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Baptist work among Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.

Baptists have attempted to Christianize Native Americans since Roger Williams. Leon McBeth related how a pre-Baptist Williams purposed to learn Indian languages, and by 1632, was conducting missionary work among the tribes of New England. (1)

Apparently, the first identifiable Indian convert was Japheth, a Connecticut man immersed into the Seventh Day Baptist Church at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1674. Progress, however, was always slow and fitful at best. By the end of the eighteenth century, Robert G. Gardner estimated only .34 percent of the Indian population east of the Mississippi was Baptist--one in three hundred. Due largely to the efforts of the Triennial Convention and the American Indian Association, Native American Baptists grew to 2.5 percent of the total Baptist population by 1845. (2) Before the Civil War stalled everything, American Baptists had sixty missionaries commissioned to serve among the Indians with reports of two thousand baptisms. (3)

The Pacific Northwest, however, experienced no such successes. Oregon and Washington were pioneer lands, and the first Baptist church did not constitute in the area until 1844. Wilderness conditions, sporadic warfare, and blatant prejudice made life dangerous and miserable for white settlers and threatened the very existence of many tribes. This article traces the ministry efforts toward Native Americans attempted by Baptists in the Pacific Northwest. Though the efforts and successes were paltry, recent times reveal new opportunities.

Beginnings in Native American Missions in the Pacific Northwest

Most histories on the topic of Native American missions are concerned with denominational or biographical efforts. Yet, Indians of the Pacific Northwest received their first knowledge of Christianity from individual English and American settlers and fur traders in the early 1800s. Those efforts were usually not missionary in nature, but exploitative. For the Native American, however, religion meant power, and the superior level of white culture meant their gods must be greater. The year 1825 proved to be an important one. Two Indian boys from the Spokane and Kootenay tribes were chosen to receive an education from the Church of England Mission in Red River, Canada. The two young men returned south to their tribes in 1830, and many began to adopt the simple Christianity espoused by these young men. Traders and trappers reported seeing Indians in Christian worship during the 1830s. Out of this experience, four Nez Perce Indians arrived in St. Louis in the fall of 1831, asking for the gospel to be brought to their territory. This set off worldwide interest in the Christianization of Indians in Oregon. (4)

While a Church of England influence initiated the quest, the Methodists and Presbyterians supplied the next foundational layer. Yet, a Baptist can arguably be considered as an indirect catalyst on the quickly unfolding events. In Boston, an enterprising school teacher named Hall J. Kelley founded the American Society for Encouraging the Settlement of the Oregon Territory. Kelley, a Baptist, became fanatically dedicated to Oregon after reading an account of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He visited the Northwest and returned home. In pamphlets and articles published in major New England newspapers, Kelley beat the drum of opportunity to all to join his vision of a new Plymouth colony in the Northwest, a place where the church would be the standard bearer. Kelley, however, did not have missions to Indians in mind as much as a white settlement that would be grounded in Christian morals and spiritual principles. (5) Thus, a highly receptive atmosphere existed in the East with regard to a Northwest settlement in the early 1830s. This receptivity increased when the four Nez Perce arrived in St. Louis, and the result was a dramatic--and for many, deadly--chain of events.

The first penetration with Indian missions in mind was made by Methodists. In 1834, Jason Lee arrived from New York and built a mission and school for Indians in the Willamette Valley, near present-day Salem. Kelley later insisted that it was his influence that inaugurated the first missionary effort in Oregon, but Lee always denied that claim and pointed to the four Indian visitors as his own inspiration. Lee took three Indians back East with him on one trip and was able to appropriate $40,000 for further Oregon work. By 1840, he attempted to establish other mission stations with Indian ministry in mind, but all failed except one in The Dalles. (6)

Presbyterian missionaries arrived next in 1836 to undertake the building of their own Indian mission. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman started their work near Walla Walla. Their lives ended tragically as a case study in the clash of cultures. Things went reasonably well for a decade. Then Cayuse Indians believed Marcus Whitman was not trying hard enough to cure their diseases--diseases introduced by white settlers--but was instead trying to poison them in order to seize their lands. Fourteen died on November 29, 1847, in what would henceforth be known as The Whitman Massacre. (7) Meanwhile, other groups had begun their own Indian ministries in the Northwest. The Church of England sent Herbert Beaver in 1836. Jesuit ministry became evident by 1841. Painfully missing from this missionary effort to Native Americans were the Baptists.

