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.
Excellent post. Very enlightening. Thank you for sharing this fascinating (and tragic) piece of American history, along with some timely reflections on missions.
Thank-you, Nabil. I am hopeful because the global witness of the church is increasingly multi-cultural. I think we need other nations and ethnicities to help us see our blind spots.
Yess ,its amazing to recognise the diffrence btetween teachinv our culture instead of jesus culture,the example is from missionaries but i also see it in churches ,many many churches spend their efforts teaching their culture instead of jesus culture😁
Thank-you Raymond. I recommend the writings of Lesslie Newbigin. He alerted me to the fact that every sharing of the gospel comes with some cultural baggage. We can only guard against that by becoming aware of it and opening ourselves up to correction by other cultures and, of course, the teaching of Jesus and the apostles.
This reminds me of Samir Khalaf’s book Protestant Missionaries in the Levant. Khalaf makes the point that through their ethical conduct and commitment to the region, American missionaries played an instrumental role in “elevating” Lebanese society (my words, not his). At the same time, Khalaf points out that what those missionaries succeeded in was mostly cultural conversion. He criticized their “ungodly faith” (his words, not mine) for being devoid of theological content.
I, too, am a flawed missionary to my community, and the question you pose is very helpful for evaluating my actions and searching my motives. I wonder if the answer to your question lies outside discussions on methodology and approaches to mission, and more in re-examining the nature and scope of mission, as your blog title suggests. I think mission is too broad of a concept, and somewhat ambiguous. At the risk of stating the obvious, I think it will be helpful to clarify what is the mission that we are on, and then let that frame our behaviour and attitude.
Elias, these are wonderful insights building on Mike’s blog. I see many benefits in delving into a thoughtful discussion of the historical-missiological dimensions around Khalaf’s notion of culturally fruitful-but-spiritually empty Protestant Missions in the region. And I agree with your point that mission has become perhaps too broad of a concept to be useful in driving a discourse. The broadening of our thinking is a good thing in many regards (it takes mission out of the confines of racial, institutional, geographic, and social parameters that have long been constructed in modern Christian thought) but it also leaves us constantly managing an ambiguity as we try to think through witness to Christ within the thick complexities of today. Certainly, looking back to the past (as Mike does here) is a helpful way to take discussion for the Church forward.
Thanks Elias and Brent for helpful comments. I made note of Samir Khalaf’s book and I hope to read it soon. His assessment is sobering. There’s little doubt that the socio-historical critique of mission will continue and increase in force. Though I find myself wanting to rise in defense of a past generation, that tendency probably does little to ensure the future of a Christ-focused witness going forward. As Elias points out “Mission” is a broad and multi-faceted reality. Its history as a “west to east” and “north to south” directional reality is very much a thing of the past. Its political, military and colonialist associations, while elevating and preserving some aspects of indigenous cultures, undermined and under-valued others. We should be increasingly open to the critique and self-critical as it applies to our practice of contemporary mission.
After saying all that, I think it is essential to re-affirm an embrace of Jesus’ gospel as good news for all people and cultures. The church’s witness to that gospel will continue irrespective of the miscalculations of a bygone era of “missions.” Faith in Christ is more globalized today that at any point in history. As such the witness of the global church is quickly shifting towards indigenous witness carried forward by collaborative partnerships. Though I accept much of the criticism of the past, I also look forward with hope to joining hands across cultures to strengthen the church’s globalized witness.
Like you Mike, I love reading missionary biographies. Early on I felt great disappointment in discovering great women and men of faith lacked cultural awareness and carried colonial ambitions along with the Gospel. One of my most surprising reads was a biography of an early missionary to Karak in Jordan. ‘ Lethaby of Moab’ was quite the story of missionaries who braved Ottoman Karak to start a little school and share the Gospel. Towards the end of the biography there was a story of Mrs. Lethaby catching a boy stealing a pencil and going to his family home to take back the picture of Queen Victoria which she had given them. Kind of shocker to discover the Bible was being given out along with pictures of Queen Victoria.
