Christianity in the Debate of Indian Removal / by Tyler Wood

There were a lot of ideologies present in the debate upon Cherokee removal in the early 19th century in America. The main focus of power rests in the hands of nations in this debate but the role of religion is extremely significant. The stance Christianity takes is an impetus for action; originally, by the Americans that becomes a justification for the Cherokees. Late in the removal debate, before the act itself, Christianity becomes less important and policy and legality become the shining stars for the Americans to act upon. I will discuss the influence of Christianity on the debate of Indian Removal, from the Civilization program to the defense and support of Andrew Jackson and Indian removal as an Act in 1830, as well as, the decline in Christian ideas in support of removal.

The rise of the civilization program began with the fall of the "conquered nations" idea. After the Revolutionary War, America thought that since the lands of the British were now in their possession then too was the lands of their allies in the Indian population. The reaction too forcing their way into Indian land was an armed struggle. The next step would be peace in the idea of 'civilizing the savages'. 'Civilizing', at the time, meant, specifically, Christianizing them.  Theda Purdue and Michael D. Green have this to say, "'civilization' meant contemporary American culture. To be 'civilized,' Native Americans must dress, think, act, speak, work, and worship the way rural United States citizens, ideally, did." This idea of Henry Knox, the first secretary of war, was fundamental to the Indian policies laid out, and at the root of it is Christianity (Theda Purdue and Michael D. Green The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents, pg. 8-11 [C.R.])

The church, not government officials, was in charge of the process of 'civilizing the savages' which solidified the synonym of Christian and 'civilized' at the time. In most domestic affairs in America at this time the church is not directly involved (for example the police, fire department, country infrastructure building, etc…) although important advisors to a largely Christian country, they were not the government's agents to act on a policy. However, in the Indian 'civilization program' the missionaries were the authorities. The missionaries were creating an environment where the church could not be avoided by the Cherokees. The Cherokees "welcomed a school but expressed no interest in the gospel (C. R. pg. 12)," but the missionaries could not hold out since they thought that "one could not be truly 'civilized' without being Christian and vice versa (C.R. pg. 12)." They did not just teach the Cherokees to read they "taught them how to dress, eat, keep house, cook, and farm (C.R. pg. 12)." The church was effectively tied to anything else the 'whites' had to offer the Cherokees because of the relationship of the church as, essentially, diplomats to the Cherokee nation on behalf of the American government.

The church's involvement in gender specific farming technique will disrupt the Cherokee society. The church's teachings call for men, the stronger of the sexes, to be doing the farming while the women, the weaker sex, to be tending to the domestic work. The Cherokees come from a matrilineal tradition where the women farm and the men hunt. This new patriarchal idea "required a redefinition of the most basic principles of Cherokee life (C.R. pg 13)," which was hard to take hold in the Cherokee society. Most men were reluctant to do "women's work" and women were unwilling to give up their farming since, in the 'white' world, it held more significance and power. Inevitably, some Cherokees began converting to the new way of life offered up by the church. Some Cherokee men, who might not have been that important in the tribe perhaps, began "to imitate an Anglo-American way of life (C.R. pg. 13)," which proves to pay off in wealth later. This behavior began to change the rules on the Cherokee land. According to Perdue and Green the law code was forced to change because of the "disparities in wealth and the concern over protection of property (C.R. pg. 14)." The first laws were about stealing, but also giving the rights over property to men (C.R. pg.13-14).

The patriarchal system set out by the church solidified the gender change, and created laws, of inheritance from mothers passing down land to fathers passing down land and goods. The first law code of 1808 "enabled men to bequeath their wealth to their wives and children in defiance of the matrilineal tradition (C.R. pg 14)."  In the case of Young Wolf's Last Will and Testament, 1814 these laws now gave him the right to bequeath to his daughter and son his possessions (C.R. pg. 29). This, although not typical, is showing the slow change to the system set out by the church on the grounds that men are the dominant sex and they should have control over the dealing of the property and laws.

The national council is significant to the Christian influence; it takes on a strictly male population. According to John RidgesLetter to Albert Gallatin, February 27, 1826 the men are in charge of the national council, and therefore, the Cherokees, "in each of these tribes or Towns are of course some men, prominent for valor, humanity & wisdom. The Assemblage of such men forms their Council fire (C.R. pg. 37)." Before the missionaries came the women had some say in the government and now, according to Ridge, they have no representation in their own government. Women even have to petition their opinions about the ceding of their land to the Georgians to their own council. The Cherokee Women Petition, May 2, 1817 starts with an explanation of why they even have the right to speak, "The Cherokee ladys now being present at the meeting of the chiefs and warriors in council have thought it their duty as mothers to address their beloved chiefs and warriors now assembled (C.R. pg. 131)."  The idea of male dominated society was brought on solely because of the 'civilization program' and, since it is one and the same, Christianity.

