By Mike Kuhn
The missionary odyssey of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman has aroused much historical interest. The couple was commissioned in the 1830’s by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) to evangelize native tribes of the American Pacific Northwest—the Cayuse, Nez Perce and Umatilla tribes. In many ways the couple modelled self-sacrifice in a cruel and unforgiving environment. Narcissa was the first white woman to cross the Rocky Mountains. Marcus was a doctor (though his practice of medicine concurred with the rudimentary techniques of his day). Accordingly, he was known to the tribes as a “Te-wat”—a healer. Tragedy struck when their daughter drowned in a nearby river. The couple persevered and were instrumental in adding three new states—Washington, Oregon and Idaho—to the United States. Their efforts were memorialized in a statue of Marcus Whitman erected in the nation’s capital and a college that bears their name near Wala Wala, Washington.
The Whitmans’ story, however, is not a triumph but rather a tragedy. In her historical study titled Unsettled Ground, Cassandra Tate probes deeper into this missionary saga, casting the Whitman narrative in a different light. According to Tate, the Whitmans failed to master the indigenous languages making communication a perennial challenge. They described the native population they had come to reach with the gospel as dirty and disordered. Their objective was to “civilize” the indigenous tribes which equated to their conversion to a white-European sedentary lifestyle centered on agriculture. It was a shift the tribes would never make as they were deeply rooted in seasonal migrations for hunting and gathering. The final blow was a measles epidemic that ravaged many of the indigenous tribes. After observing Marcus poisoning coyotes, the tribes assumed his powers as a “healer” allowed him both to heal and kill. The fact that the settlers, due to their viral immunity, rarely succumbed to the disease only confirmed that suspicion. As the pandemic decimated the tribes, they surmised that Dr. Whitman’s medicines were his means to eliminate them, clearing the way for more white settlers. Indeed, the couple had turned their attention to facilitating the settlement of the Oregon territory.
The tension reached an apex on the morning of 29 November 1847 when a band of Cayuse brutally murdered Marcus and Narcissa Whitman along with seven others. Although the territory was unsettled with no judicial structures, the perpetrators were tried and hung. Tribal custom, on the other hand, viewed the killing as a legitimate vindication of harm done by the settlers. Predictably, the Cayuse and the other indigenous communities were forced to settle on reservations, vastly downsized from the original promises made to the tribes.
Tate’s analysis reveals a telling irony: Though the Whitmans were motivated by a sincere desire for the tribes’ salvation and heroic self-sacrifice to that end, they also assumed the tribes would adopt their white European social mores as a natural outworking of the gospel. They wanted to convert the tribes to a Euro-American lifestyle assuming that to be integral to faith in Christ.
In a previous blog titled “Rethinking Christian Witness in the Middle East,” I discussed another author (Ussama Makdisi) who links the missionary impetus to reach the native American tribes with early mission to the Middle East (mid 1800’s). In that article, I suggested five emphases of Christian witness moving forward. Tate’s book adds yet another layer to a forceful critique of mission. Together, these authors push me to realize that the historical critique places contemporary mission under a searchlight requiring transparency and objectivity from those who bear witness to Christ. This can be painful.
It appears we are at a moment of deep cultural re-evaluation. It is a global movement—a time when assumptions of the past are being overthrown and new values (e.g. inclusivity, multiculturalism, etc.) are coming to the fore. In our day, missional practices such as disaster relief, evangelism and planting new churches are increasingly criticized for their implications of spiritual superiority, colonialist attitudes and the absence of environmental concern. Many assume that the motivating force behind mission is cultural hubris. Indeed, books like Unsettled Ground and Makdisi’s Artillery of Heaven make their case through painstaking historical research.
As a person deeply engaged in the global witness of the church, I confess to being conflicted by the onslaught of criticism of missionaries. I wonder if the criticism is just. The Whitmans were brutally murdered, as a result of a false accusation. In honoring their sacrifice, I resist fanning the flames of criticism. At the same time, I realize uncomfortably that much of the Whitmans’ motivation (both good and bad) remains in force in contemporary mission. They were zealous to bring salvation to the unreached; their enthusiasm undervalued cultural awareness; their political and social commitments compromised their representation of Christ; and the list could go on. In brief, they were dedicated, but flawed missionaries…a lot like me.
My confused response culminates in a question: How can Christ-followers today represent Jesus with humility, grace and self-giving love?
Owning the mistakes of the past is crucial. Theoretically, this should not be difficult. We know from the scriptures that God’s people constantly misunderstood His purposes, blinded by their cultural assumptions. Think of Jonah sitting under his vine awaiting the fire to fall in judgment. Even the disciples of Jesus were reluctant to embrace Romans and gentiles into the Church (Acts 10,15).
If Tate’s analysis is correct, the Whitmans had a cultural blindness which was not overcome by zeal and dedication. They wanted the tribes to be like themselves culturally, not unlike the early Jewish believers who wanted the gentiles to become cultural Jews. Same issue, different context. The Whitmans’ cultural assumptions nudged out a deep theological reflection that should have informed their missiological practice. Saying it succinctly: Their following of Jesus was defective (again, like me). Though I am reluctant to criticize missionary martyrs, if Tate is correct, I want to learn from history.
Where does this cultural blindness come from and how do we extricate it from our global witness? I suggest two mistaken perspectives from the Whitman narrative: First, a failure to recognize common grace in the tribes’ culture and lifestyle and, second, a lack of self-criticism, failing to perceive the hubris of the colonizing mindset. The political, social and sometimes military commitments of the missionaries belied the gospel they came to proclaim. If, for instance, Marcus Whitman could have made true friends of the tribes, appreciating their lifestyle and culture as an expression of God’s common grace, brokering a wholesale loss of their territory to white settlers would have been unthinkable.
I am a US citizen who has lived many years in the Middle East. While the American church has been a strong proponent of global witness (mission), I am concerned at how that mission is perceived in areas where waves of US diplomatic, economic and military influence have left displacement and suffering in their wake. Think of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, etc.
Jesus’ gospel requires rigorous self-examination. He was explicit that his followers deny themselves to embrace His kingdom. Every loyalty—political, military, economic—must release its grip on the disciple’s heart. What better place to re-learn that lesson than as we share the life-giving gospel across the cultures and languages of our world.
Mike is a Christian author and educator who spent most of his adult life in the Middle East and now lives in the U.S. More writings and presentations can be found on his personal website.