soon some villages began to move westward voluntarily, but the recalcitrant majority stood fast. In 1838 the U.S. Army forcibly evicted sixteen thousand Cherokees from their homelands and then drove them to what is now northeastern Oklahoma on a poorly planned and executed expedition that became known as the Trail of Tears. About four thousand Cherokees died on the journey, and another thousand perished soon after arrival.

Missionary Turmoil. The responses of the missionary societies to the removal crisis were mixed. The ABCFM stood staunchly behind the Cherokees, and its corresponding secretary, Jeremiah Evarts, became a leading opponent of removal on moral grounds. To Congress and to the public, Evartss opposite in the debate was Baptist minister Isaac McCoy. Working primarily among the melting pot of remnant indigenous peoples in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, McCoy had long lobbied for a large expanse to be set aside in the West as a self-governing Indian colony. Only by isolating natives from the corrupting influence of disreputable traders and their liquor could the Indians as a whole be civilized and Christianized. McCoy soon realized that his Indian Canaan provided an altruistic veneer to the land greed of frontier congressmen, but he continued to believe that the plan could work to the benefit of the Indians (especially if he were at the helm). Within the missionary community, removal caused ruptures between individuals and institutions and engendered quandaries of conscience. James Trott, a Methodist missionary, was so disgusted at his churchs proremoval stance that he switched his affiliation to the Disciples of Christ. The Baptist board and most of its missionaries had followed McCoy in supporting removal as early as 1823. Yet two of its preachers among the Cherokees refused to counsel their members to vacate their lands. Two ABCFM missionaries, the Reverend Samuel Worcester and Dr. Elizur Butler, became heroes to the Cherokees when they went to jail in 1831 in defense of the Indians possessory rights. In 1832 the ABCFM, now under new leadership with the untimely death of Evarts, gave up its opposition when the Senate ratified the fraudulent Cherokee treaty and the government threatened to cut its annual appropriation ($2,500). The imprisoned missionaries sought pardon from the Georgia court, and the ABCFM advised the Cherokees to accede to the inevitable.

Religious Crisis. As the historian William McLoughlin has noted, though removal was a political and social crisis for the Cherokees, it was an even more profound spiritual shock, for both Christians and traditionalists. In the wake of the capitulation of their missionary allies, the Christian Cherokees regarded the religion of the white majority to be as false as their treaty promises, and there was an inevitable decline in conversions and church membership. The disillusionment with Christianity, however, could not be remedied simply by a return to traditional religion, since that too was in disarray. Severed from the sacred lands of their ancestors, the adonisgi lost their connection to the spiritual world, as well as access to the herbs that were the source of their medicinal powers. For the Cherokees, dispossession, death, and internal conflict demanded a fresh religious synthesis to provide order and meaning to confused and disordered lives. In the Trans-Mississippi West, Christianity ultimately contributed to that process because the Cherokees were able to mold it into a viable faith for themselves. No longer passive recipients of Christianization, the Cherokees discovered a passageway between sacred worlds that offered a means to renewal on their terms.

In Indian Territory. Differences among the denominations significantly affected the Cherokee experience of Protestantism after removal. In the early nineteenth century, during the first period of missionary intervention among the Southeastern Indians, the ABCFM workers had dominated. In Indian Territory, from 1840 to 1860, it was the Baptists and Methodists who increasingly made converts while the mission stations of the ABCFM declined. The theology and practice of such evangelicals offered flexibility in contrast to the rigidity that characterized the Congregationalism and Presbyterianism of the ABCFM. For example, the Baptists and Methodists itinerated, going to the people instead of establishing settled missions and requiring people to come to them. This popularized their appeala different approach from the ABCFM strategy of cultivating a leadership core. The evangelical missionaries among the Cherokees tended to encourage parallels between Christian and traditional rites, such as baptism and the Cherokee purification ceremony, in which community harmony was reasserted by a washing away of the past. The stress in Arminian theology on growing in grace (celebrated by both Methodists and Baptists) allowed for more leniency in behavioral lapses, in contrast to the Calvinist tendency to regard backsliding as possible evidence of an unregenerate soul. Finally, the Baptist concept of the ministry as individuals raised by the choice of the people allowed for the emergence of a native ministry. Ironically, the missionaries in the Southeast had targeted and achieved success among Cherokees of mixed Indian-white ancestry; after removal the Cherokee full-bloods redefined and legitimized what it meant to be a native Christian. Once the door was open to native interpretation of Christian beliefs, the result was a syncretic mixture. The Christian Cherokees conflated the Christian God with the Great Spirit, gave traditional ceremonies and dances (and therefore the adonisgi) a role in worship, and focused on what was familiar in Christian practice and teachings over what was alien.

