Noble, Wretched, & Redeemable: Protestant Missionaries to the Indians in Canada and the United States, 1820-1900

By C. L. Higham | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
The Great Commission

THE WORDS and actions of Protestant missionaries open an important window into issues of race in the nineteenth century in Canada and the United States as well as other parts of the world, such as India, Africa, and China. Individual missionaries, who actually dealt with the native populations, did not act or form racial stereotypes alone; they played a part in a complex institutional structure that included the sponsoring missionary societies who had chosen them, the publishing groups associated with the missionary societies, and a fundraising and fiscal infrastructure that supported them. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, these elements together created an active Protestant missionary movement on the western frontiers of Canada and the United States.

Of course, Catholic and Protestant missionary movements that focused on Christianizing the Indians had existed prior to the nineteenth century. From the sixteenth century onward, Catholic missionaries spread across North America seeking to convert and assimilate the natives there. 1 Beginning in the seventeenth century, Protestant missionaries, in the form of the New England Puritans, followed the Catholics into the field of conversion of the North American natives. 2 The early Protestant endeavors were followed by missionary societies that sought to convert and civilize not just the natives of North America but also the heathens throughout the world. In the late eighteenth century, they expanded their efforts into western North America.

Analyzing the images of North American natives that nineteenth-century missionaries presented to Protestant congregations in Canada and the United States requires an understanding of the corporate structures and strategies that shaped the nineteenth-century missionary movements and the missionaries' view of the Indians. Nineteenth-century missionary societies rose out of the Protestant missionary efforts of the eighteenth century, and the earlier efforts provided both the structure and theory behind much of the missionary work in

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