While the European invasion of North America was largely motivated by greed, there was also a strong desire for religious conquest, that is, to convert the pagan American Indians to some form of Christianity. Many different Christian sects sent missionaries to preach to the Indians and to establish missions among them. During the eighteenth century, a small Protestant Christian sect known as the Moravians (United Brethren) sent missionaries to North America in an attempt to convert American Indians to Christianity.
Moravia is now a part of the Czech Republic. In 1648 the Thirty Years’ War ended and as a result a number of Protestant refugees from Moravia found refuge in Saxony in Germany. In 1722 Count van Zinzendorf invited some of these refugees to form a community on his estate. This community became the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren), also known as the Moravian Brethren. In his book Religions, Philip Wilkinson writes:
“The Moravians do not overemphasize doctrine, and prefer a religion that comes from the heart and is shared freely with others. To this end, the Moravians are highly evangelical, sending missionaries all over the world to convert people to their faith.”
One of the key elements of Moravian worship is the Love Feast: the sharing of a communal meal.
The Moravian missions to the American Indians began in 1740. In Connecticut, Moravian missionaries, inspired by the success of the Presbyterian mission at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, established a mission among the Mohegans at the village of Shemomeko.
The Mohegans are an Algonquian-speaking group, closely related to the Pequots (and considered by some people to have been a sub-group of the Pequots). Like other New England Native Americans, they had permanent villages, living in both domed wigwams and rectangular houses, and engaged in farming, fishing, hunting, and gathering wild plants.
The Moravian mission was financially supported by the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. The Moravian focus on religion from the heart and their Love Feast were compatible with Native American spiritual traditions. In their book Manitou: The Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilizations, James Mavor, Jr., and Byron Dix report:
“The Brethren missionaries used methods different from other Protestant missionaries. They earned their livelihood by working for the Indians, lived and dressed like them, and were often taken for Indians.”
While the Indians apparently had little animosity toward the Moravians, the same cannot be said of the English settlers in the area. Since the local English were hostile toward the Indians, they were also hostile toward the Moravians since the two groups were friendly and integrated. The English preferred a policy of strict segregation between Indians and Europeans. Soon the English were spreading rumors that the Moravians were somehow either secret Jesuits or they were somehow allied with the Jesuits. The Protestant English viewed the Jesuits, who were Catholics, as “atheistic papists”, a group more hated than the Indians. In addition, the Moravians sought to prevent the sale of liquor to the Indians and the liquor trade was important to the English. Because of the death threats from the English colonists, the Moravians abandoned their mission at Shemomeko in 1745.
In 1741, the Moravians established a mission community in Pennsylvania which was intended to convert the Lenni Lenape (also known as the Delaware). The community was established on Christmas Eve and was named Bethlehem after the biblical town in Judea. From here they also established a number of other missions among the Indians.
The Lenape people were not a single unified political entity, but a loose affiliation of peoples who spoke closely related Algonquian languages: Unami, Munsee, and Unalachtigo. In 1682, some Lenape leaders had signed a treaty with William Penn which allowed the establishment of the Pennsylvania colony.
In 1755, the Delawares raided the Christian Indian Mission at Gnadenhutten, Pennsylvania. They burned it to the ground and killed several Moravian missionaries. The Indian converts – Mohicans and Delawares–escaped. The surviving Indians left the area and established a new settlement in southern Ontario, Canada. Eventually they became known as the Moravian of the Thames and currently have their own reserve.
In 1799, Little Turkey advocated to the Cherokee council in Georgia that it permit Moravian missionaries to establish a school within the nation. In 1801, the Moravians established a mission among the Cherokee. In the 1830s, when the Cherokee were forced to move to Oklahoma, the Moravians moved with them. The Moravian mission to the Cherokee remained active until the end of the Civil War in 1865. The mission was then transferred to the Danish Lutheran Church and has continued as the Oaks Mission School.
More American Indian histories
Indians 201: Christianity Comes to the Flathead Indians
Indians 101: The Historic St. Mary's Mission and the Bitterroot Salish (photo diary)
Indians 101: The Cataldo Mission and the Couer d'Alene Indians (Photo Diary)
Indians 201: Shoshone Indians and Mormon Missionaries in the nineteenth century
Indians 101: Spanish Missionaries in Texas
Indians 101: A very short overview of the California missions
Indians 201: Indian Rebellions at the California Missions
Indians 101: Christians and Indians in 1818