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Fall 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 2 · pp. 166–179 

Mission Christianity in Canada and the ‘Problem’ of Indigenous Christianity

Brian Gobbett

I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that this country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone. That is my whole point. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department and that is the whole object of this Bill. — D. C. Scott 2

To be at the beginning of native writing in Canada—I was scared to death. — Thomas King 3

1 When Duncan Campbell Scott publically declared the sentiments expressed above, he did so with no sense of shame and with the assurance that his words would be received with support in notable quarters. As the Deputy Superintendent for the Department of Indian Affairs (1913–32) and one of Canada’s most famous early twentieth-century poets, Scott spoke from a stance of privilege and authority. However, his position and {167} statements were not ones that were uniquely held. Adrian Jacobs, a Cayuga writer and poet, argues that culture “is what is considered normal or acceptable thinking or behavior for a group of people.” 4 Although definitions of culture are, of course, hotly contested, Jacobs’s definition seems particularly appropriate in this context: Scott represented an assimilationist government culture that had antecedents back to the nineteenth century and extended well past his death in 1947. And, as such, he stood both temporally and ideologically in the midst of at least a century of assimilative thought that has shaped so much of the relationship between majority Canadian society and Indigenous peoples. John Milloy, who has been the most pointed in tracing the antecedents of the policies that informed the Residential School movement, argues that the 1830s British colonial policy regarding Indigenous peoples in colonial Canada had moved away from a position that sought allies in times of war to a “more enlightened course” in which “the progress of religious knowledge and education generally amongst the Indian Tribes” should be sought. 5 Government support for assimilative measures rolls off the pages of history texts: the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857, the paternalism of the Indian Act (1876), the Indian Residential School movement, bans on various Aboriginal ceremonies, the “Sixties Scoop,” the Trudeau-sponsored White Paper (1969), and numerous other such efforts have been chronicled in recent years. Moreover, academic tomes such as Mel Smith’s Our Home or Native Land? (1995) and Tom Flanagan’s First Nations? Second Thoughts (2000) argue that special status for Indigenous peoples by virtue of first occupancy is a concept that should be rejected. As the Cree theologian Ray Aldred has remarked on occasion, “the problem with colonialism is that it never seems to go away.” 6

The “challenge” from various forms of Indigenous Christianity may call for a re-orientation of theological concepts, and even of the concept of mission itself.

While Scott has become emblematic for his era, his reputation and policies have been dramatically reevaluated a century later. A recent study of Scott that combines both fiction (intentionally) and claims measures of historical veracity, notes that while posterity was kind to Scott for decades, he is now regarded as the principal architect of cultural genocide in Canada. Indeed, by the end of nine conversations between the author and “Scott,” the former government official is driven to beg forgiveness for his actions and policies. 7 In like fashion, Western society has reevaluated the place of the missionary: the Victorian mind saw the missionary task in heroic (typically masculine) terms that emphasized the progress of “civilization” and “cultivation.” 8 More recently, the Métis scholar and activist Howard Adam reevaluates this view considerably and argues that missionaries came to the Canadian Northwest to “soften up the Indians and Métis” for railroad builders and land speculators. Later during the resistance in 1885 they operated as “spies” and generally have “served colonialism and white supremacy in Canada for many centuries.” 9 It seems clear that in a {168} post-missionary society such as contemporary Canada, missionaries are so stereotyped that the complexity and humanity of their lives and enterprise has been lost. 10 Indeed, John Webster Grant, who wrote the first critical survey of the missionary-Native encounter in Canada, remarked with irony on the changing perceptions that the passage of time brought: where once we had to “make sense to the average reader of the religious practices of the Indians and to explain the strange inability of some of them to recognize the superiority of Christianity, [today] . . . it is the missionary who has become the puzzle.” 11

Since the 1970s, the scholarly study of missionaries and mission organizations in colonial and modern Canada has most often focused on three movements, the Jesuit mission to New France in the seventeenth century, 12 the long nineteenth-century movement of Catholic and Protestant missions that stretched across what became Canada, and Canadian participation in the twentieth-century “mission field” in Asia. 13 This essay focuses on the second movement and examines some of the intellectual patterns of nineteenth-century mission Christianity in Canada, both in its original form and with regard to some of the insights made by historians since the 1970s. Finally, with an emphasis upon historical rather than theological principles, I offer some very tentative considerations as to the place of Indigenous voices within contemporary Christianity in Canada.


