Missionaries and Love:
There were many missionaries of many denominations who brought the Gospel to American Indians in the United States and Canada. Besides Anglicans, there were Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Moravians, Presybterians, and Baptists. They shared a similar interpretation of the compelling call of the Great Commission; though some believed that conversion could occur in the moment, others thought that it required a long drawn out process. These missionaries were not just promulgators of Christianity, but agents of cultural transmission as well. They brought a new way of life. Some of their listeners willingly embraced the new ideas, others did not. The missionaries were part of a larger social, political, intellectual, and economic movement of society that, in the end, overwhelmed the American Indians. Often what is talked about today is the end product, the result, which is not a very pretty story. We learn of broken promises, lands taken away from tribal peoples, and cultural genocide in government-run schools intent on driving traditional customs and ideas out of the minds of Indian students. Reservations often turned into islands of poverty and despair amid a wealthier society.
But part of the job of the historian and thinker is to discover what occurred in a singular moment of time, to recreate a past time, and not just to look at the now to see how it all came about.
Were missionaries evil, ill-intentioned, out to hurt the Indians? If we look at subsequent history, at the forces of dislocation and abuse and exploitation that occurred over time, we might wonder about their motives. But what if we look into their hearts, as it were, in the moment, when it occurred—what if their motives were mostly love? Can this be erased by the consequences? How humans look at such events might differ with how God looks at them. God, who is not constrained by time, sees the person now, in an ongoing present, doing the action—and He sees their goals, drives, and motives. But we, in the future, looking at consequences, looking at what we see through the dark glass of time, looking at the past, might miss what were those motives and goals, which I believe were not so nefarious or evil.
And we might pose this possibility as well: Jesus commanded His Apostles to bring the Gospel to all nations. Can we doubt that the second part of the Trinity, the Son, knew that missionaries would bring their culture, their ideas, their assumptions and prejudices to non-Christians? If we assume that he could peer into the future, to perceive what would happen, then we realize that He knew that according to God’s perception of time, it would all work for the best. Did Jesus, when He formed the Great Commission, have a broad viewpoint of past, present, and future? Did the missionaries have an ethical viewpoint of the Ends Justifies the Means, that anything goes to accomplish the larger purpose of the Great Commission, or did they perceive their role as acting just in the singular moment, and not according to an ethical view of accomplishment and results, but one that was Christlike, seeing what is true in real at a moment in time, acting according to, above all, love?
Daniel Little was a Protestant missionary who traveled to the eastern Maine frontier before and after the American Revolution. He ministered to the Penobscot Indians of Eastern Maine. To read about Little and his work, consider purchasing a signed hardcover or paperback of my new book, Apostle of the East: The Life and Journeys of Daniel Little: