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Edwards on Indians, Language, and Missions

This entry is part 7 of 16 in the series

"Missions and Music"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Jonathan Edwards very much wanted to see the American Indians believe the gospel. His famous grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, had published in 1723 a sermon asking Whether God is not angry with the country for doing so little towards the conversion of the Indians? After being ousted at Northampton over the communion controversy in 1750, his move to the Indian mission in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, provided him a golden opportunity to minister directly to the Indians there. Upon arrival, he sat down soon after to write a letter to the English sponsor of the mission, Isaac Hollis, “partly to offer my thanks for what you have done and have lately offered to do with so fervent and enlarged a heart and bountiful a hand, for the advancement and enlargement of Christ’s kingdom of grace among these poor people and the eternal welfare of their souls.”1

In his correspondence during this time, we get a decent picture of Edwards’s own ‘philosophy’ concerning educating the Indians. While he saw the Indian children as having a “forward inclination” and “aptness to learn,” he believed that the mission had erred in not teaching the children English. Because of this, the mission had not yet been very successful. The Englishmen were teaching the Indians how to make sounds from English letters, and gave them English books, but, of course, this was pointless, since they didn’t know English. This is the context of the quote I provided last week:

‘Tis on many other accounts of great importance that they [the Mohawks] should be brought to the English language, as this would greatly tend to forward their instruction, their own barbarous languages being exceeding barren and very unfit to express moral and divine things. And their being brought to the English language would open their minds, and bring ‘em to acquaintance and conversation with the English, and would tend above all to bring that civility which is to be found among the English.2

Edwards goes on, proposing that the children of the Mohawk be sent to live with English families for a couple years and forced to speak only English. Edwards returns this theme in a different letter later that same year, this time to Sir William Pepperrell. After laying out nearly utopian plans for the method of training the Indian children, he insists:

But Your Excellency will easily see that, in order to the practicableness of these things, in any tolerable degree or manner, it is necessary that the children should be taught the English tongue; and indeed this is the most absolute necessity, on almost every account. Indian languages are extremely barbarous and barren, and very ill-fitted for communicating things moral and divine, or even things speculative and abstract. In short, they are wholly unfit for a people possessed of civilization, knowledge and refinement.3

All the same, it seems that at least some Indians did not feel slighted, and actually agreed with Edwards, at least on the importance of seeing their children educated. Edwards would write in February 1742,

The Indians, as wild as they are, have some sense of the shamefulness of vice, and of the value of virtue, order, and civility. And they have some sense of the worth of knowledge. If anyone among them is able to read and write, it is looked upon as a great attainment, and they esteem it a thing much to be valued to be able to read and understand the Bible. And therefore, many of them are fond of their children’s learning the English tongue to that end, that they may understand what they read.4

And Edwards thought the English had a great advantage over the French Catholics on this very point:

For they, however great expense they are at, in bestowing presents upon them, yet agreeable to the genius of their religion and maxims of their church, keep the Indians in their ignorance. They forbid ’em the use of the bible; nor do they teach ’em to read and write.5

Last week, I said,

“I am asking, in my posts that will follow over the next several weeks, to listen to voices of the past, and to be actually open to embracing some of their assumptions and beliefs, even if we do so somewhat critically. The missional and cultural sensitivity crowds may automatically be tempted to reject some of the opinions I cite as bigoted or racist. But in such cases, I hope we can at least ask why the individuals believed what they did and consider even accepting their beliefs.”

How could such an stance be applied to Edwards and his view of the Indians, English, and language?

First, I think we must dispense with Edwards’s idea that foreign people must be taught English, or that certain languages make their peoples necessarily uncivilized or refinement. In some ways he gives us a bad example, embracing uncritically some widely-embraced notions of his day concerning the ‘indigenous peoples.’ His view of the potential of the Indian language is, I think, ill-informed and probably wrong.6

Where did he get this idea concerning Indian language? More research could tell us (research I have not had time to do), but he could have picked this notion up from David Brainerd (who died in Edwards’s home while Edwards was still at Northampton) or even Indian converts. I think it quite possible he picked it up from popular contemporary ideas.7 One thing is for certain; Edwards did not know any Indian languages well, if at all. In other words, it hardly seems that Edwards’s opinion was truly informed.

And perhaps we would not be the only ones to have such a conviction. One Gideon Hawley, a young friend of Edwards, though he appreciated Edwards and his ministry, was not so happy with some of ideas concerning the Indians. Hawley believed Edwards too much mixed political aims with his missionary zeal. So he wrote, “Mr. Edwards . . . has blind notions about things and no wonder seeing he knows nothing but by hearsay and the half has never been told him. If he would endeavor to excite me to engage in my mission and to use only the motives that are suggested in Christianity I should like it better. Mr. Edwards is a very good man but capable of being biased.”8

And, if I’m right, Edwards thus serves as a kind of example of just the thing we are cautioning against: the uncritical appropriation of popular missionary methods. And if I’m wrong, the point stands. We can sometimes concede to popular opinion ideas that really do not have any basis in reality, or, even worse yet, are constructed on theologically shaky or even errant grounds.