Speaking as President of the American Historical Association in 1968, John King Fairbank, the noted scholar of modern China, set out a proposed agenda for the next decade of historical study. While his talk dealt largely with the limits of modernity and the necessity of the study of China and East Asia in the midst of ominous world conditions, he noted that the missionary “seems to be the invisible man of American history. His influence at home, his reports and circular letters, his visits on furlough, his symbolic value for his home church constituency seem not to have interested academic historians.” For Fairbanks, the missionary was that subject who had participated in “a great and underused research laboratory for . . . comparative observation” that would work in both directions, East and West. 14 In Canada, while the fate of global stability did not seem to lie in the example of a few religiously inspired individuals, the academic study of religion (and of the missionary project as a sub-category) was likewise largely neglected prior to the 1970s. In attempting to explain this neglect, Carl Berger suggests this might be the “predictable reaction” of those “who had partially extricated themselves from the constrictions of their own religious heritage and were hardly likely to re-enter and re-create them sympathetically.” 15 Significantly, alongside {169} a handful of other works and authors, Berger pointed to John Webster Grant’s, Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter since 1534 (1984) as a particularly ambitious work given that it attempts to synthesize over 400 years of interaction. Further, Berger notes that Grant’s work was significant, in part, because it introduced remarkable layers of complexity into the missionary-indigenous encounter: missionaries were “ambivalent about the civilization they represented” and Indigenous peoples “did not so much abandon traditional beliefs as supplement them with elements of Christian practices.” 16 More on this later.

Despite the failure of the academic community to examine mission Christianity in Canada and the United States prior to the 1970s, there was an enormous corpus of mission biographies, mission histories, and other moral and religious literature that was available to an international audience throughout the course of the long nineteenth century. Sarah Carter argues that “this literature conquered the Victorian reading public. Tales of adventure and peril in remote lands peopled by strange ‘primitive’ races were enormously popular.” 17 Although this literature stops short of the complexity and ambiguity that Grant hints at when describing the missionary-native encounter, it is rich in meaning, albeit sometimes in ways unintended by its authors.

The literature of the modern Christian mission enterprise that emerged in the nineteenth century is, of course, replete with stereotype and dualistic images. To cite one obvious creation, the male missionary often assumed heroic, even biblical, stature. W. J. Sipprell’s introduction to Thomas Crosby’s Up and Down the North Pacific Coast (1914) presents such a portrait, no doubt as an attempt to stir enthusiasm amongst Methodists for missionary support:

The story of missionary effort and enterprise among the people of this or any other land is one of the most thrilling and interesting that its history can reveal. What deeds of heroism! What struggles and loneliness! What sacrifice of personal comfort and ambition! What inspiring faith and sublime hope! What determination, in spite of fearful odds! Enough here to make a romance that would stir the heroic heart of a nation with pride in its noble sons and daughters, willing to brave the hardships of isolation, and the dangers among savage tribes, that to those in darkness they may bring the Light of Life and raise the less favored of the earth to the higher planes of Christian civilization! 18

The antithesis to the heroic missionary is, of course, present in this passage: the dichotomies of savage/civilized, wilderness/civilization, {170} darkness/light, death/life, and the replacement of less favored by the favored are among the most compelling images produced by missionary prose in the nineteenth century. Egerton Ryerson Young, perhaps the most well-known of the missionary writers in the late nineteenth century, made frequent use of “before and after” vignettes in which “savage” character was redeemed: “it is a well-known fact,” Young claimed, that “the spirit of revenge” was an ingrained trait and that “red men” were “so bloodthirsty and cruel” that they “retaliate with accumulated interest.” Maskepetoon, “the most powerful chief of his tribe” embodied this violence until he was “deeply moved under the sermon” of Mr. McDougall and became a “devoted, consistent Christian.” 19 Although Maskepetoon died violently, shot by one of his old enemies, his conversion, in Young’s narrative, had prepared the land for the settler colonialism that was to follow.