The more I have reflected on this couple and their work in Moab, the less I feel I have the right to criticize. The Ottoman Empire was truly an operational disaster in Southern Jordan and that picture of Queen Victoria must have looked awfully nice on the wall of their old stone hut. I’ve also noted that many of the tribal names of the Lethaby’s students are names of faithful Christian families lifting the name of Jesus in Jordan today. We have no idea what impact that little mission outpost had. I also reflect on the fact that many of the Gospel effort I have been involved with may someday be seen as insensitive or naive. It probably wouldn’t be hard to cancel an old guy like me:)
I think we are always at risk of doing what Galatians 1 warns us about and perverting the Gospel. Social justice issues are certainly rocking the world and somehow getting mixed in with the Gospel these days. I was raised in a liberal church in California and learned early on the seduction of politics. At some point people start to wonder why they need Jesus at all to change the world, and the Gospel message is abandonned. Western missionaries could profit from reading Samuel Zwemer’s book written in 1920 “Christianity the Final Religion”.(https://missiology.org.uk/blog/christianity-final-religion-samuel-m-zwemer/) Some may find in it colonial attitudes but Zwemer earnestly argues against those intent on emptying the mission field of the Gospel message. Zwemer’s words were not heeded and there was an inevitable decline in missions in the Muslim world. Is there something we can learn from Samuel Zwemer in 2022?
All cultures have their blind spots and I too am encouraged in seeing missionaries coming from all corners of the earth. This should help us sharpen one another and keep us focused on the simple and powerful message of the Gospel. We need God’s spirit to give the proper attitude- sharing the Gospel as one beggar shares with another beggar where to find bread.
Charles, it’s always a treat to hear from you. I appreciate your level-headed approach to ministry and your passion for the gospel. I agree with you that I’m glad I won’t be around to hear how a future generation “critiques” how I’ve invested my life. I had not heard the Lethaby story. It’s sobering how it was just assumed that Western governments brought light and civilization to the rest of the world. I suppose it was self-evident to many of that generation. It makes me wonder what assumptions I make that will be viewed as errant just a few years down the road which also makes me reluctant to criticize.
Along with that hesitancy, I admit another layer of questions. It seems to me that the new awareness of racial injustice highlights gospel implications that I was not attuned to growing up in the place and time I did. Though we’re often warned of the “social gospel” as a slide away from the true gospel, I am beginning to see racial and economic justice as part and parcel of the true gospel–a gospel implication that impacts the way we view and interact with the other…those who differ from us. I understand that the gospel can get lost if we begin to view following Jesus as merely behaving better and being more civilized. At the same time, I want to press in to what the gospel means for us today. If he died to effect my reconciliation with God (and he did) then how does that impact the way I live with fellow human beings? I’m with you that it only has meaning if Jesus stays in the center.
One beggar telling another where to find bread…Yes.
I’ll check out that Zwemer publication you mention.
Keep the faith, friend.
It’s also a treat to connect with you Mike. If you get to France, we can do it over a nice meal! Ahlan.
I want to apologize to the readers for including my story here but I’ve had a different church experience than most of you. For me a ’social gospel’ appears as a Trojan horse meant to take away from the gospel which is the ‘power of God for those of us being saved’ Romans 1:16
The reckoning of many US southern Christians with social justice I look at as an outsider. I love Clarence Jordan and his story of confronting the racism of his society by building an interracial Christian community. As a church planter, I’ve always seen this incredible power of bringing Christians of different tribes together to live the word of God.
My own upbringing was in a progressive, antiwar, anitrascist , sexually liberated, pro-Palestinian, environmentalist family and church. I’m still partial to many of the views of my birth tribe. My parents did an amazing amount of good. Evangelicals rarely understand how legalistic liberal ideologies can be. To be good you have this unending list of causes and actions you need to support.
The solution to my guilt and shame came through a Jesus movement youth group. I had never heard the simple Gospel message and the Lord powerfully changed my life when I repented and came to Him. My appetite for the Word of God became insatiable and led to conflict with my tribe, gaining me the label ‘Jesus Freak’. A label I cherish to this day.
I am very aware of the right wing politicization of evangelical churches and take every opportunity to speak against this. With so many issues and political platforms invading the US churches, where will young people in 2022 hear the Gospel?
Like you Mike, I have spent much of my life working hand in hand with my brethren to make Christ known. Often this has involved helping refugees, prisoners and other broken people. Is that what you are referring to as the social gospel? To me that is just following Jesus.
Thanks again, Charles, for sharing a bit of your story. Remembering where you are coming from helps me understand your concerns. And, yes, I don’t like using the term “social gospel.” There’s really only one life-giving gospel that impacts every sphere and aspect of life. In writing this blog, I was aware that, through history, people who are known to be followers of Jesus are often unaware of their implication in oppressive systems. That’s true for me too, by the way. It’s a gradual, cultural desensitization to gospel implications…like the frog in the pot of boiling water. It’s not just the south of the US with its history of slavery. That’s a sobering example, but it seems to be true of every place I’ve lived and many I haven’t. I think the real gospel pushes us to ask “how do I walk with refugees, prisoners and other broken people?” How do I love my neighbor as myself? Knowing you, I know that you and your family have done that well.
I’d love to visit you in France! Maybe soon. Thanks again.