Spreading the Faith: The “Macedonian Cry” from the Columbia Plateau

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Spreading the Faith: The Macedonian Cry from the Columbia Plateau


The Macedonian Cry. In 1831 four Flathead (Salish) and Nez Perce Indians made an unprecedented journey to St. Louis from their homelands in the Columbia Plateau in the Northwest. They were unable to speak English, but officials interpreted their religious purpose in their signs of the cross and the gestures that suggested baptism rites. When presented with a cross, they kissed it, so William Clark, commissioner of Indian Affairs in St. Louis, sent them to the Jesuit mission, where they were baptized. This event, pivotal in Native and Anglo-American history, became known in evangelical folklore as the Macedonian crya reference to the spread of the early Christian church to Asia Minor upon the appeal of the Macedonians to the Apostle Paul. Although both native and white traditions agreed that the Indians came seeking the white mans book of heaven, the reasons for the search were poles apart.

Prophetic Impulse. The journey of the Indian delegation to St. Louis had begun in prophecy. About 1800 the Spokane prophet Yurareechen (the Circling Raven) revealed a vision that was passed down as follows: Soon there will come from the rising sun a different kind of man from any you have yet seen, who will bring with him a book and will teach you everything, and after that the world will fall to pieces. Renewal and the resurrection of the dead would follow destruction. Another prophecy circulated among the Flatheads. The medicine man Shining Shirt had foretold that white men wearing long black robes would arrive to teach the Indians new prayers and a new moral law that would radically change their lives. The intertribal wars would cease, but it would be the beginning of the end, for a flood of white people would come in the wake of the Black Robes.

The Columbia Plateau. The region between the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains was home to about two dozen distinct groups, most of them organized loosely around the band or village. Predominantly members of the Salishan and Sahaptian linguistic families, the Plateau Indians included the Nez Perces, the Cayuses, the Spokanes, the Kutenais, the Coeur dAlenes, and the Flatheads (a misnomer, since it was actually the Chinooks along the Northwest Coast who flattened the heads of their children). The native peoples of the Columbia Plateau were ready for a prophetic message, given the changes of the past century. The introduction of the horse, guns, and the fur trade had pushed many groups from their semisedentary lifestyle into hunting, which exposed them to disease and created competition and conflict with such Plains neighbors as the Blackfeet. In 1805 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled among the Plateau Indians, the first whites known to do so. Although Lewis and Clark represented a different kind of man, as in the prophecy, they brought no book. So the people waited. In 1820 two dozen Iroquois Catholics from a mission near Montreal settled among the Flatheads. Their leader, Ignace La Mousse, related the fundamentals of Catholicism to the Flatheads but urged them to seek further instruction. The conjunction of Iroquois influence and the eagerness of the Plateau Indians to pursue the prophecy encouraged native adoption of Christian devotional practices. By the end of the decade traders and explorers commented on how the Indians of that region engaged in morning and evening prayers, spoke grace at meals, and observed the Sabbath. Seeking to discover more about white medicine, a Kutenai man and Spokan Garry, the son of a Spokane chief, attended an Anglican mission school near modern-day Winnipeg. When they returned in 1829, they introduced rudimentary Christian worship and Bible reading to their people. This in turn coincided with, and may have augmented, a general religious awakening throughout the Plateau as a prophet dance spread from the Flatheads to the Nez Perces and other neighboring groups. Impatient to learn more about the book that was a prerequisite to the promised restoration of Indian power, the Flatheads and Nez Perces decided to send representatives to connect with the annual trade rendezvous and possibly find their friend William Clark. They reached St. Louis in 1831.

