Owned by the White People

Paul Harvey

Don't miss our contributor Christopher Jones's piece over at Juvenile Instructor: " 'Owned by the White People': America and Native Americans in Church History Sunday School Lessons, 1934." Going through some boxes of old material while packing and moving, Chris reflects on Mormon providentialist interpretations, as communicated in Sunday School lessons, on the founding of America, and on relations with Native peoples. Some of it is kind of standard-issue stuff for that period: heroic and virtuous Pilgrims, God preparing the way for the coming of our Christian civilization, and so on. I say "for that period" -- I should say, for that period, but of course for a lot of folks still standard stuff (see Barton, David and Marshall, Peter). Some of it is more LDS specific, explaining what events prepared the way for Joseph Smith. All fascinating stuff.

I have been interested in Native theological responses to all of this history, and how they have dealt with the issues inherent in this kind of Providentalism. One really helpful source, by way of introduction, is James Treat, ed., Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada, where a variety of Native authors grapple with the contested identities of Indian and Christian, and the meanings of biblical myths as applied to their communities. An overview and response to the collection may be found here. In the book, the authors debate the question of what use can be made of sacred texts once those texts have been made into stories that explain, and usually justify, conquest and dispossession. Can those stories be reclaimed?

Well, I was going to blog more about this, but I don't want this to be the "spoiler" for some fairly extensive discussion of these issues (including nineteenth-century Protestant and Mormon providential explanations of the history of America) that Ed Blum and I are working on for our book Jesus in Red, White, and Black, which we're in the home stretches of now. For now, I was curious as to whether anyone had investigated mainstream Protestant (or Catholic) lessons/sermons from that era. I was wondering when these kind of Providentialist interpretations received more critical scrutiny in religious literature, whether that was something that came out of the 1960s and after, or perhaps emerged earlier with the innovations of the Indian New Deal and the rethinking of the "missionary enterprise" that was going on in the 1930s. Has there been a close study of that? Probably, but I can't think of it offhand.


Dawn Hutchinson said…
Thanks for the Treat reference. This will be a really helpful source for my Religion and American Identity class!
Christopher said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christopher said…
Thanks for the link to my post, Paul. I'm anxiously awaiting your and Ed's forthcoming book.

It is also worth noting along this topic that George P. Lee, a Navajo Latter-day Saint and "successful" product of Mormonism's "Indian Placement Program" who rose to the rank of Seventy (just below Apostle in the Mormon hierarchy) before being excommunicated in 1989, died last week. His disaffection from the LDS church was in part the result of his outspoken reaction to the church's changing policies regarding Native Americans, died last week. David G. put up a post on the topic over at the JI, and it provoked some interesting (and at times touchy) discussion.

I appreciate the way you handled a post like this. I am more than a little ashamed by the way Protestantism treated Native Americans when they arrived in the New World. Thank you for not completely bashing us. Unfortunately, the truth is the truth (not really that unfortunate). Anyway, I like this blog and hope it helps me on my American and religious history work.

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