Apess’ View of Natives and Christianity

William Apess’ A Son of the Forest is a dense religious and societal commentary as well as an autobiography. Apess goes into great detail about his “once happy, powerful, yet peaceful people” (Apess 4) and how the colonizing whites had taken both their possessions and land and effectively destroyed their nation.  He argues against the idea prevalent among whites at the time that Indians are “not susceptible of improvement,” (Apess 34) but cites and example of their progress measured by their adherence to Christianity. “Let us look around us, and what do we behold? The forests of Canada and the West are vocal with the praises of God, as they ascend from the happy wigwams of the natives” (Apess 34) and  talks about reclaiming them “from the most abandoned and degrading practices and brought to a knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus!” (Apess 33) He goes on to explain that because of the mistrust that the natives have of the white man, missionaries have found it hard to preach the word of God to them. Apess is under the belief that the natives were descendants of the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel,” and being so gave them inherent rights as creatures of equal status in the eyes of God. The only denomination that had any success was the expressive Methodists, who Apess clearly preferred. “They preached not themselves, but Christ Jesus– and him crucified: And while they were doing this, they sought not their own advancement. And no wonder they succeeded– the natives were melted down into tenderness and love, and they became as kind and obliging as any people could be.” (Apess 34) Without Christianity he sees the natives as effectively doomed. In order to get any respect from the colonizers, natives would need to take up Christ as the first step to integrating or at least slowing the loss of their possessions and land.

Apess, William. A Son of the Forest and Other Writings.Amherst:University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. Print.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Micheal,

    I completely agree with your point of view on the fact that William Apess wrote his autobiography to show his white audience the similarities and differences between Native Americans, Christians and Christianity. Apess had an Epiphany when he realized “Christ died for all mankind- that age, sect, color, country, or situation made no difference. I felt an assurance that I was included in the plan of redemption with all my brethren” (Apess 173). Unfortunately, to the Whites, Native Americans were still thought of being only savages and children. You wrote “how the colonizing whites had taken both their possessions and land and effectively destroyed their nation.” To elaborate on this issue, owning land was a major way of participating in the United States government. Ask yourself, who owned property? The majority of the people who owned land were white male Christians. Native Americans were not even allowed to join the army, how would they have the opportunity to have a say in the United States government without given the option of fighting for our country or given land. What made matters worse was the fact the missionaries did not represent God’s love. They would preach one things and practice something completely different! Apess clearly expressed his view on Christian missionaries as hypocrites by stating “ your doctrine is very good, but the whole course of your conduct is decidedly at variance with your profession- we think the whites need fully as much religious instruction as we do” (Apess 180). His solid argument is that God does not discriminate when it comes to salvation and therefore the selfish actions that some white missionaries partake in deter the Native Americans decision in accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior. You said that in order for Native Americans to receive respect from settlers they would need to accept Christianity. I would go a step further and say that if Native Americans wanted respect they would need to assimilate into the “American culture.” That entails leaving the Native American customs aside and adopting the American way of living. Another observation to be made is that Apess says “a son of the forest would never stoop so low as to offer such an insult to a stranger who happens to be among them” (Apess 181). Therefore, Native Americans without even knowing “the truth about God” do not behave in such a cruel manner with people different from their own culture.

    Apess, William. A Son of the Forest and Other Writings.Amherst:University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. Print.

  2. Posted by camilleevelyn on September 29, 2011 at 12:07 am

    I agree with the comment left by Jocelyn but would also like to add that it is very interesting how the Savage, “not susceptible of improvement,” (Apess 34) turns out to be more righteously consistent than the Whites teaching the doctrines of Christianity. The irony is astounding to me. After his realization that Christ’s death was for the redemption of all, Apess says, “My spirits were depressed – my crimes were arrayed before me, and no tongue can tell the anguish I felt.” (Apess 19) This response is one I presume was not common among white Christians (maybe because Christianity was more of a way of life, taken for granted, than a life-changing realization). Later he goes on to explain how white Christians “drop the ball” on converting Native Americans, due to their hypocrisy. Essentially, Apess the savage, has assumed a certain self-righteousness that places him higher than the White man in morality (in one instance he says that he pities the people who are looking down on him) and in a realm that according to his beliefs, have eternal effects. To me this dynamic is rather interesting.

