Native Americans and Christianity

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Devil's in the details

Native Americans and Christianity have a history that dates to the the arrival of the first European explorers. This history is marked by genocide, cultural destruction, domination, and resistance.

Much of the destruction was done for land, politics, and power, but a significant part of it was done for religious reasons (evangelism), as Christians embarked on a world-wide, conversion-by-the-sword "re-education" scheme.

European arrival and encounter with the "Savage"[edit]

After the Renaissance and the expulsion of the Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula, Europeans saw their religion and "advanced culture" as forces destined to bring order from chaos, like their own Christian God did when he created the world.[1] When the Europeans arrived in the "New World", the native inhabitants were strange to them. Initial opinions ranged regarding what to make of the native Americans. While Spanish priest Bartolomé de Las Casas was sympathetic to Native Americans, Spanish scholar Juan Gines de Sepúlveda argued that they might not even be human.

Major reasons offered by Europeans for why native Americans were not human:

  1. They seemed incapable of embracing European notions of reason
  2. Their passions and brutality made them only slightly better than animals (as opposed to the passions and brutality of the Europeans, which were more civilized, or something like that)
  3. They could not master the “Arts of civil Life & Humanity”[2] (as defined, of course, by Europeans)
  4. Their sexuality was "animalistic" (as compared to the plain-old missionary position procreative sex that Christian missionaries held up as an ideal)
  5. They chose to show a little skin, and not cover their bodies like "decent" God-fearing people

Advantages that the Europeans had:

  1. Christianity (i.e. a strong unifying ideology)
  2. Resistance to the diseases they brought with them
  3. Advanced agricultural techniques
  4. Technology
  5. Military might and power
  6. Sheer numbers[3] (the formerly robust native populations were devastated by epidemics that generally preceded the coming of Europeans to a given part of the Americas, killing something like 90% of the population)
  7. More domesticated animals (pigs, cows, and horses are all Old World animals) — this is also related to point 2. if Guns, Germs, and SteelWikipedia is to be believed

Differences in farming[edit]

Natives never enriched the soil with refuse, dung, or any other thing, nor do they plough or dig it as we do in England.
—Thomas Harriot[4]:50-51

The European style of farming was based on Biblical precepts: since God directly commanded man to take dominion over the land, and to till and farm the Earth (Genesis 1:26, Genesis 3:19), Europeans saw land as something to be owned and controlled for their own benefit. Europeans, coming from a place where land was a valuable commodity, found it wasteful to leave land 'undeveloped'.

The majority of the Native American tribes, many of whom were agricultural, had no concept of dominion over the land. It can be easy to lapse into New-Agey pablum or "noble savage" imagery when describing this sort of thing, so perhaps it's best to say that in general, Native Americans understood themselves as a group living in relationship with their environment, not as a population controlling it. They did not, for example, clear large swathes of land to farm, nor did they till the land on a large scale. When they planted, they used small hoes to cut enough for a new seed to be planted. Nevertheless, their corn reached great heights and — though corn is far less nutritious than Eurasian staple crops such as rice and wheat, and therefore cannot support anywhere near the same population density — the "yield (was) so great that little labor (was) needed in comparison with what is necessary in England.”[5] Some groups engaged in slash-and-burn agriculture, which obviously was pretty high impact, but over tightly controlled areas that did not necessitate clearing entire forests.

The overabundance of good land combined with the low impact of the people living on it meant that there were vast amounts of land available for "settlement" by Europeans — if they could only get the locals out of the way. Thus, when an arrangement could not be worked out between Europeans and Native Americans, the natives were often driven off of the land by force. James Knowles argued in 1834 that it was God's plan for America for New Englanders to wipe out the Native Americans, because they would not "obey the great law of God" which "obliged them to become civilized, and to adopt those modes of life which would enable their territory to support the greatest possible number of inhabitants.” Knowles concluded the Americans could achieve this "by saving from ruin the helpless descendants of the savage.”[6] Somewhat hilariously, about 15 years after this the farming economy of New England crashed hard, as the topography, weather, and ridiculously rocky soil make it a generally horrible place for agriculture (seriously, it took over a thousand years just to get corn to grow there), and trains made it possible to transport food over long distances, so almost everyone who could fled south or west; New England is the only place on earth to go from 30% to 70% forest cover in the last 170 years, and that despite chestnut blightWikipedia entirely killing off one native species in the region and and Dutch elm diseaseWikipedia almost entirely killing another.

First contact[edit]

When Christopher Columbus landed in Hispaniola, his interaction with the natives was anything but benign. Incidents of violence, slavery, and disease can all be attributed to Columbus's arrival in the Americas. Columbus and his men kidnapped, raped, stole, and forced the Native Americans to search for gold. With tools such as firearms and disease, Columbus had killed around four million people on San Salvador in four years.[7] The genocide did not stop after this first four million people; they were only the beginning.

While several Europeans and Christians reported some good relations with the natives, such as the Roman Catholics and Anglicans who inhabited Maryland,[8] the vast negative opinion and view of the Native Americans took a larger and stronger hold from both secular and religious groups. Even the famous John Smith had many bad things to say about the Native Americans. While Smith describes their characteristics (brown, strong, agile, cleanly shaven, etc.), he nevertheless calls them all 'savage'. They decorated themselves with barbaric ornaments and tattoos. Their methods of building and living greatly differed from European traditions. But what interested Smith the most about the natives was their form of government and religion. He commented, "there is yet in Virginia no place discovered to bee so Savage in which the Savages have not religion… But their chiefe God they worship is the Divell (Devil)."[9]

Interestingly, some colonists deeply enjoyed the native way of life and fully embraced it. One of the reasons why colonists, who either ran away or refused to be free from capture, was because the Native Americans enjoyed a "most perfect freedom, the ease of living, [and] the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which to often prevail us all."[10] Stories from the Puritans living amongst the natives did not portray them in a positive light. For instance, the letter of Mary Rowlandson, 1676, is a great example that portrays the key differences the Puritans had with the Native Americans than the other settlers. Rowlandson is taken prisoner amongst the local natives and introduced into a hellish world for many weeks. She proclaims her faith got her through the struggle until she was ransomed. She reported the following in her book Soveraignty and Goodness of God (1682), "I may say, that as none knows what it is to fight and pursue such an enemy as this, but they that have fought and pursued them: so none can imagine what it is to be captivated, and enslaved to such atheisticall, proud, wild, cruel, barbarous, brutish (in one word) diabolical creatures as these, the worst of the heathen."[11]

Christian views towards the 'savage'[edit]

Amongst the earliest harshest remarks about the Native Americans came from Christian sects, such as the Puritans, who saw themselves as those who would lead Native Americans on the true path to God.[12] Throughout the 16th century to the American Revolution, the goal of English missionaries was to reduce the Native Americans from savagery to 'civility'.[13] The quickest way to do this was to rid the world of the savage, either by conversion or death. For the Puritan settlers, the entire planet already is their home and property. The Puritans had a strong belief that they were the true followers of God, and the New World was God’s garden given to the Puritans. This can be seen by the words of John Winthrop, 1629:

…the whole earth is the Lord's garden, and he hath given it to the sons of Adam to be tilled and improved by them. Why then should we stand starving here for the places of habitation, (many men spending as much labor and cost to recover or keep sometimes an acre or two of lands as would procure him many hundreds of acres, as good or better, in another place,) and in the mean time suffer whole countries, as profitable for the use of man, to lie waste without any improvement.[14]

In another example, John Winthrop wrote to an English friend about the earlier arrival of the Pilgrims who spread diseases amongst the local Natives:

[t]he natives are neere all dead of the smalle Poxe, so as the Lord hathe cleared our title to what we posses.[15]

The Bible also commands that God's people should “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”[16] With this idea rooted into their beliefs, the Puritans were not hesitant in taking land to sustain them. However, acquiring land was not simple. The Puritans faced opposition from the Native Americans, who already claimed the land as their home. This was among the first and strongest reasons that caused the Puritans to deeply despise the Native Americans. The Puritans viewed any opposition to them in any fashion as a direct opposition to God, thus making the Native Americans minions of Satan himself.[17]

The other reason for the Puritan conception that the Native Americans were evil was simply because they were different in many respects. Virtually every piece of the Native American image inflamed Puritan disgust. Everything from the native culture; their clothing made of the skins of reptiles, birds, and beasts; their ruling system; their women showing their breasts or too much skin; they decorated their flesh with tattoos and body paint; but among the first and most notable signs was the males with the long hair. Long hair, in the eyes of the Puritans, was a sign of pride. Pride was and is the worst of sins, even worse than the original sin. Pride was displayed in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and thus doomed all of humanity, which is why pride is considered the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins. Of course, the Puritans despised anyone who grew their hair long, whether it be the savage Native Americans or other Europeans. Long hair to the Puritans was a 'badge' of those who refused to cover themselves with Christian "humility, sobriety, modesty, [and] shamefastness."[18]