It would be a mistake to conflate Young’s writings with all missionaries, and sometimes the veracity of his accounts were challenged by contemporaries. 20 Nevertheless, as Carol Higham thoroughly illustrates, the image of the “wretched Indian” stood alongside that of the “noble savage” and the “redeemable savage” as dominant metaphors that “guided” non-native understanding of Indigenous peoples. 21 Indeed, the power of these sorts of metaphors seems to have been so significant that Robert Berkhofer’s influential Salvation and the Savage (1965) largely drew upon binary images to recount “the eventual and complete assimilation of the American Indian” in the face of American Manifest Destiny. 22

While mission histories and biography appear hagiographic (as they concerned missionaries) or pre-modern in form, the creation of mission Christianity in Canada was very much a product of modernity. While there are, of course, as many definitions of modernity as there are of culture, Bruno Latour, at his most transparent, argues that “modernity” designates a rupture, an acceleration, a revolution in time that is contrasted with an archaic past. 23 Closer to our discussion, Brian Stanley points to the deep roots of the nineteenth-century mission movement in Enlightenment thinking: while concepts like the superiority of Western Christianity over non-Western “heathens,” the dismissal of all other religious traditions as idolatry and superstition, the manifest superiority of Western civilization, an unshakable confidence in rational knowledge (within the bounds of Christian proclamation), and the power of the conversion narrative can all be found prior to the eighteenth century, they functioned to re-work patterns of thinking about non-Christians in the nineteenth as the mission enterprise was taking form. 24

The portrayal of Native peoples as archaic, without history, and with only a limited capacity to progress, after which they would be assimilated and “disappear,” marks a good deal of anthropological and missionary thought in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Johannes Fabian {171} terms this the denial of coevalness, that is, the belief that the Native and non-native could not exist in the same time and, indeed, that the missionary and anthropologist found significance in his subject precisely because of this “primitive” state. 25 All this sounds too harsh toward the missionary, until one considers the litany of arguments that repeatedly affirmed the cultural superiority and inherent progress of Western civilization. Just a few lines after proclaiming the virtues of the heroic missionary, Sipprell notes that in “the West he is gradually yet sullenly retreating before the progress of the White Man and his civilization, and the day seems not far distant when he must be absorbed by that advancing progressive life or be pushed into the Western Sea.” 26 Not only do such sentiments help us to understand the contours of assimilationist thought, but they contributed greatly to the myth of the Vanishing Indian, a concept so powerful that even in the 1930s—by which time the Native population had been increasing for several decades—Marius Barbeau, Canada’s most renowned anthropologist, claimed that all “indications point convincingly to the extinction of the race.” 27

Finally, in considering the lasting impact of missionary literature during this period, we should be cognizant of the lasting emotional impact of constructed narratives that emerged in mission Christianity discourse. Bishop William Bompas, a dominant figure in the nineteenth-century Anglican mission world, is said by his biographer to have described life in the far North in the following fashion: “from thence go to the nearest well-to-do farmer and spend a night in his pigsty (with the pigs, of course), this is exactly life with the Esquimaux. . . . As to the habits of your companions, the advantage would be probably on the side of the pigs.” As Terrence Craig notes, neither Bompas nor his biographer, H. A. Cody, seem to have anticipated the time when Indigenous people would read such a text for themselves, an incongruous oversight considering that so much of the missionary endeavor focused upon literacy. 28 Indeed, the language employed is so inhumane that it harkens back to the “great debates” on the humanity of Indigenous peoples between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan de Sepúlveda in the early 1550s. 29 However, in returning to Bompas’s description, contemporary readers might regard such attitudes “with little more than boredom, scorn or irreverent amusement” 30 and dismiss them as relics of a less enlightened era (which, we hope, they are). Other individuals, like Richard Twiss, a leading figure in the Native contextualization movement, recall the emotional trial of reading early mission history and how it shattered his sense of biblical justice and how he had to “work hard to not emerge an utter cynic, harshly critical of Christianity.” 31 John Webster Grant had it right when he stated in 1984 that “the bond attaching Indians to the churches are fragile, and perhaps in some cases irretrievable broken.” 32 {172}


