Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle

Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle

Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle

Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle

Synopsis

Choosing the Jesus Way uncovers the history and religious experiences of the first American Indian converts to Pentecostalism. Focusing on the Assemblies of God denomination, the story begins in 1918, when white missionaries fanned out from the South and Midwest to convert Native Americans in the West and other parts of the country. Drawing on new approaches to the global history of Pentecostalism, Angela Tarango shows how converted indigenous leaders eventually transformed a standard Pentecostal theology of missions in ways that reflected their own religious struggles and advanced their sovereignty within the denomination.

Key to the story is the Pentecostal "indigenous principle," which encourages missionaries to train local leadership in hopes of creating an indigenous church rooted in the culture of the missionized. In Tarango's analysis, the indigenous principle itself was appropriated by the first generation of Native American Pentecostals, who transformed it to critique aspects of the missionary project and to argue for greater religious autonomy. More broadly, Tarango scrutinizes simplistic views of religious imperialism and demonstrates how religious forms and practices are often mutually influenced in the American experience.

Excerpt

Later while preaching that meeting I received from God what I had been waiting to hear.
He came to me, confirming His call upon my life, in a vivid visitation of His presence. “Now
is the time for you to take the Gospel to the American Indians,” He said. “You know now
where they are. Go home and prepare yourself. Tell your husband and your church, and I
will make the way plain for you.” With this commission from the Lord, an intense love for
American Indians flooded my soul. Now that I had a confirmation of my call from God, I
knew I must take the next step
a step of faith.

—ALTA washburn, white evangelist to American Indians and founder of the American
Indian College, circa 1935

I stood among the circular mounds and scattered cedar logs, a small Indian boy in crude
Navajo garb, and looked across the small canyon. I shouted into the vast emptiness and
heard the echo shouting back. Wonderingly I cried, “Who is talking to me; who dares mock
Yel Ha Yah?” So I began my long search for knowledge
not for knowledge alone, but for an
understanding of life itself
.

— charlie lee, Navajo evangelist/pastor and founder of the first indigenous church in
the Assemblies of God, circa 1930

God called Sister Alta Washburn and Brother Charlie Lee. One was a dark-haired, petite midwestern woman with only a ninth-grade education; the other, a famous young Navajo artist. They came from vastly different places, but during the middle decades of the twentieth century, their lives and work intersected. They were unlikely partners in a movement that shaped the largest American Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God (AG). As agents of change, their calls to become missionaries to American Indians profoundly altered their lives as well as the lives of others.

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