Early American Religion’s Effect on Native Americans

In the early American colonies, religion was a tool that settlers used to promote a lifestyle that was the opposite of that of the Native Americans. Clergymen depicted Native Americans as infidels who lived savage lifestyles primarily because of their lack of protestant religion. This was not the case, but it was successful in driving settlers towards religion as they came to fear the unknown and the dangers that lay ahead of them on the frontier. Several newspapers even went as far to assert that people settling the new frontier should only live with members of the same religion as they might become corrupted by the savages if they did not. My study is based on an examination of such newspaper articles containing words such as “religion”, “savages”, and “Indian” between 1764 and 1786. I examined these articles in order to determine the effect that Protestantism had on the Native Americans in early America.


My visualization emphasizes the word “religion” as it is the largest word by far. I expected this primarily because many of the articles that I used emphasized the importance of religion and the lack of religion among Indian tribes. For example, articles such as a discussion between an Indian chief and a clergyman would mention religion many times as it would be the main topic of discussion. The Indian chief would tell the clergyman about the religion of his forefathers, but the clergyman would refuse to recognize these religions and would instead attempt to explain why Protestantism is the only true way. It also constitutes talk of missionary efforts and sermons in which clergymen tell their congregation to turn to religion or else they will be no different from the “savages”.

Another key word in my visualization seems to be the word “new.”  At first, this surprised me, but upon further examination it seems as though this word is simply a replacement for the word conversion or missionary. Protestantism is often referred to as the “new way” or the “new religion” which would explain why this word is as large as it is. Many of the articles have to do with the conversion of the natives or the “savages” which would contribute to the size of this word. In fact, I am surprised that my visualization did not include words such as “alcohol” or “prayer towns” as these things were key to conversion efforts and would often times leave the Indian community in ruins after the missionaries came and went.

By introducing the Natives to alcohol and making it easily available, many were driven to drink by the changes going on around them as they watched their tribes wither and die. At that point, missionaries would have an easier time converting them to Christianity as many Indians would come to believe that their native religions had failed them. For example, in his book The American Revolution in Indian Country, Calloway states that “Colonial officials lamented alcohol’s effects but recognized its usefulness in destabilizing Indian communities” (Calloway 14). Praying towns were often used as a tool in order to separate the ideal Indian converts from the rest of the tribe. This separation would put pressure on the Indians if one of their loved ones converted and it would keep this ideal convert from falling back on their “savage” ways. The missionaries would exploit “existing divisions” and one Indian chief even went as far as to say that the presence of missionaries “would be destructive to the nation, and finally overthrow all the traditions and uses of [our] Forefathers and there would not be a warrior remaining in [our] nation in the course of a few years” (14).

Although the clergy often used religion as a tool to drive white settlers towards religion, it was also used as a tool to attempt to rescue the Native Americans. This was often poorly received by the Indians, as they felt that Protestantism was too based in scripture and in social status. In one article, an Indian chief explains that he feels as though he and his people do not feel welcome in Protestant congregations as many Protestants believe that dark skinned infidels such as themselves are unable to truly form a relationship with God. He goes on to assert that it is not worth following a God who would see him and his people as lesser than others simply based upon the color of their skin. An interesting aspect of the visualization is the size of words such as “knowledge”, “opinion”, and “reason.”  They are rather large and represent the missionary efforts of the clergy as they attempted to reason with and convert the Indians. The Indians believed it was a matter of opinion while the Protestants believed that it was actually simple reasoning as to why Protestantism was the correct religion to follow.

The word “savages” is larger than the word “Indians” likely because the word Indians was not used as often until the later years that my research covered. Furthermore, the word Indian is used mostly in official documents while the word savages is used in sermons, government papers, and just basic opinion newspaper articles. The word “heathen” was also not used as often as I expected probably because my research did not cover the Catholic perspective of Indians which would have referred to them as “godless heathens” rather than “brutal savages” like the Protestants did. In fact, an interesting word on my visualization is the word “manners” which came up frequently when talking about the ways that the “savages” lived. It seems as though the lack of traditional European manners by Indians was a strong contributing factor to the early colonists believing them to be savages and cannibals. General John Sullivan once even went as far as to say “civilization or death to all American savages” before leading an American military campaign against the Iroquois towns (Hagan 38).

Traditional views of European influence on Native American is one of total European domination with Natives being depicted as “passive victims”. However, the evidence collected here seems to tell a different story of Indians fighting for their traditions and their survival. Missionaries had to manipulate them in order to be successful in converting them and many Indians were committed to the religion of their Forefathers up until their tribe had all but dissolved in front of their eyes.

Native American religions would see a rapid decline as many of their members converted to Christianity which is still popular among Native Americans today. Religion to the early colonists was a tool to not only convert the Indians and make them join white society, but also to keep their fellow colonists in line by saying that religion was the only thing besides race that was different between the Indians and the whites. If the colonists gave up their religion, they were barely better than the savages that killed their people.

For further reading:

American Indians. The Chicago History of American Civilization Series. 48 Vol. Geographical Association, 1963.

Calloway, Colin G. The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. New York; Cambridge [England]; Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Native American Religion in Early America,” Divining America, TeacherServe®, National Humanities Center.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Indians in American Society: From the Revolutionary War to the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

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