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Christianity And American Indians

The motivation to discover and develop the New World derived from several sources, political and economic as well as religious. When in June 1523 Charles V instructed Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon regarding his mission to the New World, he stated that “the chief motive you are to bear and hold in this affair” was the conversion of the Floridian Indians. Although Vasquez de Ayllon was not successful, by 1634 Florida had forty-four missions conducted by thirty-five Franciscans, and the converts from the Indian population numbered more than 25,000. In the Far West, much the same development occurred. In New Mexico in 1630, the number of Christian Indians numbered more than 35,000. In 1609, the governor and councillors of Virginia, an Anglican colony, issued a proclamation that “the principal and Maine Endes . . . were first to preach and baptize into Christian Religion, and by propagation of the Gospell, to recover . . . a number of poore and miserable soules.”

The Puritans likewise sought to extend their theocratic kingdom to the Indians. The charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony included the Macedonian call of Acts 16:9 as a description of the spiritual plight of the Indians. But after direct contact with the Indians and especially after the Pequot War of 1637, the Puritan attitude was one of mixed pity and hatred. The Puritans were fascinated by the natives and speculated as to their origins. Some held they were a cursed race and were therefore prime subjects for slaves. Many were sold into bondage. Thomas, John, and Experience Mayhew did carry on successful work among the Indians of Martha's Vineyard; Experience translated the Psalms and the gospel of John into the Indian language and published a book, Indian Converts (1727). John Eliot* translated the Bible and published a Catechism (1653), the first book to be printed in the Indian language. Through the influence of Eliot and Thomas Shepard, the Long Parliament established the “Society for the Propagation of the Gospell in New England” in 1649. Periodic uprisings constantly set back the progress of these missions, and few Indians were able to gain the fame of Pocahontas.

But preaching and churches were not the only attempts to improve the state of the natives. In 1618 in Virginia, separate schools, even a college, had been established to educate the Indians. Rev. Eleazer Wheelock in the 1750s organized Moor's Indian Charity School (now Dartmouth College) in Lebanon, Connecticut, to train Indians to minister to their own people. Throughout the colonial period the Indians were caught in the cross-fire of either their own conflicts with warring tribes or the struggles for power in the New World among the Spanish, French, and British. With the westward expansion the Indians were gradually moved to government-established reservations, and during the late nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, the major American denominations as well as many independent missionary agencies have attempted not only to convert the Indians to the Christian faith but to help them adjust to the modern world. One peculiar fact about the Indians always stimulated discussion: whence did they come? Joseph Smith in his Book of Mormon identified them with the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.”

See W. Howitt, Colonization and Christianity: A Popular History of the Treatment of the Natives (n.d.); A.T. Vaughn, New England Frontier: Indians and Puritans, 1620-1675 (1965).