Today’s post is an exercise engaged with the writing process I am following this semester based on a campus writing group and Wendy Laura Belcher’s workbook on creating journal articles. Submission of the full-length version of this paper is one of my projects for the semester. Below is a draft of an abstract based on this paper (originally presented at the American Society for Church History conference in January 2014) . Writing and revising the abstract was an exercise for this week. What I am posting is abstract 8.0, and I’m certain it needs some additional revision but hopefully readers can get the gist of the paper from this piece.
“‘Listen to the words of your Father above.’ Ministering the Natives of Nebraska in the early 19th Century”
Christian missionary efforts among Native Americans have both a long history and historiography. Christian priests, ministers, and missionaries have attempted to convert native people in North America to Christianity for centuries and during the last 50 years or so, historians have increasingly attempted to understand the relationship between such missionary efforts and their impact on native life. Nearly fifty years ago, Robert Berkhofer demonstrated that missionaries had a tremendous impact on native life and culture, arguably because the main goal of missionaries was to alter that very life and culture. Thirty years later, pastor and historian George Tinker took this view to an extremely harsh interpretation, stating that missionaries were nothing less than partners in “cultural genocide.”
For native people as a whole, one must wonder, what was the appeal of Christianity or American civilization at all? How might access to this new faith and/or new products enhance people’s lives in any way? Would, as historian Willard Rollings describes, “individualism” hold a torch of progress aloft for Native Americans and how might one define “progress” in the first place? In the last thirty-five years, historians Michael Coleman, James Ronda, and James Axtell have all called for fresh examinations of mission history – the former encouraging critical case studies of individual missions and missionary societies. The latter two, along with Tinker, see missions as culturally revolutionary and seek to focus attention on native responses to such intrusions. This study seeks to ask questions about the experience of specific missionaries in the period of the Early Republic and whether these particular missionary experiences fit the model of “cultural genocide” as enunciated by Tinker.
Around 1819 at Fort Atkinson, one of the first Christian sermons was delivered in what would become the territory, and later state of Nebraska. By the 1830s, missionaries such as Baptist Moses Merrill, and Presbyterian Samuel Allis were preaching their message among the Otoe-Missourias, Omahas, and Pawnees. In preparation for his journey, Merrill spoke of his desire to have the Lord’s help in preparing for service, “among these benighted Indians. May we be the honored instruments of turning many from darkness to light.”
Allis arrived in Bellevue after the Merrill family did in 1834 and then moved farther west and served as missionary to the Pawnees until 1845. After 1845, Allis built and briefly ran a boarding school for natives before returning to the Bellevue area in 1851. Also in the 1830s, the Belgian Catholic priest Father Pierre-Jean De Smet conducted services and baptisms in the area, chiefly among fur traders, those of French descent, and certain natives who had taken on the Catholic faith.
Men like Merrill, Allis, and De Smet thrust themselves into largely ‘foreign’ environments within the boundaries of property owned by the United States but contested by various native people. These frontier missions were both probes into native space and extensions of white American culture that differed from trading posts and military encampments. The missions, and those who ran them, sought to both build relations with native people and, in most instances, challenged and changed native culture. To that end, Allis went so far as to suggest that missionaries who committed to marrying into native tribes would have greater success. Despite this somewhat ‘radical’ thought, Allis also subscribed to at least one traditional approach. Conversion for natives was more likely to be successful once people like the Pawnees shed aspects of their lifestyles and came to mimic white farmers.
Other missionaries believed that conversion had to come first in order to lead natives to civilization. Ultimately, disagreements over conversion efforts (style, sect, speed, etc.) led to debates and discussion as to the purpose and intent of white men such as Allis living among the Pawnees and other native people. In many ways, debates between some of the Christian missionaries and other Americans were more lively than any discussion between native people and missionaries in general.
This is not to suggest that there was not some level of respect for native culture. Allis in particular was an admirer of the Pawnees and their ways of life, even suggesting that native people like the Pawnees had a lot more positive to be said about them then the white settlers who displaced them. Allis pointed out after two winters and one summer among the Pawnees that he had learned aspects of their language and culture in his time living among these native people, but also much about their character as fellow human beings.
Allis and Merrill can be described as both sympathetic to their native neighbors and conversion targets, and still judging from their own world view. My reading of the experience of these two particular missionaries in Nebraska does not reveal a concerted effort at “cultural genocide” as Tinker might conclude. To successfully judge the Pawnees, Otoe-Missourias, and New England missionaries by their own standards, as should be done according to James Axtell, is difficult because we are examining a clash of two societies. This study focuses on the perspective of Allis and Merrill – the views of Otoe-Missourias and Pawnees living near the missionaries are only presented through the lens of their American neighbors. Here is where Tinker has a point – Allis and Merrill may have been well-intentioned, but their actions still, in the end, could be viewed as causing harm and perhaps, due to conversion efforts and cultural interchange, limit our ability to achieve Axtell’s vision of interpreting native society by its own standards.
I would like to thank a number of people who have aided this project – panel chair Lindford F., panelists Joshua R., Brian F., and the audience at the ASCH session who all provided valuable resources and feedback to the original paper; writing group members Chalet S., Brian C., Cindy G., and Stephanie G. who all pointed out that the “lede” was buried! Thanks to writing group members Hillary S. and Joe C. as well for help with another matter on the native imagery project!