Christianity and Colonization

A major element of colonization throughout history has been religious conversion of the native population. This is true in the Americas as well as abroad. The Wyoming Valley is no exception. Christian Europeans saw converting native peoples as essential to "saving" them. In Pennsylvania, many religious groups - particularly Protestant denominations imported from England, Scotland, and Germany - sought to Christianize natives.

Christianization in the Wyoming Valley was most significantly a Moravian undertaking. In fact, the Moravians, who trace their origins to the early Protestant reformer Jan Hus, aggressively converted natives all throughout the east coast. There are a number of ways of trying to understand such missionary work.

One can easily imagine that missionary work was often performed genuinely out of care for native peoples' souls. After all, if one is a devout follower of Christ who believes Christ is the only path to salvation, then leading souls to that path so that they do not face eternal damnation is an understable course of action. While such intentions might be seen as admirable, serious questions about whether such work was right and just still arise. 

Even assuming the purest of intentions from the missionaries, Christianization is inherently coercive and entails cultural genocide. For one, Christian mission work starts from the premise that the non-Christian needs to be saved from the fires of hell through the resurrection of Jesus who was both man and God. From an objective lens, emphasizing the fire and brimstone side of Christianity is surely an effective way of converting people. Factor in the fact that native peoples already possessed a good deal of fear of Europeans due to their bringing a technologically superior material culture, and more importantly plagues to the Americas, and one can easily imagine how effective such preaching can be. Along with this coercion comes cultural genocide. To coercively wipe out a peoples' way of looking at the world and understanding their place within it, and replacing it with a foreign worldview is cultural genocide. While "cultural genocide" sounds like an extreme term, it is certainly the correct one and perhaps should be thought about more when discussing the realities of missionary work. 

Specifics of Christianization aside, however, the questions arising from historical missionary work are important. Is there one way and one truth that everyone should follow in order to be saved? If so, then such cultural genocide does not matter because ultimately it is what is best for all. Or, is there truth and different ways to the truth? Perhaps such an outlook is nothing more than weak cultural relativism. However, one can point to examples of holy lives lived across all the world's religions. Is it okay to uproot a people's way of life to assert what one believes is the best way of life? Is it okay to let another soul live in darkness when you think there is a light that can save them? These questions might seem to have easy answers, but the more you wrestle with them, the more complex they become. The best solution available is a middle ground founded on basic principles of human dignity. If you believe conversion was a necessary undertaking, then also recognize and be sympathetic toward the suffering inherent in such an upheaval. If you believe Christianization was a regrettable mistake in European-American relations with native peoples, then at least recognize that missionaries were often people with genuine convictions who wished to save souls. Intentions matter. Many missionaries had noble intentions. Even if you believe what they did was wrong, you can at least respect, perhaps even admire, their intentions.

Of course, not all missionaries had pure intentions. Many likely had awful, even evil intentions. This cannot be ignored. Christianization cannot be seen merely as a theological issue. It must also be recognized that Christianization was historically a politically effective tool used for the purposes of colonization. If a conquering people could conquer the beliefs and practices of the conquered, then they could have more power. The logic is quite simple. Controlling the ways native peoples thought was an extremely effective way of gaining power in a region. If the conquered look to you spiritually and culturally, what stops them from looking to you politically? Greed and thirst for power are corrupting forces that have driven men to subjugate those in their way throughout history. This region did not escape that reality. Further, bigotry factored into missionary work in the Americas, and again, there is no reason to believe that the Wyoming Valley was an exception to this rule. It is no secret that missionary work in native communities in America involved abusive and degrading tactics. This cannot be separated from the fact that the vast majority of white missionaries harbored beliefs that white people were inherently better than Native Americans. Seeing others as subhuman or less than on the basis of skin color and way of life makes it easier for the abuser to justify abusing. It is also easy to imagine that in some cases, missionaries likely took some pleasure in the suffering of the natives.

It is easy to fall into the trap of seeing missionaries as either all good or all bad. However, the reality was that there were some good and some bad. Human beings are complex and that must be kept in mind.


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