Early Baptists and Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest

Baptists were unable to match the beginnings of other groups in ministry to Native Americans. Daniel Morgan suggested that Baptists did not respond to the first plea of Indian missions because, in part, Baptists were already involved in missions to the tribes in the Great Plains area of America. (8) Perhaps more than anything else, their non-participation in early Indian mission efforts in the Northwest resulted from their being late arrivals on the frontier and their constant financial difficulties. Baptists in the Northwest seemed always to barely scrape by.

The first Baptist church in the Northwest, the West Union Baptist Church, constituted on May 25, 1844, in the home of David Lenox. Vincent Shelling, the first Baptist minister in the Pacific Northwest, arrived the next year. All the charter members were a part of the "Oregon Excitement." Whitman even served as a guide for the Baptists on their 1843 journey. After 1844, Baptist churches slowly multiplied. By 1848, five Baptist churches had been formed, and by 1852, eleven existed. But plainly lacking was any organized effort at winning Native Americans, at least when compared with other religious groups. (9)

Ezra Fisher appears to be one of the few early Baptists who were concerned with the Indian question. He arrived in the area with American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) support in 1845. In the next few years, Fisher founded a few churches and was an eyewitness to the nascent growth of Baptists. Meanwhile, Lee's Indian mission began a downward spiral. He was dismissed from his post in 1844, and Methodist Indian missionary work never recovered. When the Whitman Massacre occurred, settlers were more unnerved than even before. The massacre resulted in the Presbyterian mission being disbanded, and it also effectively put a halt on all Indian mission activity for any Protestant group. (10) Fisher deeply regretted the stoppage of missions to the interior area of Oregon and Washington, including the fact that Protestant withdrawal left Roman Catholics with "undisputed sway over all those savage minds." (11) Yet, the massacre also increased fear of Indians among the white settlers. Fisher stated in 1848, "Yet we do not feel ourselves altogether safe living as we do in the midst of small tribes." (12)

The Indian population of the Pacific Northwest, never large, was eventually decimated by contact with whites. In particular, the tribes of the lower Columbia and Willamette Valley became so disease-ridden that they constituted no threat to white-settler encroachment. Whites brought small pox and malaria to the Indians, and an estimated 90 percent of Indians died. This one fact alone made whites the majority race in the Northwest by the late nineteenth century. (13) The more numerous interior Indians, less exposed to whites, proved to be more resistant.

After passage of the Donation Land Law in 1850, white officials sought mightily to extinguish the Indian title to the Oregon territory. Sporadic warfare continued through the 1850s between the whites and the Yakima, Nez Perce, Rogue River, and Modoc tribes, and the reservation system was essentially in place by 1860. These events retarded or more often suspended religious activity as a whole, let alone missionary activity to Indians. (14)

Clifford Miller said it plain enough: "Baptists had no work among Indians of the Pacific Northwest." (15) Limited assistance from the ABHMS, the poor record of Indian missions by all Protestant groups, and the decline of Jesuit work combined together to inspire that little or no mission work be undertaken among Baptists. The small congregations were burdened by their own material needs and geographical limitations. Baptist pioneer Calvin B. West spoke of "red men" sympathetically. Umpqua Indians attended his preaching services and school, and they treated West with "a great deal of respect." But West was too busy serving whites, and he had "but little time to devote to the poor heathen, but I must do all I can." (16) Likewise, Fisher mentioned Indians often in his letters, but usually on how they hindered religious work. Yet, in 1855, he wrote that if he were "a young man, I sometimes think I should delight to propagate the blessed gospel among these tribes and see if they could not be saved...." (17) Such correspondence confirms that no concerted ministry was attempted by Baptists among Native Americans.

The same lack of effort and success played itself out in the latter half of the nineteenth century, particularly in the rural environs of eastern Oregon. Periodic uprisings took place in 1877 and 1878 between Nez Perce, Bannocks, and other tribes against white settlers. Baptists in this area reported how they lost property and livelihood and were prevented from attending meetings and church services. (18) The sad scenario continued halfway into the twentieth century. (19) Thus, whereas ministry to Indians generally increased in other parts of the United States, it never got off the ground in the Pacific Northwest.

Modern Efforts

Southern Baptist ministry to Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest today is the strongest mission effort among Baptists. Other Baptist groups have few concerted on-going efforts. Part of the success of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in the area is the simple fact that the convention has more money available for mission efforts. (20) Three modern examples among Baptists will be accented in this section.