Of course, the Native Americans did not suffer only at the hands of the Puritans, but it was the Puritans' slander that caught a lot of attention. Papers were published in London as tales were spreading across the colonies and amongst the new arrivals. The labels the Puritans gave the Native Americans came to a long list, from calling them beasts and inhuman to ungodly and demonic. The Puritans felt it was their Christian duty to reach out to the lost. Saving a Native American would mean saving a soul from Satan, and destroying a Native American meant destroying one of Satan's minions. Puritans sent missionaries to reach out to the Native Americans. The Puritans were careful not to fall prey to the way of life or thinking of the natives; so far they were willing to cover the sides and windows of their wagons to block their view of the trees so they would not be tempted by paganism and savagism. The continuation of calling the Native Americans demonic had a huge influence on all types of people. Even civil rights activist Roger Williams (who also strove for savage rights and even learned a few of their languages) was revolted by Native Americans in their "hideous worships of creatures and devils."[19]

US presidents[edit]

Not surprisingly, the negative outlook that most whites had towards Native Americans was reflected by their political leaders. On December 6, 1830, in his Second Annual Message, Andrew Jackson said:

Philanthropy could not wish to see this continent restored to the condition in which it was found by our forefathers. What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion.[20]

Separating the civilized world from that of the savage was easier than ridding the world of the savage. In the United States, Canada, and the individual territories, policies were enacted to move many tribes onto reservations, leaving the rich land they had lived on to the Christian settler ready to do his job for God and country. Isolating Native Americans did not remove the fear, hatred, and bigotry towards them. On July 4, 1779, U.S. soldiers toasted to the phrase "Civilization or death to all American Savages."[21]

Converting the 'savage'[edit]

Navajo youth before re-education
till their Priests and Ancients have their throats cut, there is no hope to bring them to conversion.
—John Smith[22]

The Puritans, along with other Christian missionaries, attempted to convert as many natives as possible. However, they faced many obstacles. One option that had always proven successful was simply to threaten to kill those who did not convert.

But when a more peaceful means was needed, then as with any political power shift, the missionaries needed to identify the leaders (the male leaders, as it was rarely acknowledged by missionaries or governments that some tribes had women holding equal power to the men) and work on converting them, then let those leaders convert others. Chiefs, tribal councils, and holy men were a focus for the missionaries, depending on the structure and (often misunderstood) religion of the tribe.

A common practice was to convert the more 'fun' stories of the Bible into picture books, and teach a young child the story so that he would tell it to the people in the native language. If the religious leaders could find any similarity between the individual tribe's religion and Christianity, they would exaggerate that aspect. In Mexico City, where the religion was bloody, and where a god sacrificed his brother, and children were sacrificed to the gods, the stories of Abraham and Jesus were highlighted… especially the very bloody story of Jesus.

Short haircut, a suit. Respectable

There were several other obstacles facing missionaries, notably language. Christian words, based in Judeo-Christian and/or Greco-Roman culture had no direct parallels in many if not most native languages. Sin, Heaven or Hell are obviously nonexistent, but for most hunter-gatherer tribes, neither shepherd nor sheep had any relevance. King, kingdom, prayer, ark, redemption, sacrament, baptism all had to be defined, with some often amusing results.[note 1] And of course, few if any tribes had anything close to monotheism.

For the most part, Native Americans were ambivalent towards the cultural and religious influences of the Europeans. Of course, this angered the European missionaries and discouraged a few. Joseph le Caron, 1624, noted, "for we are not in a country where savages put Christians to death on account of their religion. They leave every one in his own belief."[23] However, attempts to insert European habits into the Natives' lives brought more negative views.

Mission schools[edit]

There is a final, far more tragic means to convert the people. Kidnap the children.

  1. Rechristen them with English Christian names, forbid the use of their own names.
  2. Punish them for speaking their own language, or grab them when they are young enough not to have learned it very well.
  3. Force them to live at the mission school and only visit home 1 or 2 days for Christmas.
  4. Cut their hair, strip them of their clothing and religious artifacts, and denigrate the artifacts as uncivilized, backwards, or "primitive".
  5. Do this all when they are young enough to not fight back.

Native populations were decimated by illness, starvation, and war. But the actual native cultures were more decimated by the mission schools and 'Jesus' more than anything else done to the various Native American peoples.

