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date: 22 April 2024

Christian Missions to American Indiansfree

Christian Missions to American Indiansfree

  • Carol L. HighamCarol L. HighamDepartment of History, University of North Carolina, Charlotte


Comparing Catholic and Protestant missionaries in North America can be a herculean task. It means comparing many religious groups, at least five governments, and hundreds of groups of Indians. But missions to the Indians played important roles in social, cultural, and political changes for Indians, Europeans, and Americans from the very beginning of contact in the 1500s to the present. By comparing Catholic and Protestant missions to the Indians, this article provides a better understanding of the relationship between these movements and their functions in the history of borders and frontiers, including how the missions changed both European and Indian cultures.


  • Native American History
  • Religious History

Catholics: Spanish

The Catholics, both Spanish and French, arrived in the Americas first. When Columbus “discovered” North America, he saw the Indians—or Asians, as he thought of them—as one of two types of resources: they could be slaves, or they could be converts. As John Gilmary Shea, a 19th-century historian of Catholic missions, proclaims, “The discovery of America, like every other event in the history of the world, had, in the designs of God, the great object of the salvation of mankind.”1 Shea’s comment represents a common theme in missiology, or the study of missions: that God deemed mission work part of the grand plan of the development of the world. These types of overt religious and divine interpretations scared historians away from studying missions.

In a moment of historical kismet, Columbus’s return to Spain came as the Spaniards took control of Spain from the Muslims. After five hundred years of occupation, the Spanish managed to push the Muslims out of southern France and Spain, which they took as a victory for Christianity and an expression of their muscular Catholicism, referring to their use of military force to expand Christianity. Within months of this victory, Columbus arrived in Spain, touting the riches he had discovered in Asia (the Americas in reality), including the unconverted natives. To many Spaniards it appeared that in exchange for protecting Catholicism and Christianity from the Muslims, God had granted Spain thousands of infidels to convert or tame through enslavement. This belief in Providence shaped the Spanish Catholic missions to New Spain.

Priests followed quickly on the heels of explorers, arriving in New Spain in 1523. By 1526, the Spanish government required that two priests accompany every expedition. In 1537, the pope declared that Indians were “capable of understanding the catholic faith.”2 Throughout Mexico, priests of the Franciscan Order, one of the Catholic religious orders, established missions and worked with Indians. The situation changed in 1573 with the Royal Orders of New Discovery. This order established that conversion and pacification came first. From this point onward, Franciscans spread quickly: Florida in 1573 and New Mexico in 1581, among other places.3 Within one hundred years, numerous missions existed in Florida and New Mexico. It took longer to expand into California, up the Pacific Coast, and into Texas. In addition to seeing conversion as one of the tenets of empire, the Spanish also believed that the Crown needed to protect the Indians, creating an office of Protector of the Indians, a position first filled by Bartolomé de las Casas in 1516.

Early explorers’ and missionary reports portrayed Indians as living in a paradise on earth and suggested that they might be fallen Christians. Early Spaniards saw similarities between Spanish Catholic culture and the Indian cultures they encountered and presumed that the Indians had been exposed to Christianity in their past. Everything from motifs of crosses on Pueblo kivas to burial practices seemed to point to the Indians as being lapsed Christians. Early European commentators, such as the Portuguese rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, latched on to these similarities and proposed that the Indians might be one of the lost tribes of Israel. These beliefs created the concept of the noble and rational savage and shaped how the Spanish approached the development of their missions.4

To “raise them up,” Spanish Catholic missionaries sought to surround their Indian charges with Christianity. The Requermiento, a document that offered the Indians a choice between salvation and slavery, helped the Spanish “benevolently” force various Indian groups into the missions. The basic mission plan for Catholic missionaries followed a structure repeated by later groups and based on Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, which outlined a plan for Christian communities. Mission life revolved around and resembled rural European Christianity as much as possible, creating communities of Indians who ate, slept, and worked under the aegis of Christianity. Most missions had compulsory attendance at matins and masses, required all able bodies to work within the mission, and set up systems of governance using the patriarchal family as a model. Every day, Indians went to matins, worked in the fields, went back to church, worked in the fields, and then went home to a system where fathers and men ruled and met as councils, mimicking European societies more than biblical ones.

Much of this conflicted with traditional southwestern and Mexican Indian patterns of governance.5 Matrilineal groups, like the Pueblans, struggled with the missions’ focus on a patrilineal system, creating social and political stress. Early Spanish missionaries resisted any form of syncretism, the melding of religious beliefs, leading to conflict between the missionaries and the Indians whom they served. Sometimes these conflicts erupted violently, as at Acoma Pueblo, where the local Pueblans threw the priests to their deaths. Such resistance and conflicts led the Spanish to eventually adjust their mission plans, if ever so subtly. On the surface, missionaries still encouraged Indians to assimilate to Spanish Catholic mores and ways of living. In reality, they tried to incorporate some native ideas and beliefs into Catholicism. Focusing on the Virgin Mary to appeal to matrilineal cultures, allowing Indians to decorate church structures, adopting kivas as churches, all these means represented a small attempt to let Indians help define their beliefs and demonstrated a change in missionary attitudes toward their native charges.

The Spanish mission system functioned in myriad ways beyond simply converting the Indians. For Indians, Spanish priests functioned as occupiers—which was ironic, since they themselves had just been “occupied” by the Muslims for five hundred years. Yet the mission system provided an opportunity to learn the language of these occupiers and their systems of government and military. In 1723, the Apaches tried to use a promise to join the missions to secure an alliance from the Spanish against the Comanche, demonstrating an understanding of the importance of the missions to the Spanish.6 While the mission system could be brutal and harsh for Indian supplicants, some took advantage of the system to become culture brokers who moved between their culture and Spanish culture.7 Spanish missions had fluid populations, with Indians moving in and out rather than forming a stable population. More Indians moved into missions when famine, increased warfare, or other stresses made life outside the missions difficult. When those stresses disappeared, Indians moved back out of the missions, bearing with them communications and information about the Spanish that they shared with their specific tribe and allies.