The Reverend Evan Jones. The revitalization of Christianity among the Cherokees in Indian Territory was also due to the example of a few stalwart missionaries who had remained true to their convictions during the removal crisis. Of particular importance was the Reverend Evan Jones, a Baptist who served as missionary to the Cherokees from 1821 to 1872. He resisted removal to the last alongside his Cherokee church members despite the rebuke of his denomination. Before their forced departure he and his four hundred congregants voted to refuse fellowship to any of the signatories to the Cherokee treaty. Jones walked the Trail of Tears with his Cherokee colleague, the Reverend Jesse Bushyhead. Missionary strategy in general favored the use of the vernacular by the 1830s, but Jones was unique in his ability to write, speak, and read the Cherokee language. He spearheaded the effort to translate the Bible into Cherokee, which offered traditionalists their first opportunity to read and interpret for themselves. Jones was later adopted into the tribe, and his son joined him in laboring among the Cherokees as a Baptist minister. The acceptance of the Joneses illustrated that the Indians judged the value of Euro-American religion by the behavior of the individual exponent, not by doctrinal abstraction. Therein lay the tragedy of many of the sacred encounters in the West.

Aftermath of Removal. For the missionary community, Indian removal was a turning point. In the millennial enthusiasm that propelled the missionary organizations in the 1810s and 1820s, it seemed natural to hope that evangelical religion could guide the unfolding identity of the nation, ushering in a glorious new age of Christian harmony and republican liberty. When the removal legislation passed, a disheartened Evarts said to a congressman, My hope is, that when the people of the United States come to understand the subject, there will be a redeeming spirit arise; for I will not believe that the nation is yet lost to truth and honor. The plain fact was that the best efforts of the ABCFM leadership had made no impact on the course of events. As one of its committees queried in 1838, why bother to detain men in the field only to have their efforts paralyzed, and for all the labor, property, and life expended, to reap little else than disappointment? The deepest irony for the evangelicals was their inability to protect or to intercede for these particular Indians, who, by all outward appearances had become both Christianized and civilized and had, in fact, become the representative of national and denominational aspirations for the savage. The redemption of both the Indians and the nation suddenly seemed more of a far-off ideal than a postmillenial likelihood. Instead of creating a permanent Indian Canaan, removal out of sight became out of mind. In 1841 the Baptist General Convention still blithely extolled the policy: the Indians have at last found a settled home in the regions of the far west, where they have a country guaranteed to them by the faith of the nation. Here by the fostering care of the government, and the holy influence of religious institutions, they are acquiring those habits which are essential to their comfort and usefulness on earth, and to their happiness beyond the grave. In fact, removal had emptied not just the Southeast but the Western Reserve and the first Indian territory in Arkansas. Previous Indian occupants, such as the Osage, were displaced, and the result was a hodgepodge of oddly drawn grants, some of them quite small, to various tribes. As Kansas and Nebraska became states, these holdings in perpetuity were further adjusted. There was to be no impenetrable protective barrier, only constant encroachment. After 1859 the Southeastern Indians collectively became known as the Five Civilized Tribes, indicating their continuing association with progress in the white mind. Yet the Cherokees could no longer serve as the showpiece for the Protestant missionary effort, given the issue of slaveholding in their midst as well as the impure syncretic elements in their Christianity. Almost in spite of the missionaries, the Christian Cherokees had taken the religion of the white majority and made it respond to their religious needs, creating a means to cohesion and therefore a defense against their absorption into Euro-American society.


John Andrew III, From Revivals to Removal: Jeremiah Evarts, the Cherokee Nation, and the Search for the Soul of America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992);

William G. McLoughlin, Champions of the Cherokees: Evan and John B. Jones (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990);

McLoughlin, The Cherokees and Christianity, 17941870: Essays on Acculturation and Cultural Persistence (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994);

George A. Schultz, An Indian Canaan: Isaac McCoy and the Vision of an Indian State (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972).

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The Religious Crisis of Removal

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