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Christian History Home > 1992 > Issue 35 > How Did Native Americans Respond to Christianity?

How Did Native Americans Respond to Christianity?
A collection of eyewitness accounts
Thomas S. Giles is project editor for Christianity Today. | posted 7/01/1992 12:00AM

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An enterprising European official sailed to the Central American mainland in 1514. He hoped to settle large numbers of Spaniards there, to find gold, and to convert natives. He and his men adopted a simple approach.

They traveled by night, stopping at midnight outside a chosen village. Before they entered, they declared loudly: “Princes and Indians, there is one God, one pope, and one king of Castile, who is lord of this country. Come at once and render him obedience, or we shall make war on you, kill you, and put you into slavery.”

Of course, Europeans introduced their faith in other ways. Many missionaries lived in poverty among native peoples and presented the Christian message gently.

How did the indigenous peoples respond to these widely varied missionary efforts? What did they think of the Europeans’ faith—and its emissaries?

The accounts below offer firsthand glimpses into three common responses.

Holding to the Ancient Faith

When native Americans were confronted with Christianity, some incorporated elements of Christianity into their own beliefs, creating a new, syncretistic system. Others resisted the faith of their conquerors and held fast to traditional beliefs. Among the Incas of Peru, for example, baptism was considered subjection to the invader; some Incan chiefs killed those who accepted the rite.

Opposition, however, did not always take violent forms. Soon after the fall of his people’s capital (Tenochtitlán), an Aztec priest spoke in response to the evangelistic efforts of Franciscan missionaries:

Our revered lords, sirs, dear ones,
take rest from the toil of the road, …
Out of the clouds, out of the mist,
out of the ocean’s midst you have appeared.
The Omneity [God] takes form in you,
in your eye, in your ear, in your lips.

The speaker of the world sent you because of us.
Here we are, amazed by this.
You brought his book with you, his script,
heaven’s word, the word of god.…

You say
that we don’t know
the Omneity of heaven and earth.
You say that our gods are not original.
That’s news to us
and it drives us crazy.
It’s a shock and a scandal,
for our ancestors came to earth
and they spoke quite differently.

They gave us
their law
and they believed,
they served, and they taught the honor among gods;
they taught the whole service.
That’s why we eat earth before them;
that’s why we draw our blood and do penance;
that’s why we burn copal [a tree resin] and kill the living.…
We don’t believe, nor do we mock.
We may offend you, …
for here stand
the citizens,
the officials,
the chiefs,
the trustees and rulers of this entire world.
It is enough that we have done penance,
that we are ruined,
that we are forbidden and stripped of power.
To remain here is to be imprisoned.…
This is all we have to reply,

This Aztec priest had seen his capital destroyed and his empire crushed. He was forced to accept a military conquest, but he refused to accept a spiritual one. For generations this religious leader and his people had honored and served their gods. They would not readily renounce that faith.

Rejecting “Christian” Behavior

It was not always the natives’ disbelief that impeded their conversion to Christianity. In many instances, they were open to learning more about the Spaniards’ God. They were even willing to accept the Christian faith. However, a number of other factors often stood in the way.

(See “Tying Their Own Hands.”)

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