After teaching a course in Native American Film at Whitworth University, I got to thinking about the clash between Christianity and indigenous forms of spirituality. I was raised to respect both spiritual systems, and still I am always saddened by the harsh realities of our history.
This post explores one aspect of that reality.
The spirituality of the North American Indian people has posed a theological obstacle for Christians ever since the two cultures met in the early 1600s. Christians arrived on our shores armed with advanced weaponry and a great commission to “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost…” (Matthew 28:19). Inspired by this charge, the Puritans sought to establish a Christian nation on the American continent based on their perception of God’s law, but contrary to popular mythology, the Puritans had no intention of establishing religious freedom. As soon as the Puritans gained military independence, they quickly forgot the generosity of the tribes that once saved them from starvation at New Plymouth. They began an aggressive campaign to deprive the Indian people of their lands and to force them to convert to Christianity.
In 1653, John Eliot published a religious tract entitled Tears of Repentance: a Further Narrative of the Progress of the Gospel Amongst the Indians in New England. Under this title, Eliot compiled various “confessions” made by the Indian people of the Massachusetts colonies. Each confession was translated into English, and despite the diversity of confessors, each statement contained the same basic information. The following words offer a sample of their confessions:
William of Sudbury
His Indian Name is
The Confession which he made on the fast day before the great Assembly was as followeth.
“Before I prayed to God I committed all sins; and serving many gods. I much despised praying unto God, for I beleeved the Devil, and he did dayly teach me to sin…
“[After] hearing that Cutshamoquin prayed, then I thought I will pray also: a year after … I went to Mr. Browns house and told him I will pray to God as long as I live; he said, I doubt of it, and bid me cut off my hair; and I did so presently … then I began to beleeve that Christ dyed for us, for sin; and I saw my heart very full of sin … Sometime I am angry with myself, for my many Evil thoughts in my heart, and to this day I want grace, and cannot confess, because I have been so great a sinner…” (Eliot, 1653).
Those Indians who converted were spared the immediate destruction of life and property. Most were removed to so-called “praying towns” where Indian converts hoped to live in peaceful co-existence with the English. However, not even a genuine religious conversion would protect the converts from the ravages of Puritan aggression. During King Phillip’s War, most of the praying towns were burned and their inhabitants left to starve. Perhaps on a deeper level, the English understood that the confessions they helped to contrive were little more than statements of convenience from a people desperate to survive. If they had truly believed in the power of their own faith, perhaps they would not have been so quick to condemn their own Indian converts.
The English were not entirely motivated by a redeeming faith, but rather by a weighty sense of entitlement and self-importance. In his introduction to Tears of Repentance, Eliot declared: “These Indians (the better and wiser sort of them) have for some years inquired after Church-Estate, Baptism, and the rest of the Ordinances of God, in the observation whereof they see the Godly English to walk.” (Eliot, 1653). These same “Godly English” would ultimately commit all manner of murder, coveting, and theft against the Indian people. Their religion was not necessarily bad, but the manner in which they promoted their religion was unthinkable.
Looking back across history, how many people have betrayed their own deepest values the moment they sought to force those values upon another?
More than 400 years later, the American people have yet to reconcile themselves to the stark brutality surrounding the establishment of this nation. For me, it's not about blame. An honest assessment of our true history will go a long ways toward bringing genuine cultural healing and equality.