    Apess, William. A Son of the Forest and Other Writings.Amherst:University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. Print.

  3. Posted by kbudd on September 29, 2011 at 12:54 am

    The autobiography would actually be quite thin if religion was decentralized. The fact that Apess continuously references religion is very important, but also somewhat depressing. Instead of Apess’ Christian faith he deals with a lot of religious fear. He never seems to completely find peace in anything he does. When he took the Lord’s name in vain, he was so upset that he vowed to never do it again (39). However, he goes on to say, “I feared man more than my creator God,” (39). He came to this realization after he drops to his knees to pray. The fact that a Methodist “brethren” directed him to pray is also important. Because the Methodist community appeared to take him into their community his ethnicity no longer appeared an issue. So, as you put said in your blog, “In order to get any respect from the colonizers, natives would need to take up Christ as the first step to integrating or at least slowing the loss of their possessions and land,” is true. This belief even stretches back to Spanish missionaries who came to “save the savages” before the birth of America. Assimilating to the white, Christian, belief has always been the first step in acceptance for outside cultures.

  4. Posted by teagueoreagan on September 29, 2011 at 5:20 am

    Apess is another person, like Catlin, that profoundly does not realize what he is saying. The “winning of the west” follows some of the same patterns of colonialism, one of which is the deployment of missionaries. They are the initial expeditionary force; psychological warriors that somehow convince a people to abandon their religion, the religion of their fathers. Once a people is stripped of their religion, the process of assimilation is already halfway complete. Historically, missionaries often preceded boots on the ground as it is a great way to gain a foothold with minimal personnel. Apess epically fails to take into account the cultural damage done by converting Native Americans to Christianity. Native American religions were remarkably complex and formed an integral part of each tribe’s culture and value system. Yet Apess fails to realize this. He fails to realize that a paradigm shift away from traditional beliefs would be a destruction of Native culture on par with their being stripped of their ancestral lands. He fails to take into account that converts are ostracized from tribal society. He fails to realize that he himself is a victim…of conversion! He champions the cause of stripping Native Americans of their beliefs yet complains about the creation of alcoholism among the tribes and the stripping of their land. He went to school, he learned the white gospel both literally and figuratively, he is assimilated. Now he can be discriminated against by both whites and natives.

  5. Apess’ adherence to the Christian faith is necessary to gain credibility with a primarily white audience. As you noted, he does sincerely believe that he is entitled to redemption despite his ethnicity, his goal in this autobiography, however, is to articulate that to white men. He uses his flaws, such as taking the lord’s name in vain, to relate to whites that he too is imperfect. He also uses Christian beliefs as a medium to express the significance of Native Americans. For example, Apess asserts that Indians are direct descendants of Jesus as evident by their complexion. He also wields scripture verses very effectively to make arguments, like when he asserts that though whites see ‘savages’ as ignorant like children, they are ‘children of God,’ and that the Spirit said, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven (Apess 8).” Apess includes Scriptual support so that white readers could not deny his arguments or they would be denying the Bible, as well as to show that Indians can be educated and accept Christianity. In his autobiography Apess also expresses his resentment towards the white man for wrongs committed against him and his people, like when he was denied pay for military service and the destruction caused by the introduction of alcohol to Native American tribes. Apess is using ethos, emotional appeal, to invoke change in his readers sentiment towards Indians. He is exposing the injustice that his people are subject to and trying to use Christian to consolidate a healthier relationship between the white men and Native Americans.

  6. Posted by bhough on September 29, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    I agree with your statements regarding Apess’ use of religion to sway his primarily white, Christian audience. I think the culmination of this rhetorical appeal can be seen in the last pages of his autobiography, when he states: “I can truly say that the spirit of prejudice is no longer an inmate of my bosom…I am determined to sound the trump of the Gospel- to call upon men to turn and live. Look, brethren, at the natives of the forest- they come, notwithstanding you call them “savage,” from the ‘east and from the west, the north and the south,’ and will occupy seats in the kingdom of heaven before you. Let us one and all ‘contend’ valiantly for that faith once.” The use of both the word “brethren” and the imagery describing whites and natives sitting side by side in heaven aims to mesh the two cultures together- an obstacle Apess has been trying to tackle his entire life.

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