For the Spanish, missions served military and colonial purposes; they helped to settle and stabilize the frontier. The government supplied money, tools, and the military to help protect the missions. In return, the missions stabilized the frontier and produced translators, food, and trade for the military and the colonists, especially in northern New Spain, where other empires, like the French, tended to prowl.8 The Spanish Empire structurally included the Catholic Church in the government structure under the Council of the Indies, allowing the Catholic Church to maintain a dual role as outsider and insider. This dual role created more tensions within the empire between Indians, mestizos, and Spaniards. While serving as one arm of the triumvirate that ruled the empire, the Catholic Church did sometimes override Spanish government rules and regulations, most evident in New Mexico between 1630 and 1640.9 In some cases, like the Pueblo Revolt, which lasted from 1680 to 1692, Spanish missions aggravated tensions between colonists and Indians, or inter- and intratribal tensions.10 No other empire created such a symbiotic relationship between the government and the missionaries. This relationship also created a unique tension: Who held the best interests of the Indians in their hands? The government argued that the king as a divine right ruler protected the poor indios. The Catholic Church made the same argument, claiming that the pope truly had the souls of the Indians in his hands. From the Indians’ perspective, neither party considered them to have a voice, so for many of the Indians, neither the king nor the pope deserved attention or respect. The king and the pope were as abstract a concept as Jesus, God, and the Holy Mother to the Indians.

Contact with the Indians changed the Spanish and their missionaries. Bartolomé de las Casas’s experience in Hispaniola and the early mission system led to his critique of Spanish policy in A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Policy makers incorporated the Indians into the Spanish system bureaucratically after the Pueblo Revolt, and missionaries began to make distinctions between those Indians who might be saved and civilized and those who could not.

Catholics: French

Where the Spanish Empire integrated missionaries and the Catholic Church into their government, the French Catholic missionaries roamed on the edge of the French colonial empire. The state allowed them in but did not provide funding, tools, or military intervention. Under strict instructions to neither disrupt trade nor annoy the Indians, missionary groups in the first hundred years of the French colonial empire moved in and out of New France as the government recalled them.11 Unintentionally bringing the plague and intentionally bringing increased inter- and intratribal warfare made them a deterrent to the main goal of the French colonial empire: trade.12

French Catholic missionaries operated differently from Spanish ones. French Catholic missionaries arrived, begged transportation and support from the Indians, and then often disappeared into the wilderness, individually.13 They did not set up missions with farms and military installations, as the Spanish did. Instead, they re-created the French parish system, with individual priests working with individual Indian villages throughout today’s Canada and parts of the United States. This method required the missionaries to live like the Indians while convincing them of the efficacy of Christianity.14 This method meant that French missionaries became culturally steeped, like Catholic teabags, in local customs, religions, and languages. The immersion may account for their ability to repackage Catholicism in ways that made it more attractive to the Indians.15 This method, however, also meant isolation for the individual missionaries, leaving them with little or no support system for supplies and spiritual sustenance.16 Additionally, it increased intertribal tensions, as missionaries focused on one group at a time, providing that group with ties to the French trading system. By working with one group at a time, French Catholic missions created fewer cross-tribal alliances and less contact. French missionaries did not provide a stabilizing force on the frontier, but they did promote cultural understanding as they learned native languages and the Indians learned French.17

Once in the villages, the French returned to the pattern set by the Spanish missionaries: learn the language, preach and teach, organize converts. They assumed that Indians, in their “simple state,” would respond quickly and favorably to Christianity. Like the Spanish, they built their religious systems around the idea that conversion required submersion in the French Catholic lifestyle, using syncretism to play up similarities between native religions and Christianity, like emphasizing the importance of the Virgin Mary to entice matrilineal societies and striving to insert themselves into the role of shaman in the villages. Missionaries in New France latched on to native Catholic converts, like the Mohawk girl Kateri Tekawitha, who might attract other Indians.18

Indians represented a challenge for both Spanish and French Catholics. In Spain, the Indians became a subject of intellectual and theological debate: Did they have souls? For the French, the debate emerged over whether they were true “noble savages” with rational ideals or simply “wild men” with no conscience or soul. Owing to longer immersion in Indian cultural systems and contact than later Protestants, Catholic missionaries often developed a slightly better understanding of the differences between various groups of Indians. The Jesuits in New France slowly gained an understanding of the political and economic tensions that existed between the Iroquois and the Huron, subtly changing their views of the Indians and the complexity of their societies. Yet their fallback position remained conversion. If only these people would convert, then these hostilities would fall by the wayside. Additionally, as some Indian groups produced converts and others did not, some Catholic missionaries became apologists for their particular Indian group. Missionaries downplayed savage behavior if the group managed to have some converts. Groups who rejected Christianity or were slow to convert found themselves portrayed as more violent with less rationale than those that at least attempted conversion.19 Through the early 19th century, Catholic missions, whether Spanish or French, sought to convert the Indians and stabilize their respective frontiers. On both the Spanish and French frontiers, the methods employed by the missionaries evolved as the missionaries changed their views and understanding of specific Indian groups.

