Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Housatonics Accept a Mission

The photo below was taken at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, CT.
The Mohicans were once a mighty Native nation inhabiting the Muhhecunnituk Valley, or what we now call the Hudson River Valley. The coming of Europeans changed things, of course. Not only was there death from European diseases that Indians had no immunity over, but there was also a dependence upon goods obtained from white traders, and, another aspect of the fur trade: the problems associated with firewater, especially rum. Furthermore, as European powers established themselves and made alliances with Native tribes, there was greater competition between those nations or tribes. Wars against the Mohawks forced the Mohicans to retreat from the western side of the Hudson and some of them moved farther eastward into the Housatonic River Valley in what is now western Massachusetts.

In 1734, there were two Mohican villages on the Housatonic. Konkapot was the leader of four or five families that made up the village of Wnahktukuk, and Umpachenee was the leader of a village roughly the same size called Skatekook. The two men and their interpreter, Joachim Van Valkenberg, met two ministers in Springfield, Massachusetts who were commissioners representing the New England Company, a philanthropic society based in London. They conferred the British military titles of Captain and Lieutenant upon the two Housatonics and proposed that they accept a Christian mission. The two Indians explained that such a decision must be made in council.

Rev. Stephen Williams, one of the commissioners the two chiefs had met in Springfield, and Rev. Nehemiah Bull took the trouble to travel to the Housatonic where the Indians from the two villages were gathered together. Religious matters were discussed and the proposal for a Christian presence was made again. The response to the ministers was that they would have their answer in four days.

And so, over a four-day period in July of 1734, the Housatonic Mohicans held a council to decide whether or not to accept the proposed mission. The council, of course, was conducted in the Mohican language, so minutes or notes of the council were not recorded. However, what appears to be the winning argument, was later reported to Stephen Williams and the interpretation of that statement made it into the preface of a sermon that was preached at John Sergeant's ordination.

[S]ince my remembrance there were Ten Indians, where there is now One: But the Christians greatly increase and multiply and spread out over the Land; Let us therefore leave our former courses and become Christians.
It sounds like a decision based more on economics than religion.

So are my critics correct in saying that Indian converts never actually bought into Christianity, that instead they just cooperated with missionaries who supplied them with material things? No, of course not. In those days, if a farmer's livestock and crops were doing well, he would give credit to God for blessing him and his family with worldly success. So the Indians were thinking in the same vein when they lamented that their religion no longer provided powerful enough medicine to keep them healthy and prosperous.

Anyway, what you have read is the local politics behind the Housatonics' decision to accept a mission. That "foot in the door" opened the way to a later council of the leaders of the entire Mohican nation and initiated the contact with Christianity that led to individual conversions.

*The Mohicans of Stockbridge by Patrick Frazier.
*The Mohican World,
by Shirley Dunn.
*Gospel Ministers Must be Fit for the Master's Use, a Sermon preached by Nathaniel Appleton on August 31, 1735.

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