In seeking to describe the new mission history, C.T. McIntire noted that it was marked, in part, by a recognition of the complexity of encounter and he pointed to William McLoughlin’s Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic (1986) for its attention to the ways in which the Cherokee both adopted and rejected what the missionaries had brought. 33 The next decade or so brought a scholarly revolution of sorts, so much so that Michael McNally noted the presence of a number of studies in which “Native communities have long woven the stories, signs, and practices of the Christian tradition into the fabric of their lifeways, in rich and resourceful ways, even under the direst of colonizing circumstances.” 34 His own study of Ojibwe religious traditions suggested that a “religious all-or-nothingism” may have been more the exception than the rule. As his use of “lifeways” suggests, McNally argued for the primacy of practice over belief, in his case noting how Ojibwe hymns avoided the discipline of missionaries and emerged in indigenous form. According to McNally, the seminal question had changed from “What was missionary Christianity and how did it differ from the traditional religion it displaced?” to “What did native peoples make of Christianity?” 35

This question has been taken up by Canadian historians, particularly in regard to Native Christians in the nineteenth century. 36 In place of Victorian stereotypes and stock interpretations of colonialism and evangelicalism, scholars have turned to enthnohistorical methodologies and Indigenous-generated texts in seeking to “unveil the complexities of religious change as a process which occurred within indigenous societies, rather than an imposition from outside.” As Peggy Brock continues, the “study of texts from different sources once again challenges easy dichotomies of colonized/colonizer, Christian/non-Christian; and the notion that Christianity and ‘civilization’ were similarly packaged by missionaries for delivery around the world.” 37

Arthur Wellington Clah is perhaps the most dramatic example. A Tsimshian from the north-west Pacific coast, Clah began keeping a diary in order to learn English in 1859 and continued daily for the next fifty years, during which time he functioned as an Indigenous evangelist travelling from Victoria to Alaska and inland among the Tsimshian village by village. As Brock and Susan Neylan illustrate independently, his diary sheds light on a host of topics: religious conversion and Christian sacraments, relations with and the authority of white missionaries, Indigenous evangelism, Tsimshian beliefs and hierarchy, the use of Christianity to critique colonialism, and beyond. 38 While Clah learned English from the famous Victorian missionary William Duncan—who built the model Christian village of {173} Metlakatla that stood in stark contrast to Clah’s “voyages”—and translated for both Duncan and Thomas Crosby, he did not align himself with their evangelical agendas or submit to their authority. 39 Even in the face of increasing colonial authority following British Columbia’s entry into Confederation, it is clear that converts like Clah and others lived Christian lives that were negotiated rather than imposed.

While Clah’s daily recordings are clearly an exceptional resource, they are not unique and point to the complexity by which Indigenous peoples “remade” Christianity. This sort of re-fashioning was not recognized by a nineteenth-century mission Christianity that too often either reduced Native Christians to a subordinate, sometimes artificial, status or cast them into stereotypes that effectively removed them from reality. In exploring nineteenth-century Tsimshian missionaries, Susan Neylan argues that two themes emerge: first, their faith was not a mere mimicry of Euro-Canadian models but reflected genuine evangelical understanding; and, second, that their religious beliefs occupied different measures of “in-betweenness” between Tsimshian society and official missionary discourse. 40 As in every other expression of the Christian faith, culture matters.