Protestant Colonial Missions

As the Spanish and Catholic missionaries expanded their missions throughout the 1600s, Protestant groups began to arrive on the East Coast of North America. The Puritans of New England and some settlers in Virginia became the first Protestant groups to engage in mission work in the early 1600s.20 They came from England to establish both religious colonies and commercial ones. Conversion of the Indians served a different purpose for these missionaries. In New England, missions extended Puritans’ religious role in the colony, though they often saw the Indians either as a threat or a hindrance, not necessarily as true potential converts. In Virginia, mission work mitigated corporate guilt. Eventually, missionaries in New England and Virginia hoped that Indians would either assimilate, through praying villages, or move out of the way of English settlements.

Puritan missions created a system not unlike the Spanish Catholic mission system. Missionaries, like John Eliot and Thomas Mayhew, built and established praying villages to isolate potential converts and where they learned how to live like “Christians” or, rather, Puritans. They learned English, engaged in regular church attendance, lived in Puritan-like houses, farmed, and so on, essentially recreating the pastoral aspects of England.21 This sense of community drew in Northeast Indians as disease and warfare devastated those tribes, often leaving small populations behind. Coming from societies that relied on various generations to carry on traditions as well as the economic and political life of the community, survivors, many of whom were young adults, found themselves afloat in a new world and in search of family. The praying villages functioned as de facto families and communities.

While they received some support from the colonies, the praying villages remained independent from the colonial government, relying on charity to survive. Protestant missionaries used praying villages to teach and preach Protestant-defined self-sufficiency. From the Puritan era onward, Protestant missionaries believed stoutly that Indians should learn to be yeoman farmers. They needed to learn to farm and produce so that they could help pay for their own conversion. Catholics required Indians to work for the upkeep of the mission, but little evidence suggests that Catholics expected converts to pay for the conversion of others as well. Catholics assumed that the missions might remain in place for years. Beginning with the Puritans, Protestants expected a speedy conversion that would lead to immediate assimilation. They expected tithing on par with white congregations to help pay for the next round of conversion. To the missionaries, with the emphasis on settlement and farming, praying villages represented a way station on the journey to being full-fledged, tithing Protestants.

Praying villages often became something altogether different for the Indians. By tossing together people from different tribes and nations within the Northeast and providing them with a common language, English, praying villages became a center for the development of early ideas of what became pan-Indianism and expressions of frustration with the English status quo. Indians in praying villages, like those exposed to Spanish Catholic missions, learned the language and the governing tactics of the conqueror and tried to apply it. Additionally, the praying villages helped create bicultural Indians who could act as intermediaries between the colonial powers and the various Indian groups.

Praying villages also sped up the reduction of the Indian population.22 By mixing different groups of Indians in isolated communities, Indians in praying villages became targets for two types of assaults: whites bent on the destruction of the Indians and disease. Attacks on praying villages became another form of suffering. Praying villages became targets for whites bent on revenge against Indians. Often white settlers attacked praying villages in retaliation for Indian attacks from other groups. Ironically, Christian Indians often paid the price for the “sins” of non-Christian Indians. Every time a praying village came under attack, it weakened the lure of Christianity to Indians.23 Smallpox ravaged several Indian praying villages in New England, creating both a bad impression of Christianity for Indian converts and a dilemma for Protestants: to accept deathbed confessions or not. Catholic missionaries accepted more deathbed conversions than Protestants. Protestant missionaries saw deathbed conversions as the act of a desperate soul and rejected them.24 Catholics, in particular Jesuits, saw it as an act of contrition brought on by suffering. Thus, in times of crisis and death, Protestants often lost converts as they rejected Indians’ deathbed confessions.

Virginia approached the conversion of the Indians in a different manner. They also thought conversion to Christianity would lead to less conflict and would co-opt the Indians. Initially, they began by asking Indian families to send boys to the colony, thereby exposing them to Christianity and civilization. When few volunteered their children for this program, the colony shifted tactics, offering land, homes, and cattle to Indian families who chose to live in the colony. Unlike praying villages, the Indians lived surrounded by white colonists, exposing their families to the market economy. This program also received little interest from the Indians. Virginia then chose to offer an education through their established colleges, a privately funded initiative. Though those who took advantage of the offered education developed peaceful relations with the colonists, they also returned to their home tribes and to their own religious practices.25 Again, the program succeeded in producing bicultural natives who helped build relations between the Indians and the colonists, but not many Christians. Both the New England and Virginia models laid the basis for the rise of Protestant missionary societies in the 19th century.

Nineteenth-Century Missionary Societies

The Puritan and Virginia missions to the Indians faded away as colonial violence and conflict with England increased. By the early 19th century, Protestant groups made new efforts to start up a mission system of their own to rival both the Spanish and French Catholic missions. Though both the French and the Spanish empires shrank during this period, their missions remained stable, with some new ones planted on the West Coast. Catholic missions remained viable and important throughout the 19th century, as they sought to influence government policies toward the Indians.

Figure 1. “Southeast Corner—St. Mary’s Mission (Roman Catholic), Stevensville, Ravalli County, MT” (1941). Historic Buildings Survey. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington D.C. HABS MONT, 41-STEV, 1.

Figure 2. “Statue Niche and Wall Detail—St. Mary’s Mission (Roman Catholic), Stevensville, Ravalli County, MT” (1965). Al Huntsman, photographer. Historic American Buildings Survey. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington D.C. HABS MONT, 41-STEV, 12.