Christianity becomes the center of Cherokee ideology in the elite and wealthy. The first Cherokees to convert to the 'white' way of life laid out by the missionaries became the earliest elite's among the Cherokees, as before pointed out by the laws to counter act the "disparities of wealth" by the first law code in 1808. John Ridge is an example of what that created among the Cherokees, he was of a "new generation of Cherokee leaders […] The sons of prominent warriors and traders, these young men had received an English education from private tutors or missionaries (C.R. 32)" changing the formal communal Cherokee society into a more 'white' society. These men had plantations and slaves and "moved comfortably in an Anglo-American world (C.R. pg. 32)." This did not mean they were interested in selling off their land to the whites. Much like the Cherokee Women Petition, June 30, 1818 explains, "Some of our children have become Christians. We have missionary schools among us. We have hard the gospel in our nation. We have become civilized & enlightened, & are in hopes that in a few years our nation will be prepared for instruction in other branches of sciences & arts (C.R. pg. 133)." The women were hopeful, and I think this goes for men too, that because they had learned the teachings of the Christians that they could count on the American government to follow through with the ideas. Cherokees begin to use Christian arguments to make their claim to the land that "God gave us to inhabit and raise provisions (C.R. pg. 131)," as in the Cherokee Women Petition, May 2, 1817. Also, the formation of a Cherokee Constitution, which, in the opening paragraph, acknowledges "with humility and gratitude the goodness of the sovereign Ruler of the Universe (C.R. pg. 60)," is another example of the influx of Christian ideology into Cherokee life.

The Christian ideas are the main focus of the missionaries and white women's responses to the Indian removal ideas of Andrew Jackson and Georgia. In William Penn (Jeremiah Evarts) A Brief View of the Present Relations between the Government and People of the United States and the Indians within Our National Limits, November 1829, the legal reasons are laid out by this missionary, ironically, but in the end of the letter he uses the moral argument to drive the point home that this removal would be immoral by asking, "what could be the harm of letting a few of our red neighbours, on a small remnant of their own territory, exercise the rights which God gave them (C.R. pg. 110)?" Here he is making the ultimate claim that they belong here by God's grace and this from a missionary. White women chimed in as well in support of the Cherokees. In the Catherine BeecherCircular Addressed to Benevolent Ladies of the U. States, December 25, 1829, refers back to the original ideas in 'civilizing' the Indians saying the United States "has persuaded the Indians to forsake their savage life, and adopt the habits and pursuits of civilized nations, while the charities of Christians and the labours of missionaries have sent them the blessings of the gospel to purify and enlighten (C.R. pg. 112)." Beecher is saying that we started a process to Christianize these people and it is working, for the most part, and now we are turning our back on them. She is directing her ideas at the morality, based on Christian beliefs commonly held in the country, that what America was doing was not Christian.

Christianity takes both sides, some claim it to support the removal of Indians for their own good and because they are racially not equal to the whites. Lewis Cass uses a Christian argument to support the removal on the grounds that the civilization failed, not because "of the nature of the experiment (C.R. pg. 116)," but the fact that the Cherokees are a "wretched race (C.R. pg. 117)." He is claiming that it is racial superiority that makes the whites better. This is based in an interpretation of Christianity that states "that the Creator intended the earth should be reclaimed from a state of nature and cultivated (C.R. pg. 118)," and the Indians are not doing that, in his view. This fact gives the whites the right, based on religious values of spreading across the land to cultivate it, to remove the savage race from the path of, technically, righteousness.

Christianity takes a back seat to the legal justification by Georgia, and other supporters, for removal. It becomes increasingly difficult to justify the removal by the Christian debate when the missionaries are, typically, on the side of the Cherokee so Georgia began a different attack. In the Georgia State Assembly Laws Extending Jurisdiction over the Cherokees, December 19, 1829, and December 22, 1830 (C.R. pgs. 76-79), there is no mention of a larger impetus than legality and land. The authors of these laws found it necessary to not mention any moral or ethical justification for the laws to "annul all laws and ordinances made by the Cherokee nation of Indians (C.R. pg. 76)." This points to a pattern of supporters for the removal, although Lewis Cass uses a Christian argument he doesn't mention religion very much in his writing Removal of the Indians, January 1830.Even Andrew Jackson in his State of the Union Address, December 6, 1830, uses no out-right Christian sentiment in his speech. He states that the Americas are "filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion (C.R. pg 127)." It seems that the role of Christianity has swung in favor of the Cherokees by this point and the supporters of removal are steering clear of using those arguments by the end of the 1820's.

Christianity plays a crucial role in the developing debate of Indian removal. The playing field of the debate is literally the land the Indians live on and the fact that Georgia wants it, but the mindset it is deliberated out upon is uniquely Christian. The start of the dealings on with the Cherokees was Christian based and fundamentally, in the minds of the people doing it, ethical and moral. It was a positive for all because it was religious and virtuous in nature to 'civilize' the Cherokees. It was America's little Crusade. Christians were the first whites into the Indian areas to settle and began working on converting them. The irony is that they succeeded, but by the time that happened it no longer mattered. By the time the conversion was taking root the greedy Americans were chomping at the bit to get land in Indian Territory, and the morals no longer held enough sway. I am sure there were always people who didn't care about religion on both sides, but the official policies were covered in Christian sentiment for moral duty on the part of the Whites to the Cherokees at first. That relationship didn't last – not with fertile land to be had. Christianity started out the American justification for doing what they wanted with the Indians, but it became their opposition against taking Indian land in the end, but 'taking land' ultimately won out in the long run

Green, Michael D., and Theda Perdue. The Cherokee Removal: A Brief
History with Documents. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin's, 2005.