The East Hears the Cry. Within two years of the delegations appearance, Methodist William Walker had immortalized the event. His account was published in a denominational journal and picked up by Eastern newspapers. Perhaps more striking than his dramatic narrative was the accompanying drawing of the profile of an Indian with a flattened head, a poignant image of barbarism that horrified Anglo-American sensibilities. The renown of the Indian lament spread throughout the religious community and sparked a new stage in the missionary endeavor. The appeal originated in a distant location far to the West, stretching the evangelical imagination to envision a continental Christendom and a new scope for the nations destiny. A fresh goal had become all the more urgent by the 1830s because the Protestant expectations arising from the awakening at the turn of the century had faltered in the face of quarrels and unresolvable differences of opinion. Perhaps the hope for a unified church and a Christian nation lay farther to the West, with the conversion of these imploring Indians and the establishment of harmonious settlements that would be a beacon (and a chastisement) to the East. Consequently, with the Macedonian cry, the millennial visions of both Indians and whites met and, for a time, found they needed one another for their consummation.

The Methodists Respond. In 1833 the Methodist Missionary Society declared in its Christian Advocate and Journal:

Hear! Hear! Who will respond to the call from beyond the Rocky Mountains? The subject of the deputation of the Flat-head Indians to Gen. Clarke, has excited in many in this section intense interest. And to be short about it, we are for having a mission established there at once. Let two sutable [sic ] men, unencumbered with families, and possessing the spirit of martyrs, throw themselves into the nation. Live with themlearn their languageteach Christ to themand, as the ways open, introduce schools, agriculture, and the arts of civilized life.

Jason Lee and his nephew were the first to snap to attention, and they headed out with three other Methodist missionaries in 1834 with the intention of serving the Flathead Indians in present-day southwestern Montana. They instead ended up in the Willamette River valley of Oregon, a development that passed without comment in official circles but that boded ill for the accomplishment of missionary goals. The effort reflected the character of Methodism: its personnel was the stalwart bachelor itinerant; its trust was in Providence over preparation; and its methodology regarded both Christianizing and civilizing as procedural problems that only required the orderly application of systems. The expectation that the Indians would be won over with dispatch met with disappointment. Lee decided to return to the East to raise additional funds and bring more people. In 1840 fifty-one recruits arrived in the valley; this time they were primarily families who were supposed to serve as role models of piety and industry to the indigenous peoples. The requirements of community settlement began to overtake the evangelical thrust, and the site seemed more akin to a colony than a mission. Against the wishes of the Missionary Society, Lee established different centers for the functions of Christianizing and civilizing. The main settlement was oriented to industry and family life, and its ostensible missionizing purpose was to edify the Indians by example. The Dalles, a northern station isolated from white settlement, was the only place given over to Christianization. There the spiritual focus included sharing worship with the Indians and making an effort to learn their languages.

From Mission to Colony. In 1843 Lee became involved in the creation of the Oregon Provisional Government, and the Missionary Society censured him for being overly engaged in secular activities. After ten years in Oregon, Lee was recalled, leaving a legacy of a land claim in the Willamette River valley and a school for children of white settlers. Not a single Indian convert could be counted. Some observers took the moral of the story as a reflection on the natives themselves. One Methodist preacher left the region in 1841 declaring that extinction appears to be their inevitable doom . They will never be reached by the Voice of the gospel. Lee acknowledged the lack of progress among the Plateau Indians, and by the end of his missionary service he agreed that some special unction of the Holy Spirit would have to move the hearts of the Indians before they would respond to the evangelical call. Yet he also recognized that Methodism could not repudiate a belief in the conversion potential of the Indian without jeopardizing its very essence. In fact, the denomination had recently reasserted its conviction that the gospel was universally adaptable, and thus the whole world was the proper scope of evangelization. The most ominous lesson of the Methodist experience was that the missionary endeavor had been instrumental in establishing a toehold for American occupation of the Northwest. Especially in this region and in this stage of missionizing, political and economic objectives were often advanced by the actions of the religious. In the process the evangelical dream of converting the nation and then the world became the captive of a secular blueprint.

