Efforts to Reach the American Indians in the Early Days of America
There are different opinions on the relationship of the early settlers of America and the Indians who lived here when they arrived. One author writes, “Even if Americans have idealized and romanticized the Pilgrims and their struggles in a strange new land, that first flush of goodwill between the settlers and Native Americans was short-lived. History paints a much more sordid and brutal reality for the First Nations people and their relationships with those who came a few short years later on the heels of the Pilgrims…It is well known that there were two basic streams of immigrants to America: One came for essentially religious reasons, the other for financial gain. One group represented the best of people who, for the most part, came as ambassadors of Jesus Christ, while the other came seeking wealth, riches and fame….From the very beginning, misunderstanding, lack of respect and eventually hatred toward Native Americans were evident among the immigrants; and these attitudes were passed down to each progressive generation of European settlers in the colonies.” (One Church Many Tribes, p. 41) The above was written by a Native American Christian and reflects the outlook from a Native American perspective.
The early settlers in America, especially those who were committed Christians, did not come to America to harm the Indians. On the contrary, they saw the Indian population as a mission field. This does not mean that they always carried out this ideal purpose as they had intended nor that all the settlers were of like mind on this. The early settlers were not missiologists and did not always see the good things in the Indian culture. Many times they sought to turn the Indians into good English Christians teaching them the English culture rather than appreciating the good things in their culture. Mistakes were made in this regard. On the other hand the Indians many times were hostile to attempts to reach them with the gospel. Many resisted the efforts of the early settlers to reach them with Christianity. Yet, the early immigrants to this new land had a noble purpose in regard to the Indians as reflected in their charters and documents.
Ruth A. Tucker writes in her book From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, “From the very beginning of English exploration of the new world there was a strong impulse to win the native population to Christianity. Writings of navigators, trading companies, and government magistrates indicate a calculated missionary zeal. Christianizing the natives became a powerful rationale for colonialism, and colonial charters emphasized Indian evangelism. The Virginia charter of 1606 opens with the king’s blessing on the colonists ‘in propagating the Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance.’ The Massachusetts Bay charter pledged to ‘win and incite the natives of the country to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God and Savior of mankind, and the Christian faith.’ And the seal of the colony testified to this need; its emblem was a figure of an Indian crying out ‘Come over and help us.’ The charter of Connecticut asserted that ‘evangelization’ was the ‘only and principal end’ for the colony’s establishment. Likewise Pennsylvania and other colonies were founded with the declared purpose of converting the Indians.” (p. 84) Concerning the seal of the colonists of Massachusetts Bay, Iain Murray in quoting Nehemiah Adams writes, “This device on the seal of their colony published to the world the fact that they regarded themselves as foreign missionaries to North America. This was also the case with their brethren of the Plymouth Colony who arrived eight years before.” (p. 93 – Puritan Hope) Edward Winslow, one of the Pilgrims, wrote that “the spiritual condition of the savage is itself an argument for immigration. Every Christian has a duty…to spread the true religion among the Infidels, and to win many thousands of wandering sheep unto Christ’s fold.” ( p. 185 - Biography of John Eliot by Neville B. Cryer) Cryer goes on to write, “Other early New England historians and diarists write in this vein: ‘Those men might as well be dead who lived in England for themselves alone and sit still with their talent in their napkin when that could be of service both to God and to their country by becoming colonists and using every effort to convert the heathen.” (p. 185).
We know that one of the purposes of the Pilgrims in coming to America was to spread the Christian faith. They wrote in the Mayflower Compact these words, “In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten….having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia…” (America’s God and Country, p. 435) So, certainly a part of their purpose for coming to America was to evangelize and win to Christ the native peoples who were there. That doesn’t mean that they were successful in doing that at least in the generation of the original settlers. However, they lived for the most part in peace with the Indians for the first fifty years. They sought to treat them with respect and were on friendly terms with many of the native population in their area. The Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, “was the first stranger to approach the Pilgrim Fathers as they landed, and who remained such a constant friend of the English settlers there for forty years that he has become known in history as the ‘Protector and Preserver of the Pilgrims’. (P. 185 - Biography of John Eliot by Neville B. Cryer) In those initial years, the Pilgrims were busy trying to survive in a new country and by their presence established a beachhead for the Kingdom of God. More direct evangelism of the Indians would come from the Massachusetts Bay Colony especially in the person of John Eliot, the “Apostle to the Indians.”
Ruth A. Tucker writes concerning John Eliot, “One of the first and probably the greatest of all missionaries to the American Indians was John Eliot, often referred to as the ‘Apostle to the Indians.’ But despite the greatness he achieved as a missionary, Eliot’s primary vocation was his ministry at the Roxbury church. He was a Congregational minister – a colonial New England church father – not a missionary in the strictest sense of the word. Nevertheless, his devotion to the task of bringing Christianity to the Indians makes him one of the great missionary leaders of all history, and many of his methods carry a timeless quality.” (p. 84 – From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya) Eliot learned the Algonquin language so that he could preach the gospel to the Indians of Massachusetts in their own language. In the fall of 1646, Eliot gave his first sermon to a group of nearby Indians. This first encounter was probably through a translator and there was little response. Later that same fall, Eliot with two fellow ministers visited another group of Indians and this time there was some response. Cryer describes what happened there, “The visit lasted three hours and opened, after a cautious welcome by the ‘sachems’, with John Eliot praying for fifteen minutes in English, since, as he also remarks later, he was ‘not so farre acquainted with the Indian language as to express our hearts herein before God to them.’ This was followed by the first sermon, ever preached in an Indian tongue by an Englishman. It lasted, in true Evangelical style, for seventy-five minutes, and, in the words of one of the other ministers present, ‘it was a glorious, affecting spectacle to see a company of perishing, forlorn outcasts, diligently attending to the blessed word of salvation then delivered.’” (p. 202) When the sermon was over the Indians asked several questions which encouraged Eliot and he determined to come again.
Two weeks later, Eliot, two pastors, and a layman returned to this same group of Indians. Ruth Tucker relates what happened, “More curiosity-seeking Indians turned out and the meeting was profitable. Following his opening prayer, Eliot drilled the children in recitation of catechism, and of course the parents learned while they listened. He then preached on the Ten Commandments and on Christ’s love, to which some Indians responded with tears and weeping. Again there were questions that followed – the most difficult of which to answer was, ‘Why has no white man ever told us these things before?’” (p. 86) In the weeks and months to come, several of the Indians were converted and their lives were changed. So, began efforts to reach the Indians of America with the gospel by the early settlers. Though there were weaknesses in these first approaches to reaching the Indians and the good things in their culture were not always appreciated, men like Eliot had a real love for and desire to reach the American Indians with the gospel of Christ. There would be others who would follow him that would also have that same love and desire. We will talk about two of these men in our next two blogs.
Cryer, Neville B. Biography of John Eliot/Five Pioneer Missionaries. The Banner of Truth Trust, London, 1965.
Federer, William J. America's God and Country. Fame Publishing, Inc., 1996.
Twiss, Richard. One Church Many Tribes. Regal Books, Ventura, California, 2000.
Tucker, Ruth. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya. Zondervan Publishing House, 1983.