- Creating Christian Indians: Native Clergy in the Presbyterian Church
Until recently most historians who have examined encounters between Christian missionaries and those among whom they labor have presented their stories in one-dimensional terms. Depending on the commentator's perspective, the missionary "actor" either uplifts or undermines the target population, who, whether passive beneficiary or innocent victim, is always the "object" of the missionary's effort. Bonnie Sue Lewis, assistant professor in Dubuque (Presbyterian) Theological Seminary, challenges this perspective in Creating Christian Indians: Native Clergy in the Presbyterian Church. Lewis applies the concept of "Indian agency" and an ethno-historical perspective to her scrutiny of the correspondence of approximately sixty Nez Perce and Dakotas who became ordained Presbyterian ministers between c. 1865 and 1935. These native clergy played a major role in establishing what Lewis's mentor, Richard White, calls a "middle ground." In this case, the product of this complex, two-way process of selective acculturation was "Indian Presbyterianism... a unique blend of cultures, beliefs, and institutions both Native and Christian" that, Lewis asserts, preserved native institutions and expanded native influence during a time of rapid change and cultural trauma for Indians.
While Lewis's primary focus is on native clergy, she emphasizes that "a new breed of missionary" enhanced the process she describes. Lewis devotes particular attention to the sisters Sue and Kate McBeth, who served long tenures among the Nez Perce, and John Williamson, a second-generation missionary to the Dakotas. The McBeth's marginal status as women in a male-dominated church made them particularly mindful of the difficulties Indians faced in a white-dominated society, while Williamson's unique experiences of being raised among the Dakotas won for him a degree of Indian trust that few Indian missionaries achieved. Lewis describes the relationships of these long-term missionaries with the Nez Perce and Dakotas as "enduring, often endearing, [but] [End Page 579] not without tensions." Most importantly, she emphasizes, both the McBeth's and Williamson respected Indians' desire to have "their own churches with their own Native pastors and elders" and dedicated their careers to that goal.
Ordained native clergy, such as John Renville and John Eastman of the Dakotas and the Nez Perce James Hayes are the central figures in Lewis's account. In Christianity they found a "universal message of hope" that emphasized such traditional native values as kinship, hospitality, and spirituality. Knowledge of their own languages, customs, and cultural values enabled these native churchmen "to present the Christian message in terms that made sense to other Indians" and win far more converts than even the most enduring and flexible white missionaries. Serving as cultural broker, however, was rarely easy. Renville, for example, had "a foot in two worlds" but at times "could find a home in neither." His dilemma, Lewis concludes, was "not in deciding who he was... but in having to convince others [whites and Indians] of it."
Lewis's unorthodox insights make this a valuable book for students of Native American and American religious history but also for those who are seeking to better understand the complex dynamics of cultural accommodation and persistence that have brought American society to its present pluralist juncture. Perhaps most significantly Lewis challenges scholars and churchmen to consider a new standard for assessing the effectiveness of mission work. "Where Indians remained Indians and yet became Christian," Lewis provocatively asserts, "missionary efforts succeeded."