The ABCFM Responds. When the Macedonian cry first reached an Eastern audience, New England was aflame with revival fires, and evangelists used the plight of these poor savages to demonstrate the urgent need for the redeemed to act on their faith. As the Reverend Samuel Parker declared, The heathen themselves are chiding Christians for their negligence in not obeying the commandment go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. Under the auspices of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), Parker and an associate, Dr. Marcus Whitman, volunteered to explore the possibility of a mission in the Northwest. At the annual trade rendezvous in 1835 they received such an enthusiastic welcome from the Plateau Indians represented there that Whitman returned East to assemble the necessaries for the project. The ABCFM preferred married couples, so Whitman found a spouse to be a fellow laborer in the Lords vineyard. Another couple, Henry and Eliza Spalding, were also given an Oregon commission by the ABCFM. The fact that these were the first Anglo-American women to cross the Rockies demonstrates the significance of this adventure as well as the motivating power of evangelical commitment in the nineteenth century. Reverend Parker had been instrumental in convincing the ABCFM that women would be in no more danger travelling over land to the Northwest than by sea around Cape Horn. In 1836 the missionaries set out on their three-thousand mile journey, taking a wagon to Pittsburgh, riverboat to Liberty, Missouri, horseback (with women riding sidesaddle, or in a light wagon) to Fort Walla Walla on the Columbia River, and then boat down the Columbia. The journey took seven months. After making the trip, Spalding wrote to the board, Never send another mission over these mountains if you value life and money. Whitman, by contrast, declared, I see no reason to regret our choice of a journey by land. In the end their decision to cross the Rockies with women and wagons opened the door to family migration and so furnished a crucial impetus to the coming invasion of the region.

Mission Life. In 1838 reinforcements arrived from the ABCFM so that two couples could be placed at each of the three stations. The Whitmans and Smiths settled among the Cayuses at Waiilatpu; the Walkers and the Eells went north to the Spokanes at Tshimakain; and the Spaldings and the Grays were stationed at Lapwai among the Nez Perces. Initially mission life was an exercise in basic survival, and the group was dependent on the fort and the Hudsons Bay Company for supplies. As with most missionaries in this period, none of the ABCFM appointees had any relevant training, though several of the women had been teachers. The New Englanders were isolated among a non-English-speaking people, and their likelihood of success was hamstrung from the start. Internally, personality conflicts sundered the fragile stability of the Oregon mission, which drove the Grays and Smiths to leave by 1842.

Relations with the Indians. For the Plateau Indians the most apparent outcome of the missionary intrusion was to create divisions between praying and nonpraying Indians. Some ignored the mission presence; others were curious or perceived some advantage in allying themselves with the missionaries. The Spaldings had a more receptive audience at Lapwai than the Whitmans did at Waiilatpu, for the Nez Perces were determined to learn what they could about the white medicine. As Spalding declared in 1837, We might as well hold back the Sun in his march through the heavens, as hold back the minds of this people from religious inquiries. Two Nez Perce men, Joseph and Timothy, were received into the church in 1839. Although Joseph became disillusioned and drifted away from the mission, Timothy continued to identify himself as a Christian. At Tshimakain, Spokan Garry made occasional visits, but he preferred the Anglican ritual to Presbyterian practice. By 1841 his enthusiasm for the new religion had waned, especially after some of his own people had harassed him. Though he sometimes acted as interpreter for the missionaries, he would as often refuse. Overall, communication was hit or miss. The Walkers had the valuable help of Mungo Mevway, a half-Hawaiian, half-Native American youth who could speak English, and the Spaldings were also assisted by an interpreter. Elkanah Walker hoped to translate the Gospel of Matthew into Salish, but the only book printed for the benefit of the Plateau Indians was a Spokane Primer. As time passed, the missionaries, convinced that heathenism was a lifestyle choice, became increasingly disdainful of their charges, which dampened their zeal. Walker declared that if anyone doubts the doctrines of total + native depravity, one years sojourn among them, I think, would remove all his doubts. Spalding believed that forcing Anglo-American agricultural habits onto Indians was a prerequisite to Christianization, and a published photo showed him standing with a hoe in one hand and a Bible in the other. As one historian has noted, the Indians of the Plateau had their own agenda. Their willingness to endure the intolerance and encroachments of the missionaries demonstrated the degree to which they were invested in their prophecys hopes. Other cultural presumptions that affected the missionary endeavor were not religious. In 1843 the Indian agent for Oregon organized the Nez Perces into a tribe led by an elected chief. Although this fit the white perception of proper structure and representation, it destabilized the Nez Perces, who had operated for centuries around loosely affiliated bands. New factions generated animosity that was often directed against the missionaries. Again, a variety of Anglo-American interestseconomic, diplomatic, political, and religioushad begun to merge to the detriment of the Plateau Indians.