It’s difficult to say for sure what Edwards meant by “unfit to express moral and divine things.” Perhaps he was referring to a lack of vocabulary.9 After all, here was a society that prized the acquisition, not only of Greek and Hebrew, but Latin too. There was likely no Bible or any other books in that language10, and he likely believed (as part of his eschatological map) the Mohawks would inevitably be integrated into the burgeoning English society and thus all of Christendom.11

In Edwards’s defense, if I may now help us open our eyes to see where he might help challenge our assumptions, what we do know is that Edwards did not believe that the Mohawks should be taught English in order to be evangelized. Not at all. First of all, at the Stockbridge mission aimed not only at evangelism, but also the education of the Indian people; the above statements should be understood in that context. While preaching to the Indians, Edwards preached simple sermons, without metaphysical terminology, often based on the gospels and other narrative portions of Scripture in order to ensure that he, through his interpreter, might communicate the gospel clearly to his hearers.12 In a remarkable demonstration of his own commitment to evangelism, Edwards sent his own son Jonathan, Jr. away from the family to New York in order that his son might learn Indian languages and customs. Edwards gladly preached to the Indians through an interpreter. He had high regard for the missionary work of David Brainerd, who likewise preached through an interpreter. Later, he encouraged a bilingual approach to Indian education.13

We also know that catechesis was very important in Puritan evangelism, and perhaps this played a role.14 I’m not here to make excuses for Edwards. Last week my point was that sometimes Christians in ages past are almost light-years away from us in their assumptions, and that, still, they should not merely discarded because they do not sound like us. We should show respect and at least to listen. Even so, the danger I am arguing for this week is that we ourselves may be in error in uncritically embracing popular missions methods today, as it seems Edwards may have been. And while I disagree with Edwards application of this principle, I think that Edwards is correct in his foundational belief (put in modern terms) that some fundamental cultural elements do not fit Christianity well and must be altered in one way or another. This may or may not apply to a indigenous people’s music.15

Edwards genuinely wanted to see the Indian people educated and civilized (both of which were intricately connected with his understanding of Christianity, flowing almost necessary from it), and, given their situation (and, in his view, the unsuitability of their language), the best means toward education was the English tongue. He believed this to be more charitable toward the Indians than the posture of the French, even if it was a longer and more tedious process. He believed this “method” was by far the most winsome and therefore would present Christianity in the best possible light to the Indians:

And this method would not only be the most becoming Christians, and so most pleasing to the great Governor of the world, but if we look only to the natural tendency of it in the present situation of things, I am persuaded there is no course in the world that can be devised by any policy or art, that would be so likely to gain and attach these nations to us.16

Next week, however, I plan on showing how Edwards had some positive thoughts in the areas of missions, including missions and music.

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Ryan Martin

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. Edwards to Hollis, Stockbridge, Summer 1751, in Yale-Works 16:388. []
  2. Ibid., 389. []
  3. See Edwards to Sir William Pepperrell, Stockbridge, November 28, 1751, in Yale-Works 16:413. Yes, Edwards really says, “most absolute necessary.” I’ve checked it several times now. It sounds weird to me too. []
  4. Edwards to Joseph Paice, Stockbridge, February 24,1752, in Yale-Works 16:441. []
  5. Ibid., 441. []
  6. This particular blogger admits no acquaintance whatsoever with any Indian languages, and, while believing that Edwards was wrong his judgment, has very little means at hand to address the question whether it was able to articulate well. []
  7. Rachel Wheeler gives a glancing blow to this latter’s possibility: “Even while he participated both in the paternalism and the chauvinism that had long been part of English missionary ideology, Edwards believed Indians fully capable of apprehending Christian truths, and as their minister he saw it as his duty to convey the essentials of ‘true religion’ from the pulpit” (emphasis mine). “Edwards as Missionary,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 204. []
  8. Cited in George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 426. []
  9. I’m not a linguist, but it is staggering to consider the multitude of English theological terms that come from other languages: theology, redemption, propitiation, sanctification, justification, docetism, etc. Have we English speakers been the subject of paternalism? Perish the thought! []
  10. See Edwards to Pepperrell, Yale-Works 16:413. []
  11. This is partly why the French were such a great threat to the English Puritans. French conquest would result, they believed, in the dominance of Catholicism in the New World. In this respect, one wonders how easily one can separate civilization and Christianity in the thought of someone like Jonathan Edwards in the first half of the 18C. []
  12. See Wheeler, “Edwards as Missionary,” 204-5. []
  13. Edwards to Joseph Bellamy, Stockbridge, June 1756, in Yale-Works 16:688-9. Also see George Claghorn’s “Editor’s Introduction” in the same volume, p. 22. []
  14. See Norman Pettit, “Editor’s Introduction,” in The Life of David Brainerd, in Yale-Works 7:30-1. []
  15. How’s that for coming full circle? []
  16. Edwards to Joseph Paice, Yale-Works 16:442. []

3 Responses to Edwards on Indians, Language, and Missions

  1. Thanks for the source of the Edwards’ quotation: " ‘Tis on many other accounts of great importance … ."

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