In 2011 the Cree band council at Oujé-Bougoumou drew widespread media attention when it authorized the removal of a sweat lodge constructed by Redfern Mianscum, a community resident. Writing in the Globe & Mail, Ingrid Peritz noted that 130 individuals in this “modern-looking village” of 700 had signed a petition declaring “that the sweat lodge along with any form of native spirituality practices and events such as pow-wows, rain dances, etc., do not conform with the traditional values and teachings of our elders.” 41 Located some 725 kilometers north of Montreal, Oujé-Bougoumou is a largely Pentecostal community that emerged in the 1990s and, as the petition claimed, “was founded by Christian faith and values of our elders and past leadership.” Of course, controversy ensued.

Ronald Niezen, an anthropologist at McGill, is quoted as saying, “missionaries came up and said, ‘This is wrong, you’re invoking Satan,’ ” a conclusion that regrettably re-establishes the binary historical opposition between Native spirituality and Christianity, save of course for the significant change of those giving voice to their faith. Moreover, a court challenge was threatened: the prominent human-rights lawyer Julius Grey was hired to defend Mr. Mianscum’s right to religious freedom, a procedure that would, if successful, invoke the structural forces of cultural change against the apparent wishes (for now) of this Cree community. Whatever one might think of the situation in Oujé-Bougoumou, we should be wary of these developments: are the authors of the petition really less authentic {174} Natives and dupes to colonialism as they have been often labeled? Would the legal apparatus of the Canadian state really overrule a Cree community’s self-determination in such a case? Perhaps it is best to heed John Webster Grant’s belief that going forward “no set of beliefs or values can be imposed on the Indians. They will decide their own religious future.” 42

Second, to move slightly away from the events at Oujé-Bougoumou, it is clear that there are tensions between Native spirituality and its relationship to Christianity, including within the Christian Aboriginal community itself. While Native-newcomer history is dominated by assimilative discourse and action, since the 1980s we have seen the emergence of a Native Christian contextualization movement in North America, perhaps a latecomer to similar movements in Africa and elsewhere. While there is much theological diversity present, the more conservative elements (theologically) insist that any charges of syncretism should be rejected (or the definition sharply modified) as they pursue contextually-driven ministry. 43 Nevertheless, as Andrea Smith notes, the engagement of Native and non-Native religious expressions has the potential to reshape the boundaries of Christianity itself. 44 Although there has been critique from within and beyond the Native church toward contextualization, individuals such as Richard Twiss (and a number of Indigenous leaders north of the Canada-USA border) argue that such a movement is vital to authentic expressions of the Jesus way and, further, to issues of cultural revitalization, community development, relationship building, and social justice. 45

The “challenge” from various forms of Indigenous Christianity may call for a re-orientation of theological concepts, and even of the concept of mission itself. In a recent and provocative presentation, Gene Green called for the possibility of the death of mission, both in nomenclature and as a vehicle for conveying the essential tenets of the gospel message. Green notes:

God’s glory does not come through the triumph of one group over the other as one succumbs to the mission of the gospel, but rather through the open embrace and welcome that God through Christ demonstrates to each person. We should, therefore, replace the concept and language of “mission” with the concept and language of “welcome and embrace.” 46

While Green’s argument is built largely upon theological (and personal) reflection and ignores both the historical expressions of Indigenous Christianity and the larger intellectual currents that question the legitimacy of modern missions in a postmodern environment, 47 he proposes “new” theological concepts that deserve attention, at least from the dominant North American church in regard to its place with Indigenous {175} Christianity: Has the Western church so abused the concept of mission Christianity that its continued use hinders the proclamation of the gospel? After five centuries of settler colonialism, this is a question worthy of consideration.

Indigenous Christianity in North America is over four centuries old, about as old as the Anglican and Anabaptist traditions. The history of Indigenous Christianity is the history of Christianity, insofar as any post-Reformation body can make that claim. Perhaps when we observe the creation of the new Anglican Indigenous diocese Mishamikoweesh in northwest Ontario and northern Manitoba, we should see something greater than mission Christianity. Indeed, as Bishop Lydia Mamakwa proclaimed, the diocese will be “an expression of indigenous self-determination . . . in a manner that is consistent with the cultural and spiritual heritage of the indigenous people of the region.” 48

This essay predictably moves toward a more optimistic stance, and in recent times we can note patterns of apology and increased efforts at promoting reconciliation, 49 engagement, and reform in the church and the Christian academy, examples of non-Native individuals standing alongside and living with Indigenous peoples in community, 50 and even interest in learning from Native leaders and traditions that challenge Western epistemological assumptions. 51 In all these areas—although perhaps most modestly in the church and academy 52—the Anabaptist community, which is my own tradition, can find at least some measure of healthy response. However, when one compares this to the systematic assimilative efforts of state, church, and society in the nineteenth century and beyond, the scale still seems largely out of balance.


