Native American Christianities

Michael D. McNally takes an in depth look at a largely unexplored subject - Native American Christianity.

BY: Michael D. McNally


From "The Practices of Native American Christianities" by Michael D. McNally published in AMERICAN CHRISTIANITIES: A HISTORY OF DOMINANCE AND DIVERSITY edited by Catherine A. Brekus and W. Clark Gilpin. Copyright © 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

The Practices of Native American Christianities

Only recently have scholars begun to traverse the disciplinary boundaries that have prevented their fuller apprehension of the wide range and complex texture of the practices and theologies of Native American Christians. Specialists of indigenous religions largely have left the story of Native Christianity to missions historians. Historians of missions, in turn, lacking the linguistic and ethnographic training to otherwise interpret the subtleties, have understood Native Christianity largely as the straightforward product of missionary intentions and efforts. But this has begun to change. Informed by a number of important recent studies, I aim in this essay to examine whatNative communities have variously done with the Christianity presented by missionaries. How they improvised locally on the missionary tradition such that the Christian tradition thus engaged bears consideration not simply as a subset of missions history or church history but as a Native American religious tradition among other Native American religions.

In this regard, this volume’s attention to Native American Christians adds not only important cases to enlarge American Christianity’s larger narrative but refines it by questioning assumptions common to the history of Christianity and the history of “religion” generally. We must consider the distinctive contours of indigenous religious practices— specifically the relationship between practice and belief, between religion and culture, between sacred and profane— for the Native Christianities that emerged from missionary encounters often drew on these indigenous religious idioms in ways that defy conventional analytic frameworks of conversion and acculturation.

From the point of view of many Native people and no small number of professional historians and anthropologists, the story of Native American Christianity, associated as it must be with conquest, colonialism, and cultural assimilation, has been set in a context of tragedy. It is as true of FrancisJennings’s The Invasion of America: Missionaries, Indians, and the Cant of Conquest as it is of Osage scholar George Tinker’s Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide.1 Even as it is important to lay claim to the lived experience of those tragedies and the profound losses— human, linguistic, and cultural— that can be tied to missionary encounters and their legacy of assimilation policy, it is also important to examine just what Native peoples, with considerable resolve and resourcefulness, have made of the missionaries’ message. In this, the story of Native American Christians cannot content itself with a consideration of what Christian missionaries, along with other forces of colonialism, tragically did to Native people, but it must examine what Native Christians were able to do, albeit often within tight confines of colonialism, with that Christian tradition.

Continued on page 2: The Varieties of Native American Christian Practice »

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