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The Bible and Native Americans in Early North America

When Europeans first came to America, some Native North Americans adopted biblical messages but adapted them to their national, cultural purposes.

Jonathan Spilsbury (after Mason Chamberlin), The Reverend Samson Occom, 1768, mezzotint. Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery.

European invaders to North America used the Bible to convert and control indigenous Americans. Some Native Americans in turn adopted biblical messages, but they often adapted them to their own national, cultural purposes.

How did Europeans use the Bible when they invaded North America?

Europeans invaded North America with the Bible in their minds. It inspired them, and they used it to justify their conquest of indigenous peoples and lands. For instance, biblical accounts of Israelites’ entering a land promised to them but inhabited by pagan Canaanites (see Deut 20:10–16) provided grounds for Europeans to appropriate the Americas. This became known as the theological doctrine of “discovery.”

With the gospel as their guide, English Protestants sought to convert Native Americans. They held the Great Commission from Jesus (Matt 28:16–20), which said to “go … and make disciples of all nations,” at the base of their missionary endeavor. These Christian invaders translated Bibles into Native languages, with the aim of transforming Native peoples into Christians through evangelization and, if necessary, by force.

How did Native North Americans adopt and adapt biblical messages?

In early North America, Natives sometimes saw the Bible as a magical invention of literacy, a source of divine potency. Being able to read a Bible seemed like a supernatural feat. Some took up biblical stories as their own, incorporating narratives of creation, flood, and miraculous healing into their own folklore. Others tried to understand biblical theology: Who was this God of the Christians, and what were God’s powers? What relevance did the life and death of Jesus have for indigenous North Americans, who had never before considered concepts of original sin or the need for salvation in the afterlife?

Two Native American men in particular used the Bible to champion Native autonomy. In the 1760s, a Delaware man named Neolin recognized the revolutionary potential of the Bible as a weapon of spiritual and social resistance. This Delaware Prophet, as he is known, preached a message like that found in the book of Exodus. He argued that God takes the side of oppressed people, which in his case represented indigenous Americans against their Euroamerican subjugators. The Master of Life, as Neolin termed God, called upon Native peoples to resist the corrupting ways of the colonists and seek divine, even militant, deliverance by returning to Native traditions and freedoms. Ironically, Neolin employed the liberating biblical theme of social justice to defend Native self-rule against invasive, Bible-quoting Christians.

In the latter 1700s, Native Protestant ministers such as Samson Occom (Mohegan) made biblical Christianity their own. They were stirred by the “Great Awakening,” whose proponents encouraged heartfelt experiences of sinfulness and redemption brought on through emotional public preaching, scriptural recitation and personal self-scrutiny. The Native clerics drew upon the Bible, not only to instill the fear of God, but also to establish a model of God-supported nationhood for their Native people, apart from white dominion. Occom, for instance, was pastor to the Brotherton community of Native Christians in what is now central New York state. Members of this community held ancient Israel and the early Christian community at Corinth as their ideals. Occam was a prolific preacher. His sermons expressed his reliance on biblical passages in order to proclaim two separable but related messages. In the former, he emphasized individual human struggle against sin. In the latter, he held out the promise of Native American societal virtue, even under duress.

Occom delivered his best-known sermon in 1772 at the execution of a Native man, Moses Paul. Occom based his talk on Rom 6:23, as he quoted it: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” He called upon the convict to repent the “accursed sin of drunkenness” and “receive … Christ” as his savior. It was a conventional gospel theme, concerning innate sinfulness, Christ’s redemptive love, divine omnipotence, and hope for divine grace, forgiveness, and eternal salvation. But Occom’s biblical message had special application for his fellow Native Americans, his “brethren and kindred,” who suffered under white Christians’ control that had been justified by a Eurocentric reading of the Bible.

Particularly in the homilies of his later life in the 1780s, Occom called out to “all the Indians in this Boundless Continent” to be uplifted by Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross. A reflection by Occom on Dan 5:25 made clear the dignity of Native people among the world’s populations, who he argued deserved to persevere “according to gods [sic] pleasure,” no matter how much Occom felt that whites despised them. Occom also dwelt upon Luke 10:26–27, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” which is generally seen as a depiction of ideal Christian love. So, Occom asked, what were white Christians doing, oppressing slaves? In contrast to two-faced whites, who “are not Neighbours to anyone, and Consequently they are not Lovers of God,” Occom heralded Native communities for their social spirit: “The Savage Indians, as they are so calld, are very kind to one another, and they are kind to Strangers.”

With high hopes for indigenous Christians, preachers like Occom used biblical texts to nurture Native spiritual progress and political autonomy.

  • Christopher Vecsey is Harry Emerson Fosdick Professor of the Humanities, Native American Studies, and Religion at Colgate University. He is the author of many books, including the three-volume work, American Indian Catholics (University of Notre Dame Press, 1996, 1997, 1999).