The first example is the pioneer effort done on the Warm Springs Reservation near Madras, Oregon. In 1957, Southern Baptist work was established on the reservation, and Eugene Branch was appointed by the SBC's Home Mission Board (HMB), but he left a few years later for Arizona. Allen and Juanita Elston were appointed in March of 1960 to serve on the reservation. They began with ministry with children, but success was profoundly slow. Roy Johnson's 1968 history book noted of the Elstons: "They have been well received by the Indian people and have led an expanding ministry." (21) Allen Elston related that many children made professions of faith, but they stopped participating when they became teenagers, and no adults attended the mission services. By 1970, the name "mission" was dropped, and the small group constituted as a church. A few women finally became involved. Not until 1978, after eighteen years of labor, was the first man converted. From that point forward, the church began to make progress. A men's Bible class was started. One of the men eventually became a Bible study teacher. Finally, several adults accepted more responsibilities with church and Vacation Bible School. By 1993, an indigenous church was worshipping at the Warm Springs Reservation. That same year, the Elstons retired after thirty-three years of service among the Native Americans. (22)

A second example is the Morning Star Ministry in north central Washington. This ministry was birthed when Vicki James began working as a tutor for Native American students in Omak Middle/High School. When one of her students was killed in a car wreck, James heard God ask her, "How many more will die before they come to know me?" This call from God resulted in her beginning the work of sharing the gospel on the Colville Indian Reservation and her subsequent vision of planting an indigenous church. Challenged and supported by her pastor, Rick McLaughlin, James took her ministry to the reservation, and Morning Star became a reality. Thanks to sponsorship from New Fellowship Baptist Church in the Coulee Association and the Northwest Baptist Convention, Morning Star Ministry is now a full-time work. (23)

The third example is the impressive work accomplished by Korean Baptists in the Pacific Northwest. Korean Baptists have purposefully targeted Native Americans with the gospel in part because of the lack of success on the part of Anglo-churches. For example, Tacoma First Baptist Church, a Korean congregation that is one of the largest churches in the Northwest Baptist Convention, has made several annual mission trips to work with Indian tribes in Washington and Canada. Another instance is the ministry performed by Seong Hwa and Jong Youn Park, who have been working among the First Nations people of three different tribes (the Muckleshoot, Tulalip, and the Sauk-Suiattle) in Washington's Puget Sound area. The couple began ministry with weekly intercessory prayer for the people of Muckleshoot nation in 1998 while Seong Hwa Park was serving as associate pastor at the Seattle Korean Baptist Church. Today, the Parks minister every Wednesday and Sunday to a Muckleshoot church. On Tuesdays, they visit the senior center and nursing home on the Tulalip Reservation near Marysville and minister to people through prayer and Bible reading. Seong Hwa related, "I baptized one man three years ago, and last year we helped a couple of elderly men and women accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. And we do evangelize people that we meet on the reservation by sharing the gospel and giving them gospel tracts." Since 2002, they have also been ministering to the Sauk-Suiattle tribe near Darrington. (24)


The United States today has 2.8 million registered Native Americans, and 563 federally recognized tribes. Over two hundred Indian languages, not counting dialects, are spoken. (25) A 2003 United States census related that 30 percent of rural Indians live in poverty. Indians also have the highest rates in alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, broken families, and violent crime. These statistics plainly reveal that the door of ministry remains wide open and that the need among Native Americans to hear and respond to the gospel is great.

In spite of some recent successes, the dearth of consistent evangelistic witness plagues modern Baptist efforts among Native Americans in the Northwest as it does throughout the United States. Today, several other Christian groups are loosely connected with missions to Native Americans in the Northwest. The most successful ministries, however, seem to move along the society method of interested people. First Nations Ministry, Frontier Missions, and Warriors for Christ are three examples of nondenominational ministry to Northwest Native Americans. Outsider missionaries and weekend evangelism teams, however, have had little success in meeting the spiritual needs of Native Americans, and the language barriers continue to be a factor contributing to the limited success.

Ministry to Native Americans continues to be challenging. The needs are great for less than 2 percent of Native Americans are Christians after two hundred years of evangelizing. On the West Coast, that figure represents only .2 percent of the total Christian population. Yet, the limited success in 2008 is not due to the lack of work and spiritual power on the part of Christian missionaries. Instead, the Native American perspective is that the failure of Christianity to thrive is the result of (1) the residual anger and difficulties generated by the Indian wars during which even their women and children were massacred; (2) the broken treaties that led to broken trust; (3) the reservations being located on the worst land available, which led to despair and anger; and (4) the establishment of boarding schools that were produced for the purpose of taking the "Indian out of the Indian." (26) No wonder Christianity is still "the white man's religion."

