Atlantic History Native American Missionaries
Edward E. Andrews
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0272


Native Americans have had an incredibly complicated relationship with Christianity. On the one hand, many were unequivocally opposed to Christian missionaries. After all, evangelists were cultural imperialists and religious idealists who attempted to alter or eradicate indigenous ways of life, traditions, religious leadership, and rituals. Of course, there is great truth to this assertion, as many indigenous peoples in the Americas fundamentally rejected Christianity because of its association with the colonial powers that oppressed them. In the United States today only a small percentage of Native Americans identify as Christian. And yet, many other Native peoples did adopt Christianity, in a range of ways and with a variety of outcomes. In places colonized by French and Iberian powers, indigenous peoples often adopted Christianity or developed syncretic, organic religions that fused indigenous and Christian rituals and beliefs. Indeed, the vast geographic and chronological scope of this article—covering different European imperial powers, distinct indigenous polities, and disparate Catholic and Protestant missionary strategies—makes it difficult to generalize about the success or failure of missionary work. Nevertheless, it is true that some indigenous peoples went even further than just converting to Christianity or affiliating with a particular congregation: many actually became missionaries themselves. Native American missionaries were more common than we might think. Although a select few, such as Samson Occom, William Apess, and George Copway, have gained fame throughout history, many other Native Americans served as evangelists to their own people or the people around them. Living as they did between the colonizers and the colonized, they often struggled with their dual identity as Indian and Christian. They also sought ways to protect and ensure a future for their own people. As such, the history of Native American missionaries is both fascinating and controversial, filled with problematic and politically charged questions. If an Indian became a Christian, were they still Indian? Why did they choose to become an evangelist? Was it for spiritual power, money, or access to imperial authorities? What were the problems and opportunities that came along with being a Native Christian? Perhaps most problematically, how do we even define a “missionary”? While the traditional definition means an ordained member of an ecclesiastical body, many more non-ordained schoolteachers, itinerant preachers, and religious figures engaged in evangelical work. This article focuses on English America and the United States but also includes sections on Canadian/First Nations Indians, Native missionaries in Spanish America, and non-white missionaries in Africa and across the globe. Also, although much of the literature focuses on this topic from a historical perspective, a good deal of it has also been produced by literary scholars. In fact, literary scholars were among the first to articulate the importance and power of the writings of Native American missionaries, and so their work is included here.

General Overviews

Looking for material on Native American missionaries might not exactly be like looking for a needle in a haystack but rather like looking for many needles in many haystacks. A substantial amount of literature is available on the most famous ones (such as Samson Occom), but most works mention Native American missionaries as part of a larger study of religious interactions, colonialism, evangelicalism, or literary production. There are, however, a few exceptions to that, and the works in this section represent the most sustained and detailed attempts to look at Native American missionaries as important subjects in their own right. Charles 2010 examines the problematic relationship between indigenous Andean church agents and the religious and imperial powers who tried to work with them. Andrews 2013 offers the first comprehensive study of Native American missionaries in the British Atlantic, focusing on Indian missionaries from New England to New York and the Carolinas. Lewis 2003 zeroes in on a few dozen Presbyterian Indian ministers who worked among the Dakotas and Nez Perce during a period of American territorial expansion. Tolly Bradford (Bradford 2010, Bradford 2012) has been the most vocal proponent of taking more seriously the experiences of Native American evangelists among the First Nations peoples of Canada. However, he is also interested in the larger picture and offers interesting commentary on the connections and comparisons with other Native clergy in places such as British South Africa. Peyer 1997 provides an analysis of Indian missionary writers’ educations, aspirations, and agendas and thus extends a helpful link to the literary aspect of Native missionary work. Finally, Ronda and Axtell 1978 might be outdated, but it is still a very useful resource for anyone getting their feet wet in Native American missions. Given the publication date, it naturally neglects much of the excellent recent analyses by literary scholars, but it is still strong on ethnohistorical and anthropological materials.

  • Andrews, Edward E. Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674073470Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    An essential starting point for an examination into Native American missionaries, as it is the first such book to look at this group in the British Atlantic, including colonial America. Also focuses on the experiences of African and African American evangelists to emphasize connectivity and comparisons among mission projects. Also see Early English America, Wheelock and Moor’s Charity School, and Comparative and Global Perspectives.

  • Bradford, Tolly. “World Visions: ‘Native Missionaries,’ Mission Networks and Critiques of Colonialism in Nineteenth-Century South Africa and Canada.” In Grappling with the Beast: Indigenous Southern African Responses to Colonialism, 1840–1930. Edited by Peter Limb, Norman Etherington, and Peter Midgley, 311–339. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004178779.i-378.42Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Prophetic Identities (Bradford 2012) offers a much fuller analysis of the problems associated with indigenous missionaries in the colonial context that Bradford explores, but this piece is still useful for unearthing the anti-colonial discourses produced by Native missionaries.

  • Bradford, Tolly. Prophetic Identities: Indigenous Missionaries on British Colonial Frontiers, 1850–1875. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012.

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    Investigates the lives, experiences, and worldviews of two indigenous missionaries in different places within the late-19th-century British Empire—Henry Budd in Canada and Tiyo Soga in South Africa—but places them in a comparative religious, imperial, and historical context. Also see New France and Canada.

  • Charles, John. Allies at Odds: The Andean Church and Its Indigenous Agents, 1583–1671. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010.

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    Focuses on the complicated experiences of indigenous peoples living in the Andes who provided linguistic, cultural, and legal services to facilitate exchanges between Spanish missionaries and Andean peoples. Also see Iberian Atlantic.

  • Lewis, Bonnie Sue. Creating Christian Indians: Native Clergy in the Presbyterian Church. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.

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    Looks at the rise of indigenous Indian leaders in the Presbyterian Church among the Nez Perce and Dakota Indians during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Emphasizes Christianity as a form of cultural revitalization for Native peoples. Also see Modern America.

  • Peyer, Bernd. The Tutor’d Mind: Indian-Missionary Writers in Antebellum America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

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    Focuses mainly on four Indian authors—Samson Occom, William Apess, Elias Boudinot, and George Copway—and contends that these missionary writers were all vital to establishing an early tradition of Native literature and literacy. Despite the title, the timeframe goes back to the colonial era and forward toward the Civil War. Also see Modern America.

  • Ronda, James P., and James Axtell, eds. Indian Missions: A Critical Bibliography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

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    An outdated collection at this time but still useful as a starting point for research on Indian missions across the board, especially for scholars not familiar with the topic.

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