It is often said that there is nothing so dangerous as a convert or a missionary. Although many take this idea as a kind of "tongue in cheek" characterization of the excesses of those "blinded by faith," there remains a sinister truth in the statement. George Tinker's book, Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide, clearly illustrates the dark side of missionary work, and the damage that can, and has been done to Native American cultures and peoples as a result of the inherent coupling of colonialism/ethnocentrism and religion -- what he calls, "religion in the service of evil." However, although Tinker does a wonderful job in pointing out the unfortunate "Anglo-centrism" of the missionaries he discusses, as well as the horrible price Native Americans would pay as a result of their efforts, he does not acknowledge the difficulty his position as a Christian pastor contributes to the effectiveness of his argument, nor does he reconcile the reader's doubt concerning the common problem with "reconstructive" thinking, namely, can one use the values of today to judge the values of history?
From the beginning of the book, Tinker makes it clear that his main point in writing Missionary Conquest is "that the Christian missionaries -- of all denominations working among the American Indian nations -- were partners in Genocide" (Tinker, 1993: 4). Of course, this assertion is no small thing. The term "genocide" is hardly a trifling term -- especially when coupled with an institution as supposedly benevolent (to those who support its existence) as Christian mission work. Indeed, Tinker mentions several times throughout the book the supposed "good intentions" of the very genocidal missionaries he discusses -- missionaries that, despite the very real damage they helped perpetrate against an entire people, are on the verge of "canonization:"
It is important to my thesis that my selections are among the most remembered and most revered missionaries, who have been the subjects of countless hagiographies and continue to serve as models. They have, I would argue, been elevated implicitly to the level of sainthood. My examples include John Eliot in Puritan New England, Pierre-Jean De Smet in the Northwest, soon to be officially "Saint" Junipero Serra in California, and Henry Benjamin Whipple, Episcopal bishop of Minnesota during the later part of the nineteenth century (4).
The point that Tinker wants to make in using four of the highest respected missionaries in American history, is that even at its highest, and supposed most successful level, the unavoidable mixture of the supposed, lofty ideals of Christian faith merged with cultural ethnocentrism to produce a genocidal effect on the societies of the Native American peoples. Indeed, he writes, "I intend to expose the illusion, the covert 'lie' of white self-righteousness as it was internalized and acted out by the missionaries themselves" (5).
Because Tinker is so blunt in his accusation of genocide (cultural contributing to general), he uses a strident supporting methodology to back up his claim. Not only is his research backed up by solid historical example, but he uses the words, writings, and letters of the men he critiques, themselves, to prove his thesis. However, time and again, these very words bring up questions that Tinker is not prepared to answer.
Perhaps if the author were not a Christian pastor himself, the reader might be able to understand his position more easily, however, as a Christian, one imagines that Tinker accepts many of the assumptions that the missionaries he critiques embraced. This is especially true when one considers that Tinker brings up the problem of the abolition of practices contrary to Christian doctrine.
The best example of this problem is in the problem of polygamy, which Tinker returns to several times throughout the book (pages, 26, 76, 77, 106, 135, 152), the suppression of which he charges with the "breakup of Indian families, and economic turmoil within the tribe (77). The problem with this criticism arises when one considers that the focus of the missionaries, themselves was religious, and drawn from set principles (based on the social understanding and doctrinal interpretation of the day). Because of this, it is difficult (even for Tinker) to fault the four men for working against practices they deemed inconsistent with those principles.
Tinker makes his best points when he illustrates the obvious erroneous links the four missionaries made between so called "civilization" and "faith" -- especially when describing John Eliot's "praying towns." These praying towns were, at their most simplistic, embodiments of Eliot's belief that "civilization" must come before "conversion," so much that he actually prevented (or at least delayed) the conversion of those Native Americans that came to profess faith in Christianity as a religion:
... It pleased God to stir up in them [Indians] a great desire of partaking in the Ordinance of Baptism ... But I declared unto them how necessary it was, that they should first be Civilized, by being brought from their scattered and wild course of life, into civil Cohabitation and Government ... (36).
Tinker holds that this attitude, resulting from the non-introspective ethnocentrism of Elliot and other Puritan thinkers, is directly responsible for the destruction of the Indians of New England -- for in Elliot's insistence on the de-culturalization of Indian life (in favor of the European), as a prerequisite to admission into faith, he necessarily instilled "self-hatred" (41), and he writes, "Eliot must be held historically accountable for the resulting cultural genocide of those peoples" (40).
Tinker continues to follow this technique, using the missionary's own words to show the lengths they went to in insuring the destruction of the Native American culture. In the case of Junipero Serra, he shows that the Spanish missionaries used similar techniques to "kill off" Indian culture, including the introduction of new "towns" (45), and a belief that a change in culture (to the civilized Spanish) was the first (and indispensable) step toward faith (46).
Interestingly, in the final words of Tinker's chapter on Sierra, he touches on one of the problems with forming a basis of criticism from a Christian point-of-view, even when considering the cultural genocide argument. For, although he fully presents the suffering and horror of the cultural and physical genocide of the Native American peoples, and mentions outrage over the proposed canonization of Junipero Serra, he nonetheless notes the "possibility of good intentions on the part of Serra or his colleagues ... " (69).
Similarly, in Tinker's discussion of the actions of Pierre-Jean De Smet in his efforts toward the forced settlement and "civilizing" of the Native Americans of the West (76), he brings up another problem. Here, Tinker notes, "Clearly, for De Smet, to become Christian meant to adopt the Euro American way of life. He gave little consideration either to the disruptive effects of such a sudden cultural shift or to the alienation it would generate" (76). In writing this, Tinker fails to reconcile the acknowledgement of the driving force of the missionary -- the supposed "salvation" of men through the adoption of the rules of the church, and the individual's fulfillment of that role, however flawed it appears today, with his criticism of that practice.
Finally, in Tinker's comments on the missionary activity of Henry Benjamin Whipple, and the "civilizing" he, too, advocated as a step to Christianity (95), a kind of civilization in which European dress, language, customs, and norms were mandated, he runs into the same problem of doctrine vs. Native American cultural practices (which Tinker could, in theory, refute were he not a Christian, himself), as well as the problem of intention. He writes, "In an important way, Whipple -- and the others involved in Indian missions was as much a victim of Anglo arrogance as were the Indian peoples. He really could not have done…