Good Theological Questions from 19th Century Seneca

I was raised up near the Cattaraugus Reservation of the Seneca Nation of Indians— a prominent Iroquois tribe.

Recently, I was reading “Kinzua: From Cornplanter to the Corps” by William N. Hoover. In it, he shares a quote from another book that speaks questions that Seneca students had for white missionary teachers serving among them.

In A Nineteenth-Century Journal of a Visit to the Indians of New York, Deardorff and Snyderman noted that often in the evenings Henry Simmons sat with the Indian men and tried to answer many of the questions the Indians had about the whites and their ways. Especially thorny for Simmons to explain was how the whites reconciled their religious professions with their treatment of the Indians. Such problematic questions as: ‘Was it right for whites and Indians to marry since each went to a different Heaven (or Hell) when he died? What happened to the half-breed children? Why, if the Bible was intended for Indians hadn’t it been fixed so the Indians could read it?’ Explaining such contradictions and shortfalls in the ways of the white man would not have been an enviable task for anyone.

William N. Hoover, Kinzua: From Cornplanter to the Corps (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2006), 39.

These are great theological questions? Questions about intermarriage and of mixed race children were extremely practical questions that relate to Soteriology and the eternal destiny of Man. The question of the Bible and why it is not translated into the Seneca language is a hugely important contextual/missiological question. But of these the most challenging was reconciling the high principles of white Christians with their sinful activities. How can Christians be coming to the Seneca expressing high morality while deceiving and cheating the Seneca?

Truthfully, there is no excuse. The correct answer is that Christians often rationalize great evil when there is financial advantage to do so. This is even more so when that great evil is directed at people who are consider to be from “Them” rather than “Us.”

However, I do think that I have a suggested answer. Boccaccio’s Decameron has the First Day, Second Story a situation where a non-Christian discovers how far Christians fall short of their high ideals. I would suggest you reading it yourself. It is a great story. But from it, I would suggest this answer.

“You are right. So many Whites have mistreated your people. I am sorry for this. What makes it even worse is that we claim to be Christians meaning that we claim to follow the guidance of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ would never approve of stealing from your people, or cheating your people, or abusing your people. I am convinced that Jesus Christ, God’s Son is very displeased that people claim to follow Him and yet do such evil things. My hope is that you will not follow the example of so many of the White people you have met, but follow the example and guidance of Jesus Christ.”

This would make sense because as missionaries we are not to lead people to ourselves, or even people like ourselves. We are to lead people to Christ. In fact, it is the great gulf that exists between Jesus and Christians that can help people see Christ more clearly. I don’t recommend, being ungodly so that people identify the godliness of Jesus in contrast. But it is important to recognize that Christianity is not a man-made faith from good people. It is a God-given faith that aspires to that which is beyond the reach of man to attain. That is what led the non-Christian in that story in the Decameron to become a Christian. The sinfulness of religious leaders convinced him that Christianity did not come from them.