  1. This essay is dedicated to Wendy Beauchemin Peterson with gratitude.
  2. Cited in E. Brian Titley, A Narrow Vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986), 50. On a personal note, when a First Nations friend first came across this quotation in his research, it was clear that it was disturbing to him. I was struck in a new way over the contemporary power of Scott’s words.
  3. Thomas King, “In Conversation with Thomas King and Margaret Atwood,” in A Short History of Indians in Canada Stories (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2006), 10. Pagination begins anew at the conclusion of A Short History.
  4. Adrian Jacobs, “The Meeting of the Two Ways,” in Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada, ed. James Treat (New York: Routledge, 1996), 185.
  5. This policy was announced by Sir George Murray, Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1830; cited in John S. Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986 (Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press, 1999), 11. {176}
  6. Ray Aldred, “Roundtable Discussion,” at “Re-visioning Relationships: First Nations Communities and Theological Education in Dialogue” held at Briercrest College, 9–10 November 2007.
  7. Mark Abley, Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott (Madeira Park, BC: Douglas & McIntyre, 2013), 36, 78, 220–21.
  8. See Jamie S. Scott, “Cultivating Christians in Colonial Canadian Missions,” in Canadian Missionaries, Indigenous Peoples: Representing Religion at Home and Abroad, ed. Alvyn Austin and Jamie S. Scott (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 21–45.
  9. Howard Adams, Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View (Toronto: General Publishing, 1975), 30–31; Terrence L. Craig, The Missionary Lives: A Study in Canadian Missionary Biography and Autobiography (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 9.
  10. Craig, xiii.
  11. John Webster Grant, Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter since 1534 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), 215.
  12. There is a huge literature here but, for example, see works by Emma Anderson, Karen Anderson, Carole Backburn, Peter Goddard, Alan Greer, Eleanor Leacock, James Rhoda, Daniel Richter, Neal Salisbury, and Bruce Trigger. For one Aboriginal scholar’s contribution see Terry LeBlanc, “Mi’kmaq and French/Jesuit Understandings of the Spiritual and Spirituality: Implications for Faith” (PhD diss., Asbury Theological Seminary, 2012).
  13. See the work of Alvyn Austin, Ruth Compton Brouwer, Sonya Grypma, and A. Hamish Ion, each of whom has written extensively on Canadian missionaries in Asia.
  14. John K. Fairbank, “Assignment for the ’70s,” American Historical Review 74, 3 (1969): 877. I drew this example from Alvyn Austin and Jamie S. Scott, “Introduction,” in Canadian Missionaries, Indigenous Peoples: Representing Religion at Home and Abroad, ed., Alvyn Austin and Jamie S. Scott (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 3.
  15. Carl Berger, The Writing of Canadian History: Aspects of English Canadian Historical Writing since 1900, 2d ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), 293.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Sarah Carter, “The Missionaries’ Indian: The Publications of John McDougall, John Maclean and Egerton Ryerson Young,” Prairie Forum 9, 1 (1984): 27. Also see Brian Street, The Savage in Literature: Representations of ‘Primitive’ Society in English Fiction, 1858–1920 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975); Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Vancouver: Arsenal, 1992); Kate Flint, The Transatlantic Indian, 1776–1930 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).
  18. Thomas Crosby, Up and Down the North Pacific Coast by Canoe and Mission Ship (Toronto: The Mission Society of the Methodist Church: The Young People’s Forward Movement Department, 1914), vii. {177}
  19. Egerton Ryerson Young, Indian Life in the Great Northwest (London: S.W. Partridge and Co., n.d.), 115–26.
  20. See John McDougall, A Criticism: Indian Wigwams and Northern Campfires (Toronto: William Briggs, 1895).
