Creating Christian Indians: Native Clergy in the Presbyterian Church

Article excerpt

Creating Christian Indians: Native Clergy in the Presbyterian Church. By Bonnie Sue Lewis. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 2003. Pp. xix, 304. $34.95 hardcover.)

Until recently most historians who have examined encounters between Christian missionaries and those among whom they labor have presented their stories in one-dimensional terms. Depending on the commentator's perspective, the missionary "actor" either uplifts or undermines the target population, who, whether passive beneficiary or innocent victim, is always the "object" of the missionary's effort. Bonnie Sue Lewis, assistant professor in Dubuque (Presbyterian) Theological Seminary, challenges this perspective in Creating Christian Indians: Native Clergy in the Presbyterian Church. Lewis applies the concept of "Indian agency" and an ethno-historical perspective to her scrutiny of the correspondence of approximately sixty Nez Perce and Dakotas who became ordained Presbyterian ministers between c. 1865 and 1935. These native clergy played a major role in establishing what Lewis's mentor, Richard White, calls a "middle ground." In this case, the product of this complex, two-way process of selective acculturation was "Indian Presbyterianism ... a unique blend of cultures, beliefs, and institutions both Native and Christian" that, Lewis asserts, preserved native institutions and expanded native influence during a time of rapid change and cultural trauma for Indians.

While Lewis's primary focus is on native clergy, she emphasizes that "a new breed of missionary" enhanced the process she describes. Lewis devotes particular attention to the sisters Sue and Kate McBeth, who served long tenures among the Nez Perce, and John Williamson, a second-generation missionary to the Dakotas. The McBeth's marginal status as women in a male-dominated church made them particularly mindful of the difficulties Indians faced in a white-dominated society, while Williamson's unique experiences of being raised among the Dakotas won for him a degree of Indian trust that few Indian missionaries achieved. …