(1.) Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 127. Mark A. Noll provided a simple overview of the earliest mission attempts with Native Americans in A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 73-77. Baptist work among Indians is overviewed in Joshua Grijalva, Ethnic Baptist History (Miami, FL: Meta Publishers, 1992), 29-57.

(2.) Robert G. Gardner, "Baptists and Indians of North America, 1674-1845," Baptist History & Heritage 18, no. 3 (1983): 21-22, 27-28.

(3.) Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, 3rd ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1973), 376.

(4.) Thomas E. Jessett, "Christian Missions to the Indians of Oregon," Church History 28 (1959): 147-50. In an earlier article ("The Church of England in the Old Oregon Country," Church History 22 [1953]: 219-226), Jessett argued a solid case for the Church of England being the first group to attempt evangelism among Pacific Northwest Indians.

(5.) Jonathan Howes Webster, "The ABCFM and the First Presbyterian Missions in the Northwest," American Presbyterians 65, no. 3 (1987): 176.

(6.) Jessett, "Christian Missions," 150. See Clifford Miller, Baptists and the Oregon Frontier (Portland, OR: Oregon Baptist Convention, 1967), 18-19; and Daniel Morgan, "Southern Baptist Contextualization in the Pacific Northwest" (Ph.D. diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1996), 7-8, 11-14.

(7.) Numerous books have been written about the Whitman massacre. See Oliver W. Nixon, How Marcus Whitman Saved Oregon (Chicago: Star Publishing Co., 1895) and C. M. Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon (Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clarke, 1973).

(8.) Morgan, "Southern Baptist Contextualization in the Pacific Northwest," 9.

(9.) In addition to Miller and Morgan, the most valuable resources on Baptist history in the Pacific Northwest are Charles Mattoon, Baptists in Oregon (McMinnville, OR: Telephone Register Co., 1905); J. C. Baker, Baptist History of the North Pacific Coast (Philadelphia: ABHMS, 1912); Roy Johnson, Northwest Southern Baptists (Portland, OR: Baptist General Convention of Oregon-Washington, 1968); Albert Wardin, Baptists in Oregon (Nashville, TN: Curley Printing, 1969); and Cecil Sims, Roy Johnson, and Max Daley, Northwest Southern Baptists, 1884-1998 (Vancouver, WA: Northwest Baptist Historical Society, 1998). Only Miller and Morgan, however, address missionary activity to Native Americans.

(10.) Miller, Baptists and the Oregon Frontier, 34-35, 40-41.

(11.) Ibid., 104.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) See Michael McGregor, "Spreading Old World Contagions," education/oregonhistory, accessed April 22, 2008.

(14.) Miller, Baptists and the Oregon Frontier, 104-05.

(15.) Ibid., 105.

(16.) Ibid., 106.

(17.) Ibid.

(18.) Wardin, Baptists in Oregon, 171; Mattoon, Baptists in Oregon, 289-91.

(19.) Torbet, A History of the Baptists, 375-77. Success elsewhere in the United States is relative. An example is Robert Hamilton's The Gospel among the Red Men (Nashville, TN: Sunday School Board, 1930). The intent of the book was to relate the achievements of ministry among Native Americans. While the book meets that basic purpose, the overall impression the book affords is one of how hard this missionary enterprise really was.

(20.) For example, I contacted Conservative Baptist Association of America and American Baptist Churches, USA. There have been individual efforts, but the small number of churches and lack of funds have prevented a stronger emphasis.

(21.) Johnson, Northwest Southern Baptists, 208. See Russell Begaye, "The Story of Indian Southern Baptists" Baptist History & Heritage Society 18, no. 3 (1983): 36.

(22.) Sims, Johnson, and Daley, Northwest Southern Baptists, 1884-1998, 197-98.

(23.) E-mail correspondence with Vince Inzerillo, Language Missions Strategist, Northwest Baptist Convention, April 2, 2008.

(24.) Ibid.

(25.) Native American Ministries at, accessed April 22, 2008. Although not the purpose of this article, the pregnant question of how best to do missions among Native Americans must be asked. An older, but still excellent ideological model of ministry is found in George J. Jennings, "A Model for Christian Missions to the American Indians," Missiology: An International Review 11, no. 1 (1983): 55-74, and a more pastoral approach is offered by Steven Charleston, "The Good, the Bad and the New: The Native American Missionary Experience," Dialog: A Journal of Theology 40:2 (2001): 99-104.

(26.) "The Need for Native American Discipleship Training," Warriors for Christ,, accessed April 22, 2008.

Michael Kuykendall is professor of New Testament Studies at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, Vancouver, Washington, and president, Northwest Baptist Historical Society.
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Author:Kuykendall, Michael
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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