Between 1810 and the late 1820s, several Protestant mission groups formed in England, Canada, and the United States with the sole purpose of creating a worldwide system of missions that would quickly and efficiently convert the heathen populations. Groups like the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and the Church of England’s Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) hoped, during the course of the 19th century, to proselytize to the world and save it from satanic impulses. To succeed, they needed organization and plans that would work for all cultures. Early-19th-century Protestant missionaries believed that heathen lifestyles shared similarities. Following in the footsteps of early racial theorists, early missionaries believed that climate, environment, and other factors shaped culture, race, and beliefs. They turned these ideas into a plan for mission work, which would quickly engulf the world with Christianity. To their great credit, over the course of the 19th century, they slowly changed their plans as their understanding of culture, race, and belief became better informed, transformed by their frustration with the slow pace of conversion.26

The majority of Protestant missionary societies in England, Canada, and the United States followed a simple plan for conversion of the heathen. They would send sponsored missionaries into a region. The missionary would then begin to learn the local language, translate the Bible, and begin acting as an example of Christian life. Through Bible study and a school, the missionary would teach the Indians English and the important parts of the Bible. They believed this process would lead to converts, the brightest of whom would act as an apprentice ministers. With that person established as head of the mission, the British, Canadian, or American missionary would move on to the next group to set up a mission. The congregation left behind at the first mission would tithe, buy church publications, and provide funds to support future missions to their heathen brethren.27

At least on the face of it, this plan worked in many parts of the world. In India, China, and various African countries, the Protestant missions provided access to the colonial power structure through education, English language training, and contacts, thus attracting willing potential converts. Additionally, countries with urban centers and ostracized communities also delivered willing populations to the Protestant mission system. These factors did not exist in North America. The Indian populations were not urban, did not produce pariah groups, and often already possessed economic ties to the colonial structure, sometimes through previous contact with Catholic missionaries. Those that did not have a relationship with the colonial structure had rejected the opportunity in favor of remaining independent. Western Indian groups within North America remained mobile and could simply move to avoid the missionaries. One of the great weaknesses of most Protestant missionary societies in North America lay in their inability to provide an inroad into colonial power structures. They did not follow the same pattern as Protestant missions in Africa and China, where converts often moved from the mission into the colonial bureaucracy.

By the mid-19th century, Protestant missionary societies discovered that the missions produced few converts, often in the single digits. This fact hampered the missionary efforts both psychologically and fiscally. Without converts to take over the missions, the missionary societies needed to keep recruiting white missionaries. Without converts to tithe and add to the coffers of the churches, the missions, both Protestant and Catholic, became expensive. The financial crisis led both Protestant and Catholic missionary societies into arrangements with the Canadian and U.S. governments. They asked for treaties to solidify their hold on land and money for schools and churches. Both governments responded positively but with strings attached. They wanted to see results: assimilated Indians, a peaceful frontier, and more land available for white settlement. The missionaries failed on these fronts.

Over the course of the 19th century, Protestant and Catholic missionaries’ tactics grew more similar. Both sought to work with the government to stabilize fiscal support for their missions. Both struggled to isolate their Indian populations from the “heathenish” influence of the white populations. They both created lobbying organizations, like the Women’s Indian Rights Association and Bishop Whipple’s Indian Rights Association, to help shape policy and speak for the Indians. And they established residential schools in the hope of converting and assimilating the next generation of Indians. Like other mission initiatives before them, these schools had benefits and losses for the Indians.

Figure 3. “Albuquerque Indian School, Relocated from Duranes to Albuquerque in 1881” (ca. 1885). The U.S. National Archives, NRG-75-AISP-2.

Though others had tried schools for Indians in the 17th and 18th centuries, Colonel Richard Henry Pratt pioneered them again in the 19th century. Under his initiative, the U.S. government paid for the schools. His mantra, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man,” shaped the founding of the schools: residential schools, off of reservations, where mixed groups of Indian children lived isolated from their families and cultures and immersed in white, Christian culture. Both Catholic and Protestant missionaries ran schools. These schools succeeded less at creating future converts and “civilized” Indians willing to give up their land and more at building a pan-Indian movement and training future leaders of Indian self-determination. Some of the schools had abusive policies and teachers, which led to hard feelings between missionary groups and Indians for generations to come.

Over the first half of the 19th century, missionary societies moved from acting independently to relying on the U.S. government for financial support. Pratt’s residential school system accelerated this transition. It solidified under President Ulysses S. Grant’s Peace Policy from 1872 to 1878. This policy sought to fix the corruption in Indian policy and Indian agencies by removing political appointees from the positions and placing missionary societies, both Protestant and Catholic, in charge of it. While it was well intentioned, as Grant believed that the altruistic missionaries would put Indians and peace first, it failed utterly. Missionary societies fought over who would control which agencies, how much money they should be granted, and who would control the schools. Additionally, missionaries discovered that the U.S. government held them to a higher standard than the missionary societies had; they wanted tangible results for their money. Indians were not given a choice of which missionary group would control their agency or reservation, nor were they given a voice in the policy. By the 1880s, political appointments and the civil service took over the reservations.

By the last quarter of the 19th century, Protestant missionary societies reduced their workforce in North America. As the conversion rate remained relatively low compared with the rest of the world, the missionary societies focused their personnel and finances elsewhere. Missions closed, or sponsoring societies turned them over to their respective governments. Slowly, the various Protestant groups withdrew from their mission work with Indians, though not completely. Despite this withdrawal, well into the 20th century Protestant groups continued to consider native churches as mission churches, limiting their self-governance and input into denominational organizations.

Similar Functions

Catholic and Protestant missions differed significantly in their theology, their staffing, their history, and their structures. The two traditions, however, shared much in the effects that their missions had on the Indian populations. Missions to the Indians of North America created two types of effects: those from the perspective of the missionary and those from the perspective of the Indians. Often the missions produced unintended, long-lasting consequences that shaped future choices and interactions for the Indian groups.

