American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Baptist Church

Rooted in the formal sacred rites of admitting a person into the Christian Church by way of total immersion in water, the Baptist Church is one of the world's largest Christian fellowships with more than 35 million members worldwide (Livingstone, 1997, 150). The church has made a significant impact on Indian Country, especially in the American South and Southwest. Evolving from the known custom of submerging Jewish converts during the time of John the Baptist and from the words of Jesus Christ, who refers to the practice in Matt. 29:19 and Jn. 3:5, the modern Baptist Church's origins lie with John Smyth, an English minister who separated from the state church of England and emigrated to Holland, where the first Baptist Church began in 1609 with baptism representing a shared faith by the congregation. Subsequently, some of Smyth's congregation began the first Baptist Church after returning to England in 1612 (Livingstone, 1997, 154).

Founded in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1639, the first Baptist congregation in North America preceded significant growth during the Great Awakening throughout the middle Atlantic colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Fahlbusch, 1999, 197). By the nineteenth century, Baptist missionaries began moving into the American South and West, evangelizing to rural Southerners. In 1817, the Baptist General Convention started the process of converting American Indians, turning over the work to the Missionary Union from 1846 to 1865, when the responsibility transferred to the American Baptist Home Mission Society. Peoples impacted by the missions included the Pottawatomis and Miamis (1817), Cherokees (1818), Ottawas (1822), Muscogees (Creek) (1823), Oneidas, Tonawandas and Tuscaroras (1824), Choctaws (1826), Ojibwas (1828), Shawnees (1831), Otoes (1833), Omahas (1833), Delawares and Stockbridges (1833), and Kickapoos (1834) (Armitage, 1890). None of the tribes was more affected than those who were removed from the southeastern United States, such as the Cherokees, Muscogees (Creek), Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles, to Indian Territory, which eventually became the state of Oklahoma. By 1851, the Muscogee Baptist Association was formed and began its own missions to western Oklahoma peoples, such as the Wichitas and Kiowas. By the beginning of the twentieth century, a Baptist mission existed within the tribal areas of practically every people in Oklahoma, such as the Osages, Pawnees, Comanches, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Caddos, Apaches, and Delawares. Moving west, by the 1950s Baptist missions established themselves in New Mexico among the Mescalero Apache, Navajo (Dine), and Pueblo peoples such as the Santa Claras, Taos, and Picuris, as well as the Jicarilla Apaches in northern New Mexico (Belvin, 1955, 67–76). Further entrenchment by the Baptists also occurred in the 1950s among the tribes of Arizona, such as the Navajos, Maricopas, White River Apaches, Pimas, and Papagos, as well as in southern Utah (Belvin, 1955, 93–99).

Even though Baptists were making inroads into tribal areas of the southwestern United States, by 1955, 75 percent of American Indians in the Southern Baptist Convention were in Oklahoma (Belvin, 1955, 17). That legacy represents the impact on the Southeastern tribes of the encroaching American society into traditional tribal homelands during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and a primary tenet of most of that encroachment was to "civilize," meaning Christianize, the Native peoples of the region. Subsequently, during the removal period of the 1830s when tribal people were rounded up and forced to Indian Territory, Baptist Christianity came with them, then proceeded west under the impetus of missionaries. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Baptist churches operated by and for American Indians could be found from Virginia and Texas to Montana and California.

Hugh W. Foley, Jr.


Further Reading
Armitage, Thomas. 1890. A History of the Baptists. New York: Bryan, Taylor, & Co. Electronic edition available at: http://www.fbinstitute.com/armitage/. Accessed May 25, 2005.; Belvin, B. Frank. 1955. The Tribes Go Up: A Study of the American Indian. Atlanta, GA: Home Mission Board.; Fahlbusch, Erwin, ed. 1999. "Baptists." In The Encyclopedia of Christianity. English translation. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company and Koninklijke Brill NV.; Livingstone, E. A., ed. 1997. "Baptism." In The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
 

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