Monday, December 28, 2009

The Role of the Lost Tribes Theory in Promoting Missions

Right: the Pilgrims make a treaty with Massasoit of the Wampanoags.

As you may recall, many whites and at least some Indians once believed that Algonkian Indians were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Something that James De Jong's As the Waters Cover the Sea does well is to explain what that "lost tribes theory" did for missions to those Indians. One might say that it motivated whites to support mission work. Many believed that the conversion of Native Americans would lead to the Chilead, or Millennium (a one-thousand-year period in which Christ would reign over a peaceful earth).

"...many leading Puritans in England and America wrote and endorsed missionary propaganda in the 1640's and 1650's. Their support was predicated on the belief that through missions, the glorious gospel day would dawn. It should be noted that this faith was based on many Old and New Testament passages of hope and not on a few select verses" De Jong, page 55.
Those verses included Psalm 72:8, Isaiah 49:6, Matthew 24:14, Mark 16:15, and Revelations 21:21.

However, as you may recall, things went downhill with King Philip's War in 1676. By that time, the lost tribes theory was not as widely believed. De Jong says (page 64) that scholars had a variety of ideas about the origin of the American Indians at that time.

I know of at least one person who believes in the Lost Tribes Theory to this very day.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Peak of Christianity Among Indians in New England

In an article posted to the website of The New Yorker magazine, Jill Lepore named the "Massachusetts Psalter" (see its title page above) as one of "The Top Ten Books of 1709." Lepore explains that the psalter is a "book of psalms, translated into Algonquian, and set into type by a Nipmuck Indian named James Printer."

Daniel Gookin was a missionary in the 1600's. According to his reports, there were over 1400 "praying Indians" on Martha's Vineyard and another 1100 Native Christians in Massachusetts Bay in 1674 (Historical Collections of Indians in New England, 1792, cited on page 46 of De Jong's As the Waters Cover the Sea).

Gookin somehow estimated a total of 3600 Christian Indians in Massachusetts at that time. However, historian Alden Vaughan reviewed a number of documents, including Gookin's, and estimated that 2500 was a more accurate number. Furthermore, according to Vaughan, one out of every five Indians in New England in 1674 was a Christian.

De Jong explains why Algonkian Christianity never reached higher numbers than that:

Early in the summer of 1675, for motives still being debated by historians, the Wampanoag sachem known as King Philip and his allies from three other Indian tribes attacked the colonists and their Indian allies. In a savage, year-long war in which an estimated five thousand Indians and ten percent of colonial forces were killed. Over thirty years of mission work was damaged irreparably..... Hundreds of Christian Indians were killed in the war and countless others died from hunger and exposure suffered on Deer Island in Boston Bay, onto which they had been herded by apprehensive colonists. Only four of the fourteen towns survived the conflict (pages 46-47).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: "Come Over and Help Us"

As James De Jong and other authors have observed, the official seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (see above) depicted an Indian who was saying "come over and help us." I will not bother to repeat what others have observed that that statement may represent in terms of ethnocentricity. Instead, I want to point out, as De Jong does (on page 32 of As the Waters Cover the Sea), that "come over and help us" is a Biblically inspired statement. It comes from Acts 16:9:

And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: There stood a man of Macedonia and prayed him, saying 'Come over to Macedonia and help us.'
The point is not whether or not the American Indians ever asked for missionaries, instead, the point is that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was incorporated under the pretense of helping the native Algonkian-speaking people, or at least it was founded under the pretense of converting those natives to the Christian religion.

Although there were exceptions (notably John Eliot's work and the towns of "praying Indians"), the tone that was set in colonial New England was more about improving the whites' standard of living than about mission work. Here's what Patrick Frazier said about this topic:

Converting the American natives to Christianity had ostensibly been the principal aim of the Massachusetts Bay settlement, according to the charter of 1628. A century later some believed that this aim had been forgotten. Solomon Stoddard, a respected clergyman, suggested in 1723 that recent epidemics, Indian wars, and Indian alliances with the French might be signs of God's anger with the English for failing to spread the gospel among the natives (The Mohicans of Stockbridge, page 18).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

James De Jong's "As the Waters Cover the Sea"

One aspect of Algonkian church history that we've largely neglected so far is called missiology. Missiology is the study of church missions. I consider missiology to be a problematic area of study for two reasons: 1)things that were written about Christian missions in early America were almost always written by whites who had certain biases or prejudices and 2)on the other hand, the current conventional wisdom (not discouraged by academic historians) is to dismiss the early American missionaries as ethnocentric if not downright pernicious.

Unfortunately, there were pernicious missionaries, but let us not forget that many of the explorers, traders, and government officials were also pernicious. White culture as a whole, not the Christian church specifically, is what American Indian nations crumbled under. And if you've been reading this blog regularly, you're probably aware that missionaries did do things for Indians that benefited them in this world.

Fortunately I've been able to find an excellent book which addresses some aspects of early American missiology, As the Waters Cover the Sea: Millenial Expectations in the Rise of Anglo-American Missions, 1640-1810, by James De Jong. As the title suggests, the book is about how the world view of American whites motivated their mission work. In one of my earliest posts, I briefly discussed millenialism and its role in the first Algonkian missions. De Jong's book takes that into much greater depth and we'll consider it thoroughly in the coming posts.

Reformation Heritage Books has this to say about As the Waters Cover the Sea:

James De Jong’s dissertation sure-footedly guides us through the complex relation of millennial expectations and Anglo-American missiology from the Puritan age to the beginning of the nineteenth century. He shows how millennial hopes varied throughout this period from an Adventist type of premillennialism to a low-keyed postmillennialism. Nevertheless, De Jong concludes that these anticipations often balance themselves out somewhere between other-worldly and secularized hopes and between the temporal and eternal aspects of salvation. This balance enabled believers to engage in mission work confidently yet realistically, setting a viable pattern for us to follow today as we continue to look to Christ in hope, drawing our vision of humanity and missiology from His word.