Both Catholic and Protestant missionaries approached mission work in the same way. They came to preach the Gospel and teach Indians about civilization. Individual missionaries saw themselves as models of Christian behavior and standards and hoped to influence the Indians by their actions. Catholic orders expected their missionaries to resist temptation with Indian women. Protestant groups sent wives with their missionaries to model the Christian family for the Indian groups. Missionary societies promoted missionaries as the exemplars of a Christian lifestyle. They entered Indian villages with the belief that their daily actions would help teach and lead Indians to Christ. Many missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, struggled to maintain their “Christian lifestyle” in the face of resistance. Be it sexual tensions for the Catholic priests or the fact that seminomadic groups continued to travel on the Sabbath for the Protestants, individual missionaries fought to create what they considered a Christian environment on the frontier of conversion.

Figure 4. Rev. Father Pierre Jean De Smet (1801–1873), Catholic Missionary to Indian Territory). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540. LC-DIG-cwpbh-03561.

Additionally, both Catholic and Protestant missionaries believed that the Indian groups with whom they worked had adopted unchristian and uncivilized practices from the heathenish whites around them. Both Catholic and Protestant missionaries created schools and towns where they could isolate converts and potential converts from the evils of native life and heathenish whites. This practice extended well into the 19th century and developed into the reserve and reservation systems we know today. Catholic and Protestant missionaries believed that isolating converts would make the process easier and protect them, but they were rarely able to isolate all of the Indians. Only those willing to convert or those who needed the mission for protection or food entered the missions. Mission communities always represented a mixed society: mission Indians, nonmission Indians, and mixed-blood members of the community. Ironically, these communities, whether missions in the Southwest or praying villages in the Northeast, often became targets for white anger and violence.

To support their missions, both sets of missionaries relied mainly on Euro-Americans for financial support, despite hopes that the Indians would take over the cost of their own conversion. Though the Catholics had more success getting Indians to contribute to the church, those contributions never made up enough of the budget to fully fund the missions. During the Spanish period, Indians helped run the missions, working in the fields and other industries to support the missions. In the 19th century, Protestants expected Indians to use their money from trade to tithe to the mission and buy supplies, like Bibles. In neither case did the Indians’ actions cover the cost of the missions. This deficit led both Catholic and Protestant missionaries to turn to their respective governments, Spanish, French, English, and American, to help underwrite the costs of missions. Sometimes this support came in an overt form: money, soldiers, transportation. At other times, it was more subtle: government permission to start a mission, treaty rights granting annuities directly to the missionaries, and the like. In all cases, it blurred the line between church and state.

Furthermore, throughout the 19th century, the relationship between the U.S. government and the missionary groups grew closer. In the early 19th century, the U.S. government established the “Civilization Fund” to help provide funds to missionary societies for their “civilizing” efforts. By the 1850s, the U.S. government included funds for civilization in treaties. With the birth of the Peace Policy under President Grant, missionaries took a prominent role in government efforts to civilize the Indians and therefore terminate their land rights. In some cases, missionaries joined the government as advisers. In other cases, they acted as lobbyists. Those who began to work for the government often did so after years of mission work and the realization that most politicians did not represent the needs and desires of the Indian groups. In rare and extreme cases, they sought to change policy by simply ignoring it. In the end, though, Catholic and Protestant missionary societies and individual missionaries attempted to influence government policy.

Outside of serving in specific government roles, such as Indian agents or treaty negotiators, Catholic and Protestant missionaries became respected ethnographers, linguists, and early anthropologists. They studied Indian societies intensely to better understand how to dismantle them. As with all outside observers, they filtered their interpretation of individual Indian cultures through the lens of their own experiences, the job with which their missionary societies tasked them, and the success of their mission. Often their experiences and beliefs shaped this information, which, when filtered through various government processes, created flawed policies. The final result, though, became a legacy of dictionaries, ethnographies, and cultural studies, some deeply flawed and others of which have become the means by which current Indian populations revitalize their culture.

Missionaries’ extensive ethnographic and anthropological writings shaped stereotypes and public ideas about Indians, including ones about Indians as a race. All missionaries began with the assumption that civilization equaled Christianity and vice versus and that not being a Christian equaled not being civilized and living in a disorganized and savage state. This assumption that civilization and Christianity were one and the same led missionaries to evaluate and rank Indian cultures ethnographically based on their conversion to Christianity and white societal values. Those groups, like the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole, who appeared to embrace Christianity and civilized practices received praise from the missionary groups. Those who did not, like the Apache and Comanche, became fodder for missionary writers who argued that not all could be saved as a race. These different experiences shaped racial ideas, where missionaries, for example, viewed the Cherokee as a stronger race than the Comanche.

Missionary writings also shaped ideas about gender roles within Indian societies. Matrilineal Indian societies challenged missionaries’ ideas about the role of women. Whereas both Catholic and Protestant missionaries believed that women should serve only in the home as wives and mothers, societies like the Iroquois and the Cherokee, where women wielded political power, disrupted those ideals. Missionaries wrote critically of Iroquois, Cherokee, and other women with nontraditional roles. They also complained that Indian men were lazy and used Indian women as “beasts of burden” only, an argument that strengthened their case for conversion and civilization. But these portrayals also led to policies that undermined women’s roles within Indian societies. Everything from denying women the right to participate in trade and political councils to taking children from their families and placing them in residential schools invariably reduced the role of Indian women in the lives of their nations.

