Excerpt: Perishing Heathens

The following has been excerpted from Perishing Heathens: Stories of Protestant Missionaries and Christian Indians in Antebellum America by Julius H. Rubin (October 2017). Rubin is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Saint Joseph. His other books include Tears of Repentance: Christian Indian Identity and Community in Colonial Southern New England (Nebraska, 2013), The Other Side of Joy: Religious Melancholy among the Bruderhof, and Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America.

 

From Chapter 1: The Travails of David Bacon

Bacon exemplified the sublime millennial aspirations of building the Redeemer’s Kingdom in America as an early missionary licensed and commissioned by the Connecticut Missionary Society (CMS) to evangelize and convert Indians. He set his sights on the Ojibwes from L’Arbre Croche, a settlement on Lake Michigan, who made the thirty-mile seasonal migration each spring to Mickilimakinac (Mackinaw Island), Michigan, to sell furs in order to acquire trade goods. Mackinaw was located at the tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula on a strait strategically situated between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. From 1802 until 1804, Bacon resided in Mackinaw Village each fall and winter and struggled without success to build a mission station and farm in the interior of the island during the spring and summer. Writing to Nathan Strong of the CMS, Bacon expressed a “hope of eventual success,” knowing that excerpts from his quarterly correspondence would reach publics in America and across the Atlantic. He explains, “We make publick through the Christian world, by means of our [Connecticut] Evangelical Magazine. You will obtain the approbation of the good wishes of all good people especially of those who are contributing for my support, and earnestly praying for my success.”2

Consistent with the divine commandment to seek the Kingdom of Heaven and salvation, he intended to change Native peoples into temperate and industrious “real Christians.” It was Bacon’s belief that “Christ has commanded ministers to go into all the world, & preach the gospel.” Despite “the unfavorable appearances which I shall probably meet with at first,” he remained confident the mission would bring Natives “out of heathenish darkness into marvelous light.”3

However, less than one year later, in July 1804, he would welcome being recalled from Michigan to assist in home missions of New England emigrants in New Connecticut in the Western Reserve of Ohio. Bacon wrote, “I am disposed to make almost any sacrifice rather than remain much longer in this ungodly place, where I can have no hope of doing good, & must be living at a great expense. I am also heartsick of worldly entanglements.”4 These worldly entanglements included failing as a farmer and abandoning an unfinished log cabin in the woods that was planned as a mission station. Bacon was continually rebuffed when he appealed to Ojibwes, who had little interest in this mission. He never became proficient in their language and failed to secure an interpreter to facilitate his preaching. He staggered under the burden of supporting his wife and children on a frontier island populated by an American military garrison, Yankee and French fur traders and voyageurs, and settlers who were indifferent to evangelical outreach.

Not surprisingly his evangelical fervor turned to despair. Despite the CMS expenditure of almost twenty-five hundred dollars, he had little to show for his years in the field. He had repeatedly promised to establish a mission school, church, or model farming village (like the Moravian settlement in Fairfield, on the Thames River in Ontario) that would attract Indian neophytes. Leonard Bacon, David’s brother, informed him that the CMS board had lost faith in their missionary. Writing on September 10, 1804, Leonard Bacon explained,

The fact is that they [the CMS board] have for a long time been dissatisfied with your conduct—the continued series of disappointments which have uniformly succeeded to the prospects of success you have so frequently and sanguinely announced—tended to beget and strengthen in their mind a conviction that your schemes were visionary & chimerical, and that you were wasting their funds.5 (emphasis added)

David Bacon’s life and journey exemplify the central ideals of the missionary spirit and the fate of the religious fervor of many true believers whose schemes did seem unrealistic and chimerical to those looking for tangible results . . .

At the age of twenty-eight with no formal training in divinity or a college education, he could not work as a minister or missionary in a Congregational or Presbyterian congregation. However, the trustees of the CMS in the inaugural issue of the Connecticut Evangelical Magazine, in July 1800, published their plan to send a missionary to the Indian tribes bordering Lake Erie. They wished to recruit an emissary who would first visit Reverend John Sergeant Jr. in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, who would provide a guide and interpreter. Next, the pilgrim would travel to Seneca lands and receive a formal message of welcome and exhortation that he would later deliver to persuade these tribes in the Western Reserve to accept a mission. Since New Light ministers with settled congregations were reluctant to leave Connecticut for the frontier, the trustees decided “that a discreet man, animated by the love of God and souls, of a good common education, who can be obtained for a moderate compensation, be sought to travel among the Indian tribes south and west of Lake Erie, to explore their situation, and learn their feelings with respect to Christianity, and, so far as he has opportunity, to teach them its doctrines and duties.”8

Bacon was to be named as this emissary and eagerly prepared for this unusual licensure and missionary vocation . . . .

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The Connecticut Evangelical Magazine published his first letter from the field, dated September 4, announcing that he had arrived in Buffalo Creek (Buffalo, New York). Bacon had spent nearly a month traveling on foot about twenty-five miles each day, relying on the kindness of “both the friends and enemies of religion.”12 He arranged with the superintendent of Indian Affairs at Canandaigua, Captain Israel Chapin Jr., for an introduction to Seneca chiefs, who after two days of oratory, gift exchange and deliberation, provided Bacon with a string of wampum and a transcribed oratory of welcome that the minister intended to use to convince the Western Indians to accept Christianity. He reported, “They then shook hands with me, very affectionately wished me the blessing of the Great Spirit, and retired to their council house. The next day they met with me as they had proposed, their great orator [Red Jacket] in the midst of a large concourse of Indians delivered a speech to me, and another to write down to their Western brethren.”13 Unbeknownst to Bacon, Red Jacket’s ceremonial salutation, gift exchange, and oratory were modeled after a condolence ceremony—ritual actions that wiped away the tears, cleared the eyes, and lifted sorrow from the hearts of those bereaved. These ceremonies also created or renewed bonds of friendship.14

The record of this address does not survive. Was Bacon aware of Red Jacket’s cultural nativism and abiding rejection of Christianity?15 Was the welcoming oratory intended to appease Bacon and hasten his departure from the Seneca reservation?

 

Notes

2. David Bacon to Nathan Strong, August 5, 1803, Missionary society of Connecticut Papers, 1759-1948 (hereafter MSC Papers).

3. David Bacon to Nathan Strong, August 5, 1803, MSC Papers.

4. David Bacon to Nathan Strong, July 17, 1804, MSC Papers.

5. Leonard Bacon to David Bacon, September 10, 1804, Bacon Family Papers, 1800-1933, series 1, box 1, Yale University Library Manuscript and Archives.

8. Bacon, Sketch of the Rev. David Bacon, 9.

12. Bacon, Sketch of the Rev. David Bacon, 14.

13. Pastor’s New Year’s Greeting, 15.

14. Nichols, Red Gentlemen and White Savages, 39.

15. Wallace, Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, 206.