“Owned by the white people”: America and Native Americans in Church History Sunday School Lessons, 1934
I recently moved, and in the process spent some time going through the several boxes of papers (consisting mostly of photocopies of archival documents, papers written for courses as both an undergrad and grad student, and old syllabi) I’ve accumulated over the last few years. Among those papers were several tracts and pamphlets published in the early 20th century by the LDS church—a gift from a BYU professor cleaning out his own collection of research material a couple of years back. I sat down and started reading one of those pamphlets last night—Church History Sunday School Lessons, 1934. As I scanned the first several lessons presented, I was struck by two things—first, that the manual spent the initial four lessons on the following subjects: “Columbus, the Great Discoverer,” “Martin Luther,” “How the Pilgrims Helped,” and “How Washington Aided.” These four lessons were grouped under the larger heading “Getting the World Ready for the True Church.” That seemed an odd—though not necessarily surprising—narrative to present in a Sunday School setting, and I’m curious how those particular individuals and groups were selected to be included. Perhaps a little digging might turn up some interesting results that I can blog about in the future. For now, I’d like to focus on the second thing that struck me about those initial lessons—the place of American Indians in this narrative of the Restoration.
They make their first appearance in the very first sentence of the first lesson (“Columbus, the Great Discoverer”):
As we look at America today, we see it owned by the white people who have filled it with cities, railroads, autos, and flying machines. But it was not like this three hundred years ago. At that time the Pilgrims had just landed among the savages, called Indians, who owned everything—the rivers, the lakes, the mountains. America had been theirs for over two thousand years. Six hundred years before Christ the Lord led their fathers to this Promised Land, under the direction of the great Prophets Lehi and Nephi. The Lord promised them, “You can have this beautiful country forever if you will serve me, but if you don’t, it will be given to the Gentiles.” After hundreds of years, the Nephites grew wicked and were cursed with a dark skin. It was in this condition that Columbus found them (p. 1).
The lesson goes onto explain that “the Lord wanted to send his True Church to the Promised Land” but was unable to because He “couldn’t send it to these savages who roamed the land in idleness.” Luckily, Nephi “saw white people coming, sailing over the many waters, coming to find the Red Men and to get things ready for the True Church.” Using 1 Nephi 13 as a guide, the manual identifies Columbus as the first of these “white people.” His arrival in the New World, the first lesson concludes, was evidence that “The Lord was making ready for Joseph Smith” (pp. 1-3).
American Indians make only a brief appearance in the second lesson (“Martin Luther”), in the form of a transition sentence in the opening paragraph. But they are again featured in the third (“How the Pilgrims Helped”). The Pilgrims are portrayed as sincere, honest, and meek devotees of Christ striving for true religion. They can do no wrong in the author’s mind; in a passage reflecting the historiographical picture of the Pilgrims then in vogue, we learn that the Pilgrims not only settled New England, but also initiated the basis of what would become American democracy and religious freedom. And no one, we are assured, was kinder to the Natives whom they encountered upon their arrival. “Every writer who tells about these noble Pilgrims, says they were ‘a religious body of freedom seekers, ruling with such reason and mercy for themselves and the Red Man, that they soon became the pattern for all future colonies'” (p. 6).
The central message of the first three lessons then (as it relates to American Indians) is that through God’s great providence and mercy, these poor, benighted, and racially-cursed souls were treated with kindness and justice by those blessed white people God led to the Promised Land. The concern, though, is not at all with the salvation of the Natives through the paternalistic care and preaching of the European settlers (as one might expect from the author’s use of 1 Nephi 13 as a guiding text (see 1 Nephi 13:30-31)). Rather, the sole concern is with the Promised Land being prepared for the Restoration of the True Church through Joseph Smith. This is made explicitly clear in the fourth lesson (“How Washington Aided”). Readers are informed that “at Washington’s time, there remained four big things to do, getting America ready for the true church. As soon as these were done, the Lord would be ready.” So what were those “four big things”?
First: The Indians must be conquered.
Second: The rule of the French broken.
Third: America must be taken from the grip of England.
Fourth: Religious Freedom given to the Promised Land. (p. 8).
Hence Washington’s important role in this particular narrative of the Restoration’s prehistory. These “savage Indians” were no match for “the power of the Lord [resting] upon Washington,” nor were the Indians’ supposed allies, the French. “When he was nineteen, fighting with unusual courage against the French and Indians, he was chosen captain in the army.” Escaping near death because “his mission had only begun, he was saved in a marvelous manner. After many years of fighting, the Indians were driven far beyond the Hill Cumorah where Moroni hid the golden records, and where Joseph Smith was to live.” The French, meanwhile, were similarly driven from the lands “where the Kirtland and Nauvoo Temples were to be built,” as well as from “the Rocky Mountains … where fifty years later the pioneers were to come.” This was, of course, all providential, because “had the Indians or French known that the valuable Book of Mormon records were hid in one of their hills, they would have searched carefully for it. We now see these tow big events finished” (p. 8). Upon taking care of these ethnic and racial foes, Washington then proceeded to win the Revolutionary War and institute the laws necessary for the Restoration of the gospel in the United States. “Six years after Washington died,” the lesson concludes, “Joseph Smith came, getting things ready for the restoration” (p. 9).
There’s a lot that could be discussed in this material, from the antiquated notions of “advanced” European cultures systematically defeating the lesser “primitive” cultures they encountered (and being backed by Deity in their conquest, no less) to the selective reading and interpretation of scripture offered. In addition to recognizing “that the land and cultural birthright Indians once possessed in the Great Basin were taken from them” (as Elder Jensen recently encouraged Latter-day Saints to do), I think that it’s important to recognize the subsequent ways in which Latter-day Saints treated those whose land they assumed control and ownership over. In narratives of church history like the one presented above, these “savage” “Red Men” are not only poor, idle, and spiritually lost souls racially marked for their disobedience, but their “conquering” is to be recognized as a necessary precursor to the restoration of God’s true church. Thankfully, such narratives have largely disappeared from official church publications, but I’m afraid that in the minds of some (several?) Latter-day Saints, the underlying assumptions and attitudes toward Native Americans persist.