Indian agents and university anthropologists prized missionaries’ linguistic skills and ethnographic observations and employed them to help understand specific groups. Missionaries often spoke for Indian groups, testifying before Congress, meeting with treaty negotiators, and helping anthropologists find cultural informants. Missionaries recommended converts as informants, believing that since they had chosen Christianity and civilization, they would provide a more critical interpretation of their own culture. Sometimes those informants embellished their accounts to better prove their separation from their own culture. At other times, they included details to demonstrate how much they had improved through Christianity, reinforcing, for the white audience, the importance of conversion. Therefore, in addition to speaking for and on behalf of Indians, both Catholic and Protestant missionaries shaped ethnographers’ and anthropologists’ codification and interpretation of Indian cultures.

Many missionaries became transformed by the cultures they tried to eradicate, developing an appreciation of the cultures and a fondness for the individual people. They sought to record the cultures out of this sentiment. This idea seems at odds with their work of changing Indians into good Christians and Americans (or Spanish and so on), but it stems from the same idea. Those missionaries who remained in the field for the bulk of their lives became intertwined, for better or for worse, with the specific Indian culture they sought to change. Thus, men like Edward O. Wilson, a missionary who helped found and stock the Field Museum in Chicago, and Samuel Worcester, who fought Cherokee Removal, followed them to Indian Territory, and set up the first printing press there, became different people in the field. Their loyalty to and fondness of Indians shaped their actions, but not always in ways we would expect.

Indian Responses

Initially, when thinking about how Indians responded to missionary efforts among them, people think only of the Indians as acted upon. What did the missionaries do to the Indians? That question assumed victimhood and regret on the part of the Indians. In reality, Indians found ways to use the missionaries, their work, and their resources to transform their cultures and lives in ways that helped them survive dramatic economic and political changes over a five-hundred-year period. Even though conversion rates remained low, this fact does not mean Indians were not garnering benefits from missionary work.

Initially, when Catholics or Protestants established a mission, Indian groups ignored it until they found a way in which it might be helpful. In the Spanish missions, Indians who joined or were compelled to join the missions became exposed to the Spanish language and the structure of the Spanish Empire and how its hierarchy worked. The Apache and the Comanche, for example, became quick studies of the Spanish. The Spanish missions in northern New Spain provided the Indian populations there with a common language, Spanish, which helped build relations between groups who traditionally did not ally. While Indians may not have adopted all Spanish practices, in particular Catholicism, they did gain an understanding of the missionaries and their culture.

Missions provided resources to specific groups of Indians, helping them thwart traditional patterns of political and economic power. Groups of Indians who traditionally fell at the bottom of the region’s economic or power structure could attempt to change the game by converting. In the Southwest, this process meant that the more pastoral Indian groups, who often suffered at the hands of the raiding groups, gravitated toward missions and gained knowledge and power through their understanding of the Spanish. In New France, it led groups like the Huron to join missions for protection from the Iroquois Confederacy. Additionally, missions physically came to serve as a locus for trade of European goods, intentionally or unintentionally. Before the arrival of European and American missionaries, Indian groups had local and regional trading hubs and strong trading networks, a fact that initially attracted Euro-American traders and missionaries. In the case of French missionaries, they built their missions where trading hubs already existed. In the case of Protestant missions, they built them near European forts and trading areas. While these choices affected Indian trade, they also empowered those groups nearest to the trading hubs.

Missions and praying villages became targets for violence from both other Indian groups and European settlers who sought to settle scores against the Indians in general. Even in the Southwest, where the Spanish attached presidios to missions, Indians suffered at the hands of Spanish colonial settlers. The inability to protect and integrate converts into European colonial society weakened the various mission systems the most, limiting conversion.

As Indians, whether as converts or not, came under pressure from the U.S. government and the missionary societies to tithe and support the missions, many expected to help shape the agenda as ministers and lay workers and, eventually, through tribal governments. They complained when treaties contained language that reserved annuities to pay for schools and missions. They protested the curriculum and structure of missionary-run schools. For example, Oklahoma’s Kiowa requested the ability to pick their own minister and not be designated as a “mission” church but as a full member of the governing body. Missionary societies thwarted these efforts well into the 20th century, preferring to manage the missions themselves.

Finally, missions provided a common experience, in some cases a common language, and means by which different Indian nations built ties and relationships. From the beginning of the early missions in the Southwest, the Southeast, and the Northeast, the language of the missionaries became a way for different Indian societies to communicate when they did not share a trading language. Over time, the experiences of missions and residential schools became a common denominator for networking and building relationships with disparate groups across regions. Many modern Indian leaders, such as Vine Deloria and Carlos Montezuma, took advantage of missions and residential schools to gain the language of self-determination and democracy.

Discussion of the Literature

In the beginning, historians discussed the history of missions in two ways: as hagiography or as an institution. Historians such as Kenneth Latourette, who focused on hagiography, wrote glowing reports of the work of individual missionaries, preferably those who died in the field.28 These early histories highlighted the importance of mission work and spreading Christianity. The authors wrote them for missionary societies to be used for fund-raising and to recruit and train new missionaries. They ignored the Indians and their responses to mission work as well as the failures and problems. On the other hand, the institutional histories looked at the economic and political influence of the missions, ignoring individual missionaries and Indians’ responses. Both approaches treated Indians not as participants in the process but as inanimate objects upon which missionaries acted.

The next generation of historians examined missions and missionaries through two lens: either praising missionaries for their brave and selfless work, like Clifford Drury, or damning them for torturing Indians culturally and, in some cases, physically, like Vine Deloria.29 Those who applauded the work of missionaries often saw the Indians’ own stories as tertiary. Much debate surrounded the conversion rate and whether missionaries entered the field willing to accept Indians as equals or not.30 The other side, which saw only failure and evil intent in missions and missionaries, in some ways revictimized Indians, by not allowing them to adapt, overcome, and reject missionary intentions. These four approaches polarized historians, presenting missions and their records as too fraught with bias to provide insight into the lives of Indians. Despite the plethora of primary source material available, as missionary societies required reports, conversion numbers, stories for fund-raising, and so on, historians in the 1980s and 1990s, especially social historians, avoided the topic of missions.

