Montana Bible
History

Black Robes and the Book of Heaven

My essay about the Native American delegation that arrived in St. Louis in the fall of 1831 appeared earlier this year in the Church History and Religious Culture journal. I am still a bit baffled as to how I published an essay in a European journal that historically has been aimed more toward a church-history-and-theology crowd, not exactly my affinity group. But then this was not exactly the kind of essay I usually write. The editor explained that they were trying to broaden their audience, and I was looking to broaden my own scholarly horizons a bit. So it worked out well for both of us.

This actually began as an out-take to my Yellowstone book that impressed me as a fascinating story of nineteenth-century American history that has received less attention than it deserves. It involves a curious encounter of Indians from the American west traveling east to ask for Christian missionaries to bring their religion to the native peoples. I wanted to expand the rather brief summary I include in the book chapter, so a journal essay seemed a good opportunity.

Here are some of the highlights of the essay:

  •  Long before Europeans and Euroamericans began penetrating the Rocky Mountain region, according to Salish oral traditions, a native prophet had predicted that “fair-skinned men wearing long black robes … would teach a new way of praying and a new moral law,” teachings that the prophet warned would deliver unprecedented upheaval to their homeland.
  • Although there is much documented evidence that four Native Americans from beyond the Rocky Mountains in the Pacific Northwest arrived in St. Louis in 1831, their story and subsequent interpretations of their arrival in the US frontier city, why they came, what they sought, and how they were received differs greatly between Protestant and Catholic sources. The main focus of the essay is on the very different stories that these two major branches of US Christianity tell of the Indian delegation.
  • In the Catholic telling of the story, Nez Perce people had learned of Christianity from Canadian Iroquois trappers who had brought with them the religion of the Black Robe, i.e., Jesuit Catholics, which they had introduced to the Nez Perce people. Subsequently, Nez Perce leaders sent a delegation east to beseech the Black Robes to send missionaries to teach Christianity to them in their native lands. “The Catholic tale celebrates the heroism of Jesuit missionaries.”
  • The Protestant version emphasizes the Indians’ desire for the powers promised by the “Book of Heaven,” i.e., the Christian Bible, that they had heard about either in Protestant schools or from fur trappers. “The hero of the Protestant tale is their holy book.”
  • Regardless of their differing religious perspectives, both Jesuit missionaries and Protestant evangelists “went west as strategic agents in the conquest, settlement, and civilizing of the continent.”
  • “The two very different stories that Protestants and Catholics tell reveal how their longstanding rivalry and mutual animosity inflected their respective interpretations of the Nez Perce delegation that came to St. Louis in 1831,” but also allowed them to ignore the earlier prophecy that “their arrival would signal an apocalyptic conclusion to native lifeways.”

The published essay “Black Robes and the Book of Heaven: When Christianity Went West” appears in Church History and Religious Culture, volume 1, number 1, pages 80-100.

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