  21. C.L. Higham, Noble, Wretched, and Redeemable: Protestant Missionaries to the Indians in Canada and the United States, 1820–1900 (Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press, 2000).
  22. Robert Berkhofer, Salvation and the Savage: An Analysis of Protestant Missions and American Indian Response, 1787–1862 (New York: Atheneum, 1972 [1965]), 151. Terrence Ranger, the noted historian of Africa, described his outrage upon reading Berkhofer’s work in 1969: beyond “its unfortunate title, I found its argument totally unacceptable. Berkhofer applied ‘Culture Theory.’ Two complete cultures were in conflict—the white Christian culture and the Native American culture. . . . In the end the weaker culture just had to give way to the stronger one.” Ranger appealed to Berkhofer to consider that extra-European cultures “possessed open and dynamic religious systems and that they were perfectly capable of appropriating elements from Christianity in a way that made sense.” See his “Christianity and Indigenous Peoples: A Personal Overview,” Journal of Religious History 27, 3 (2003): 255–56.
  23. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 10.
  24. Brian Stanley, “Christian Missions and the Enlightenment: A Reevaluation,” in Christian Missions and the Enlightenment, ed., Brian Stanley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 8. In his outstanding study of two indigenous missionaries in the nineteenth century (including the Cree missionary Henry Budd), Tolly Bradford draws upon the work of Alberto Martinelli to suggest that “modernity” was based on the core values of individualism, rationalism, and progress. See Prophetic Identities: Indigenous Missionaries on British Colonial Frontiers, 1850–75 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012), 6–8.
  25. Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), esp. chapter 1.
  26. Crosby, vii–viii.
  27. Marius Barbeau, “Our Indians—Their Disappearance,” Queen’s Quarterly 38, 4 (1931): 707.
  28. Quoted in Craig, 43, n15. For the entire passage, see H.A. Cody, An Apostle of the North: Memoirs of the Right Reverend William Carpenter Bompas, eds., William R. Morrison and Kenneth S. Coates (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2002), 117. Amidst the contradictions present within the missionary experience in Canada, Bompas also gained a reputation of advocating for the political interests of Indigenous peoples and, as his tenure in the North passed into decades, for incorporating Native traditions into Anglican services. See William R. Morrison and Kenneth S. Coates, “W.C. Bompas: An Apostle of the North,” in Cody, Apostle of the North, lxxi–lxxv. {178}
  29. There is much literature on this debate, but see Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), esp. chapters 5–6. Again, without trying to inject too much anecdote into this essay, during a visit to Moose Factory in 2006, my MoCreebec host raised this precise issue as one that was still an obstacle in Native-newcomer relationships.
  30. Carter, 27.
  31. Richard L. Twiss, Rescuing Theology from the Cowboys: An Emerging Indigenous Expression of the Jesus Way in North America (n.p., 2014), 35.
  32. Grant, 266.
  33. C.T. McIntire, “Approaches and Themes in the History of Missions,” in Canadian Protestant and Catholic Missions, 1820s–1960s. Historical Essays in Honour of John Webster Grant, eds., John S. Moir and C.T. McIntire (New York: Peter Lang, 1988), 15–16.
  34. Michael D. McNally, “The Practice of Native American Christianity,” Church History 69, no. 4 (2000): 834.
  35. Ibid., 834, 840 (emphasis in the original).
  36. A sampling of important monographs includes Bradford, Prophetic Identities; Peggy Brock, The Many Voyages of Arthur Wellington Clah: A Tsimshian Man on the Pacific Northwest Coast (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011); Susan Neylan, The Heavens are Changing: Nineteenth-Century Protestant Missions and Tsimshian Christianity (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003); Donald Smith, Mississauga Portraits: Ojibwe Voices from Nineteenth-Century Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013); Smith, Sacred Feathers: The Reverend Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby) and the Mississauga Indians (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987);