However, among the White supremacist Christian population, there are many who do not believe they need to be sorry for those countless children who perished under torture, lack of care, hard labour and physical, emotional, and psychological harassment meted out to them at the residential schools. Instead, they believe that the First Nation people would be “grateful” that those children at least died as “Christians” because their “souls have been saved”.[24]


Several aspects of European culture that did influence Native Americans ran counter to the missionaries' hopes. Native Americans drank alcohol (while some groups independently discovered fermentation long before European contact, they did not possess the technology for distillation and had no time to adapt when Europeans introduced them to hard liquor), became false converts, and fought wars (hardly a novel concept to anyone in the Americas, but they were shocked at the tactics colonists used against them and each other). Cotton Mather noted that the Europeans had “very much Injured the Indians… We that should have learn'd them to Pray, have learn'd them to Sin."[25] Alcoholism, especially on reservations, remains a huge problem as a result.

Reservations and God[edit]

Jesuits set up reserves for Native Americans and missionaries. The laws governing these reserves reflected Christian values, and punishments varied from whipping, payment, to even death for crimes of adultery, witchcraft, and worshiping any other deity than the Christian God. However, many Natives did not truly convert and became false Christians to avoid punishment, which only further angered the Europeans. Lesser punishments on the reserves were for the following crimes: powwowing, gaming, fornication, polygamy, mourning with loud noises (such as howling), body-greasing, as well as several others.[26]

Language preservation[edit]

There is a strange post-script to the mission work done by the priests, especially the French Jesuits. Due to their desire to communicate the Word of God to the 'savage', they compiled significant records of the languages that they heard. Today, in the modern world of Native American revitalization movements, at a time when many of the thousands of languages are being lost and Indigenous communities are trying to stop that loss or even regain already extinct languages, the only records they have to relearn their languages are of those Christian priests' notes and translated Bibles. The bitter irony is that the religion that stole their language and culture from them is a critical resource for regaining it.

See also[edit]

  • Pocahontas, a famous early convert to Christianity


  1. In an early Lakota bible that still exists in the Library of Congress, Jesus the Shepard was described as, "Jesus the man who road horses to hunt without killing the deer."


  1. Roy Harvey Pearce, Savagism and Civilization, 1988, pg. 1
  2. Johnson Papers, 5:511
  3. James Axtell, Natives and Newcomers, 149
  4. The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America by James Axtell (1994) Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195029046.
  5. Thomas Harriot, A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia [1588] as quoted by James Axtell, Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America (2000) Oxford University Press. ISBN 019513771X. page 151.
  6. James Knowles, Memoir of Roger Williams (Boston, 1834) pages 95 and 98, as quoted by Roy Pearce in Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (1988) University of California Press. ISBN 0520062272. page 63.
  7. Roy Cook, Columbus Day: American Holocaust and Slave Trader.
  8. Roy Pearce, Savagism and Civilization, pg. 16
  9. Travels and Works of Captain John Smith, ed. Arber and Bradley I, 65-84
  10. J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer [London, 1782] (London: Everyman's Library, 1912), 215
  11. Soveraignty and Goodness of God (1682), reprinted in 1975 as A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, ibid, p. 116.
  12. Roy Pearce, Savagism and Civilization, pg. 19
  13. James Axtell, Natives and Newcomers, 148
  14. "General Considerations", in Young, Chronicles of the First Planters, p. 272
  15. Winthrop to Sir Nathaniel Rich, May 22, 1634, Winthrop Papers, III (Massachusetts Historical Society, 1943), 167.
  16. Genesis 1:28
  17. Morison, The Founding of Harvard College, p. 415
  18. Robert G. Pope, ed, The Notebook of the Reverend John Fiske, 1644-1675, Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 47 as used in James Axtell, Natives and Newcomers, 157
  19. The Bloody Tenant Yet More Bloddy [165], Publications of the Narragonsett Club, Ser. 1, IV (1870), p. 85
  20. J. D. Richardson, ed. A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1897, II, 520-21
  21. The banquet is reported in the journal of Major James Norris, Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan (Auburn, N.Y., 1887), pp. 225-26 quoted by Roy Peace, Savagism an Civilization, pg. 55.
  22. Works, 1601-1631, ed Edward Arber (Birmingham, Eng., 1884), 564 as used by James Axtell, Natives and Newcomers, pg. 167.
  23. Le Clercq, First Establishment of the Faith, 1:221-222 as quoted by James Axtell, Natives and Newcomers, 169
  24. ‘You natives, be grateful that your children died as Christians, not pagans’: American Conservative magazine tells indigenous people in Canada
  25. Cotton Mather, The Way to Prosperity, (Boston, 1690), pg. 27 as used in James Axtell, Natives and Newcomers, 164.
  26. James Axtell, Natives and Newcomers, pg. 160.