The Protestant Mission to the Oregon Territory VII
Bill Long 7/29/06
Before listing my last three "discussion points" that enable us to enter the world of the 1833 article in the Christian Advocate, I relate this brief personal story.
I taught religion & humanities at Reed College in Portland, OR from 1982-88. During those six years, my mind was so afflicted with so many ambitions, so much emotion and energy, that I was unable to do a very good job, I fear, at anything. One thing I did during that time was to apply for a grant from the Oregon Committee for the Humanities to do a "research project" of some kind precisely on the topic I am writing about now. I wanted to trace the way that the visit of the Four Natives in 1831 to St. Louis led to the development of the Protestant and Catholic missions to the West, showing not only how individuals and mission boards responded to the "call," but how disillusionment gradually overtook the missionaries after they had been in the field for a while. The project did not receive funding. It was not until 2005 that a book appeared (Albert Furtwanglers' Bringing Indians to the Book) that I felt that someone began to broach the constellation of issues I proposed nearly 20 years ago. Not the first time this happened.
Returning now to the discussion themes.
8. Walker has General William Clark narrate to the inquiring Indians the basics of Christian doctrine. Is this believable? Furtwangler dismisses it quickly, but I am not so quick to agree. After all, many of the first generation of missionaries to the Indians were not trained clergy. Marcus Whitman was a doctor, for example. A lifetime of training in the basics of Christian faith, which you could hear exposited for free at many churches, would equip intelligent people to be able to "tell the story." Even though this might be true, the story of Clark's readiness to narrate all the principal points of the Gospel to the Indians stretches credulity.
9. The last two points take us back to Disoway's letter, which "frames" the Walker letter. I would first point out the anthropological/scholarly material that Disoway adds to the discussion. His information on making heads flat is fascinating. Furtwangler skillfully shows how Disoway has conflated two accounts different groups of "Flat-Head" people in order to create a people who really didn't exist. That, however, is one of the joys of studying history or anthropology--you run into all kinds of imaginary accounts that try to pass for "genuine" descriptions.
10. Let's conclude with Disoway's exhortation to his fellow Christians to take up the cause. The passage is quite stirring, and it led to immediate action. First there is the notion that the natives dwell in darkness because no one has brought them knowledge of God. "But no apostle of Christ has yet had the courage to penetrate into their moral darkness." But, surprisingly enough, these Natives Americans have evinced an interest in the Gospel.
"They are not ignorant of the immortality of their souls, and speak of some future delicious island or country where departed spirits rest. May we not indulge the hope that the day is not far distant when the missionaries will penetrate into these wilds where the Sabbath bell has never yet tolled since the world began? There is not, perhaps, west of the Rocky mountains, any portion of the Indians that presents at this moment a spectable so full in interest to the contemplative mind as the Flat-head tribe."
The portrait of the waiting and eager savages is almost "lifted" from the great missionary hymn, written the decade previously by Reginald Heber, Bishop of Calcutta. In that hymn, "From Greenland's Icy Mountains," we have a picture of natives who are calling on the White Man to deliver him "from error's chain." Isn't that what the Flat-Heads are doing, according to Disoway? Then, finally, what is the Church to do? It can't just "sit there." It must respond.
"Let the Church awake from her slumbers, and go forth in her strength to the salvation of these wandering sons of our native forests. We are citizens of this vast universe, and our life embraces not merely a moment, but eternity itself. Thus exalted, what can be more worthy of our high destination than to befriend our species and those efforts that they are making to release immortal spirits from the chains of error and superstition and to bring them to the knowledge of the true God."
Is that the way we still are today? Does that characterize our life as Americans and not just the motivations of religious people? Is the "missionary impulse" so deeply wedded to the nature of being American that it will always be part of our nature? In order to have a missionary movement must we have, prior to the notion of call, a concept of "savage" or "benighted person," whom we are trying to liberate from error's chains. What is the cost to us of making this mental picture of the world?
All of these thoughts and questions emerge from a patient reading of this article in the March 1, 1833 edition of the Christian Advocate. This is the way history should be taught--with primary texts, with attention to the real life issues of people, with attention, too, to the larger issues of national policy and religious interest that suffuse its pages. No textbook will tell you about this stuff. Is that modern education--a system that tries to keep you away from life? I don't know, but I will focus on the primary texts...
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long