Catholic Competition. In the Northwest, for the first time the sacred encounter between Indian and white religious worlds involved competing claims of Protestants and Catholics. As a teaching tool the Jesuits had developed a pictorial ladder of significant events in Christian history, interpreted through a Catholic lens. The Presbyterian Spaldings retaliated with a Protestant ladder. Both were paper charts, approximately six feet by two feet, marked with lines to indicate the passage of time. Pictures beside the markings indicated key moments in biblical or Christian history. In the Roman Catholic version Protestants had wandered off the path of salvation and now followed a doomed course. On the Spaldings ladder the Catholics were the ones on the wrong road, and at its terminus the Pope fell off into a fiery pit. One can only guess how the Indians themselves interpreted the exclusivity and intolerance of these rival sacred worlds.

Whitman Massacre. By the mid 1840s the Whitmans at Waiilatpu had become the focus of Indian suspicions about Anglo-American intentions in the region. Tensions came to a head on 28 November 1847. The Cayuses attacked the mission and, over a two-day period, killed Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and twelve other whites. News of the massacre spread to the other stations, and eventually the missionaries congregated in the forts while volunteer militia went out in search of the perpetrators. What was dubbed the Cayuse War was actually an unsuccessful attempt by the Cayuses to rally the Nez Perces, Flatheads, and other Plateau peoples to go on the offensive against the white invasion. Not even all the Cayuses were in favor of this solution, so they ceased hostilities, and five men surrendered for their part in the violence. They were hanged by the army in June 1850. Whether it was an intentional comment on the Presbyterian Whitmans or merely circumstance, they chose to die under Catholic unction.

The Legacy. The Columbia Plateau had been a crucible of Indian-white religious relations, and the Whitman massacre served as notice that the millennial visions of both whites and Indians had failed to flower. The Plateau people had pursued the prophecy, but the different man had offered nothing that might trigger the restoration of Indian power, though there was ample evidence that their world might indeed end. As with the panindian movement in the Old Northwest, the disintegration of a shared prophetic vision among the Plateau people also shattered other alliances. An informal defensive coalition broke down as each group grabbed for whatever it could get from subsequent treaties. As a result, by 1855 the Plateau Indians had bargained away 174 million acres for dubious gains and were confined to reserved tracts. Religious factions also consolidated, and the Plateau Indians remained divided in their response to the sacred encounter with Christianity. After the Civil War another prophet arose on the Columbia Plateau (Smoholla) who preached a return to the old ways in order to appease the anger of the Great Chief Above; at the same time both Catholic and Protestant missionaries (including Henry Spalding) returned to the region and found some who welcomed their ministrations. From the Anglo-American perspective the massacre had dashed evangelical expectations for the easy conversion of the continent, sealing the priority of white occupation over the goal of harmonious coexistence. When territorial authorities closed the region to missionaries in 1848, it was an official declaration that the Plateau Indians had lost their favored position in the millennial program and had thus forfeited even the minimal protection of Christianization.


Clifford Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon, 2 volumes (Glendale, Cal: Arthur Clark, 1973);

Robert J. Loewenberg, Equality on the Oregon Frontier: Jason Lee and the Methodist Mission, 1834-43 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976);

Christopher Miller, Prophetic Worlds: Indians and Whites on the Columbia Plateau (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985);

Robert Ruby and John Brown, Dreamer-Prophets of the Columbia Plateau: Smohalla and Skolaskin (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989).

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Spreading the Faith: The “Macedonian Cry” from the Columbia Plateau

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