Native American Christianities

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

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.

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