Ethnohistorians first rediscovered missionary texts and records, combing through them to find the stories of Indians embedded within a context of conversion. Unlike other records from the 15th through 19th centuries, where the author’s biases might be unclear or assumed, missionaries, whether Catholic or Protestant, laid their biases out on the table: they wanted massive cultural change. This desire provided the impetus for their work. Their translations, their reports on cultural and religious practices, their letters to superiors and government officials all revolved around decoding Indian cultures and societies to better dismantle them. Historians discovered that controlling for this bias, looking at missionaries through their institutions, and examining the challenges they encountered uncovered a world of Indian resistance and adaptation.31 Scholars also found global differences between missionary experiences in Africa, India, China, and North America, raising the question of whether missionaries participated in colonialism in North America.

After the millennium, historians turned the study of missionaries on its head once again. This time, scholars examined how mission work changed the missionaries and their attitudes toward race, expansion of the United States, and cultural change.32 Additionally, comparative historians found missionary records to be uniquely suited for comparison. Most missionary societies issued the same charge to their missionaries, whether they went to the northern Great Plains or India: learn the language, translate the Bible, convert, civilize, and move on. With this similarity, it became easier to look at other differences encountered in the field. Missionary work provided a window into the development of racial ideas and burgeoning native political and cultural resistance movements.

Despite these new movements into the history of missions and their impact, historians still remained mired in small studies and denominational limitations. Large studies of Catholic or Protestant missionary societies and their long-term impact have not been attempted in the last century. Additionally, barring Tolly Bradford’s excellent work, few studies currently exist comparing denominations, Catholic versus Protestant, or missions in North America against the world missionary movement. The lack of these critical studies continues to hinder the assessment of missions, missionaries, and their interactions with the Indians of North America. Without these sorts of studies, new areas of inquiry will remain restricted to specific case studies, limiting our greater understanding of issues of race, religion, policy, and cultural survival.

Primary Sources

Catholic and Protestant missionary work in North America generated an immense amount of primary resources, though not always complete. Missionary societies required constant reports from their missionaries. Additionally, missionaries tended to be self-reflective and literate, writing personal journals and letters to friends, family, and government officials. The missionary societies produced large amounts of teaching material, translations of religious works, master plans of conversion, handbooks, and studies detailing populations, religions, and languages in areas where they planned to convert. Because of these efforts, missionary resources can provide in-depth examinations of social and cultural topics related not just to Indians but also to other populations in the world. Since missionary societies needed to raise money, they published these reports, making them an easily available form of primary source for research. Despite the high number of published resources, only a limited number of these materials have been digitized, though hard copies exist at major universities, especially those with a denominational affiliation or a seminary.

For Catholic studies, The Jesuit Relations provides a large amount of data for the 17th and 18th centuries, much of it translated into English. Many libraries own the seventy-one-volume set, but Creighton University has digitized the Reuben Goldthwaites edition. Goldthwaites not only translated and transcribed the collection but also indexed it. Creighton has made it searchable. Franciscan records are more scattered, with some available in university libraries, in Mexico City, and in Spain. For easy digital or published access, there are few easily available sources. Universities in the Southwest borderlands, like the University of Arizona, are beginning to digitize the copies they have, but a collection like Goldthwaites does not exist.

Nineteenth-century Protestant missionary societies produced large amounts of reports, letters, and raw data that can be mined for ethnographic and social information. The newsletters of these missionary societies offer a myriad of information about missions across the globe. These publications include The Missionary Herald, The Foreign Missionary, The Church Missionary Intelligencer, Annual Report of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and Report of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Many of the annual reports harbor a treasure trove of information to help a researcher find topics. They include not just reports from individual missions but also the financial records of the missions and the missionary society, donor lists, long-term plans, and special reports on the future of missions and on specific cultural or religious problems that missionaries face. The listing of missionaries also provides researchers with a way to find unpublished documents by missionaries. Protestant missionary collections are scattered across the United States. Though there are church archives, the majority of missionary papers are privately held in university archives or local archives, making it hard to do large studies.

For the 19th century, government records provide another means by which to access missionary accounts and attitudes. The Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and The Bureau of Ethnology Annual Reports contain reports by Indian agents and missionaries as well as cultural studies, linguistic studies, financial records, and other material. The Bureau of Ethnology created a series of specialized reports that focus on specific linguistic, cultural, or archaeological studies. Catholic and Protestant missionaries wrote some of these reports and served as informants on others.

Further Reading

  • Beaver, Robert Pierce. Church, State and the American Indians: Two and a Half Centuries of Partnership in Missions between Protestant Churches and the Government. St. Louis: Concordia, 1966.
  • Berkhofer, Robert. Salvation and the Savage: An Analysis of Protestant Missions and American Indian Response, 1787–1862. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965.
  • Bradford, Tolly. Prophetic Identities: Indigenous Missionaries on British Colonial Frontiers, 1850–1875. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012.
  • Clemmons, Linda. Conflicted Mission: Faith, Disputes, and Deception on the Dakota Frontier. Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Press, 2014.
  • Coleman, Michael C. “Not Race, but Grace: Presbyterian Missionaries and American Indians, 1837–1893.” Journal of American History 67.1 (June 1980): 41–60.
  • Devens, Carol. Countering Colonization: Native American Women and Great Lakes Missions, 1630–1900. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
  • Hackel, Stephen. Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769–1850. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Higham, C. L. Noble, Wretched and Redeemable: Protestant Missionaries to the Indians in Canada and the United States, 1820–1900. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.
  • Kidwell, Clara Sue. Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi, 1818–1918. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
  • Neylan, Susan. The Heavens Are Changing: Nineteenth-Century Protestant Missions and Tsimshian Christianity. Toronto: McGill Queen’s University Press, 2003.
  • Vecsey, Christopher. The Paths of Kateri’s Kin. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.
  • Wheeler, Rachel M. To Live upon Hope: Mohicans and Missionaries in the Eighteenth-century Northeast. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.