  37. Peggy Brock, “Setting the Record Straight: New Christians and Mission Christianity,” in Indigenous Peoples and Religious Change, ed. Peggy Brock (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 125.
  38. On Clah, see Brock, Many Voyages; Brock, “Two Indigenous Evangelists: Moses Tjalkabota and Arthur Wellington Clah,” Journal of Religious History 27, 3 (2003): 348–66; Neylan, Heavens are Changing, esp. chapter 6; Neylan, “Eating the Angels’ Food: Arthur Wellington Clah—An Aboriginal Perspective on Being Christian, 1857–1909,” in Canadian Missionaries, Indigenous Peoples, 88–108.
  39. Brock, Many Voyages, 150.
  40. Neylan, Heavens are Changing, esp. chapters 5–6.
  41. Available at: Also see Janna Graham, “The Sweat Lodge (Documentary),” available at: For interviews with participants see APTN National News, “Cree Community bans FNs Spirituality,” available at: Numerous web comments that follow this last article refer to the residents of Oujé-Bougoumou as colonized Natives.
  42. Grant, 264. {179}
  43. See Jacobs, 187–88; Twiss, 12–18; Terry LeBlanc and Jennifer LeBlanc, “NAIITS: Contextual Mission, Indigenous Context,” Missiology: An International Review 34, 1 (2011): 87–100; Michael VandenEnden, “Aboriginal Cultural Recovery and the Fear of Syncretism,” Direction 39, 2 (2010): 234–43. For a study that includes excerpts of interviews with a number of the leaders of Native evangelicals who work in contextual ministries, see Andrea Smith, “Native Evangelicals and Scriptural Ethnologies,” in MisReading America: Scriptures and Difference, ed. Vincent L. Wimbush (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 23–85.
  44. Andrea Smith, “Decolonization in Unexpected Places: Native Evangelicalism and the Rearticulation of Mission,” American Quarterly 62, 3 (2010): 569–90.
  45. See Twiss, Rescuing Theology from the Cowboys, 127; and more generally, his One Church, Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2000).
  46. Gene L. Green, “The Death of Mission: Rethinking the Great Commission,” address at “Indigenous Reality: Moving Beyond Colonial and Post-colonial Conversations,” George Fox University, 7 June 2014. For an exploration of the gospel narrative as means for re-thinking evangelicalism, see Ray Aldred, “The Resurrection of Story,” Journal of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies 2 (2004): 5–14.
  47. See David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shift in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991).
  48. Leigh Anne Williams, “Awaiting Birth of Mishamikoweesh,” Anglican Journal, 5 May 2014. Available at
  49. See Neil Funk-Unrau, “Renegotiation of Social Relations Through Public Apologies to Canadian Aboriginal Peoples,” in Pushing the Boundaries: New Frontiers in Conflict Resolution and Collaboration, ed. Rachel Fleishman et al. (Bingley, UK: JAI, 2008), 1–19; Jeremy M. Bergen, Ecclesial Repentance: The Churches Confront Their Sinful Past (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2011), esp. chapter 2.
  50. See Alvina Block, “Mennonite Missionary Henry Neufeld and Syncretism Among the Pauingassi Ojibwa, 1955–1970,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 19 (2001): 47–64.
  51. See the essays in Steve Heinrichs, ed., Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice, and Life Together (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2013).
  52. Joe Desjarlais notes that in forty years of church attendance, he does not recall a single reference to Aboriginal peoples from the pulpit. See “A Missing Conversation,” Journal of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies 7 (2009): 79. For recent efforts to bring greater awareness to Aboriginal issues, see, for example, Mennonite Church Canada, Indigenous Relations, at, and Mennonite Central Committee, Indigenous Work,
Brian Gobbett is Associate Vice President (Academic) at Briercrest College and Seminary in Caronport, Saskatchewan, and adjunct professor of history at Trinity Western University, Langley, BC. He is also church warden at St. Aiden Anglican Church in Moosejaw, Saskatchewan.

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