  • 1. John Gilmary Shea, History of the Catholic Missions among the Indian Tribes of the United States, 1529–1854 (New York: Edward Dunigan & Brother, 1855), 19.

  • 2. Charles Gibson, ed., The Spanish Tradition in America (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1968), 104–105; as cited in David Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University, 1992), 95.

  • 3. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America, 90–121.

  • 4. Ter Ellingson, The Myth of the Noble Savage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 3–10.

  • 5. Francis Jennings, The Founders of America: From the Earliest Migrations to the Present (New York: Norton, 1994), 143–151; Herbert Eugene Bolton and Thomas Maitland Marshall, The Colonization of North America: 1492–1783 (New York: Macmillan, 1920), 235–237; and Shea, History of the Catholic Missions among the Indian Tribes of the United States, 1529–1854, 28–29, 115–118.

  • 6. Pekka Hamalainen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 35.

  • 7. Ramón Gutiérrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991); Jennings, The Founders of America, 187; and Andrew Knaut, The Pueblo Revolt of 1680: Conquest and Resistance in Seventeenth-Century New Mexico (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 64–66.

  • 8. Knaut, The Pueblo Revolt of 1680, 57–71; and Jerald Milanich, Laboring in the Fields of the Lord: Spanish Missions and the Southeastern Indians (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999), 104–129.

  • 9. J. Manuel Espinosa, ed., The Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1696 and Letters of the Missionaries and Related Documents (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1988), 24.

  • 10. David Weber, What Caused the Pueblo Revolt? (New York: Bedford, 1999); and Knaut, The Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

  • 11. Carole Blackburn, Harvest of Souls: The Jesuit Missions and Colonialism in North America, 1632–1650 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2000), 29–33.

  • 12. Jennings, The Founders of America, 186–190; James Axtell, The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 91–127; Bolton and Marshall, The Colonization of North America, 87–91; and Carol Devens, Countering Colonization: Native American Women and Great Lakes Missions, 1630–1900 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 9.

  • 13. James Axtell, Native and Newcomers: the Cultural Origins of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 162–164.

  • 14. Jennings, The Founders of America, 189.

  • 15. Axtell, The Invasion Within, 91–127; and Blackburn, Harvest of Souls, 23.

  • 16. Shea, History of Catholic Missions among the Indian Tribes of the United States, 1529–1854, 128.

  • 17. Devens, Countering Colonization, 14.

  • 18. Axtell, The Invasion Within, 118, 119, 125; and Nancy Shoemaker, “Kateri Tekawitha’s Tortous Path to Sainthood,” in Negotiators of Change: Historical Perspectives on Native American Women (New York: Routledge, 1995), 49–71.

  • 19. Axtell, Natives and Newcomers, 148–152; and Blackburn, Harvest of Souls, 42–61.

  • 20. Frederick Gleach, Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 89–97; and Axtell, The Invasion Within, 181–196.

  • 21. Axtell, The Invasion Within, 131–178; Axtell, Natives and Newcomers, 158–160; Henry Warner Bowden, American Indians and Christian Missions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 124–128; John Demos, The Unredeemable Captive (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 4; Gleach, Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia, 68–72; and Jennings, The Founders of America, 186–195.

  • 22. Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 28; Axtell, The Invasion Within, 194–196.

  • 23. Lepore, The Name of War, 136–138.

  • 24. Erik R. Seeman, “Reading Indians’ Deathbed Scenes: Ethnohistorical and Representational Approaches,” Journal of American History 88 (June 2001): 24.

  • 25. W. Stitt Robinson Jr., “Indian Education and Missions in Colonial Virginia,” Journal of Southern History 18 (May 1952): 152–168.

  • 26. Devens, Countering Colonization, 46, 63, 69–71, 109.

  • 27. C. L. Higham, Noble, Wretched, and Redeemable: Protestant Missionaries to the Indians in Canada and the United States, 1820–1900 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000), 13–30.

  • 28. Daniel C. Eddy, Christian Heroines; or, Lives and Sufferings of Female Missionaries in Heathen Lands (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1881), or Kenneth Latourette, The Great Century in Europe and the United States of America, A.D. 1800–A.D. 1914, vol. 4, A History of the Expansion of Christianity (New York: Harper, 1941).

  • 29. For examples see Clifford Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, and the Opening of Oregon, 2 vols. (Glendale: Clark, 1975); and Vine Deloria, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1969).

  • 30. Michael C. Coleman, “Not Race, but Grace: Presbyterian Missionaries and American Indians, 1837–1893.” Journal of American History 67.1 (June 1980): 41–60.

  • 31. Devens, Countering Colonization.

  • 32. Susan Neylan, The Heavens Are Changing: Nineteenth-Century Protestant Missions and Tsimshian Christianity, (Toronto: McGill Queen’s University Press, 2003); Linda Clemmons, Conflicted Mission: Faith, Disputes, and Deception on the Dakota Frontier (Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Press, 2014); and Tolly Bradford, Prophetic Identities: Indigenous Missionaries on British Colonial Frontiers, 1850–1875 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012).