Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we remember a Catholic Missionary to Native Americans and that complicated history.

It is the 23rd of May 2023 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Sometimes I note an anniversary or event, and while interesting, I pass because it’s complicated. But then I remember that life is complicated and looking at it warts and all doesn’t negate the good and also reinforces the reality of a sinful world in need of good news. So, with that- today I introduce to you Pierre Jean De Smet- a man born in Belgium in 1801 who moved to the United States, was ordained a priest at St. Louis University, and spent much of his life west of Missouri as a missionary amongst various native tribes, notably the Flathead tribe in Western Montana. He would die back in St Louis on the 23rd of May in 1873.

 De Smet set sail for America in 1821. Landing in Maryland, he made his way to the Jesuit novitiate that had recently been set up for the training of Jesuit priests and missionaries. De Smet spent two years there before being sent to St. Louis to begin his missionary activities.

For historical context, in 1830, Missouri was the westernmost state in the U.S. to the West, it was unorganized to the north,  and it was Spanish territory through Texas and the West coast through the current California/Oregon border. Modern Idaho, Washington State, and Oregon were jointly held American and British territory, which was made famous with the Oregon trail, Lewis and Clark, and all that.

There had been missionary activity across the Western frontier but with limited success. Some native tribes sent young men to Western outposts to learn English and work as translators and emissaries. Some missionaries found relative success- and Pierre-Jean De Smet was one such “successful” missionary finding favor with the Potawatomi in modern Iowa. He would travel with fur traders, attempting to evangelize and bring medicine and other supplies. He learned of the friendly Flathead tribe in the Montana territory and founded St. Mary’s mission in 1841. Hailed as a peacemaker between tribes, he set out to find and hopefully pacify the Blackfeet tribe- it would take him up to modern Alberta, Canada. Tribes, hearing about him, would call for the “black robe” on account of what he brought them- and what they perceived he could bring them. He was rumored to have been capable of giving invincibility, sparing people from plagues, and controlling the weather.

Miscommunication and misunderstanding are understandable, but the underlying difficulty of the whole endeavor was what we might call the confusion of Christianity with Christendom. The U.S. Congress, seeing partnership with missionaries, allocated funds to any missionaries who would be willing to teach natives to adopt white styles of dress and farming, hoping to at least pacify or possibly assimilate native tribes. It was a poison pill swallowed by too many missionaries who, seeking funding and sure of their internal fortitude to put the Gospel first, often gave into the “civilize then baptize.”

It is also no secret that American leadership at mid-century on the cusp of the Civil War was not the well-oiled machine it thought it was. Treaties and agreements were often broken, and when violence broke out, military units were deployed to stomp out resistance.

What was a missionary to do? De Smet would travel more than a dozen times back to Europe through the isthmus of Panama or around Cape Horn- asking for money such that he wouldn’t be dependent on American funds too often tied to civilizing projects. But it was his absence from his missions that would often leave them open to exaggerations about what he could do or internal revolt. Upon arriving back at the St. Mary’s mission in Montana, it had been abandoned.

The U.S. government, hearing of his popularity amongst some natives, invited him to a meeting at Fort Laramie in 1851. He was not wholly convinced, but he believed favorable terms had been agreed to, giving native tribes land and money. They would, unfortunately, be rendered moot with the outbreak of violence.

In 1868 he was asked by the U.S. to meet with Sitting Bull, who had been wary of meeting with U.S. representatives- this Belgian Jesuit priest was seen as a fair intermediary. A treaty was signed, giving Americans access to roads leading to mines in exchange for the removal of military forts. It was a successful meeting. Unfortunately, De Smet would die on this, the 23rd of May in 1871, and not see the treaty broken and the tragedy of native deaths and displacement.

I didn’t say it was a fun story- but rather, we see a man devoted to missionary work who saw the dangers of attempting to “civilize” natives and sought funds from European church leaders who were not interested in expansion.

Pierre-Jean De Smet was 72 years old.


The last word for today comes from 1 Peter.

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 23rd of May 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man who knows it was always a bad idea to make fun of Terrance on the Oregon trail- Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who knows it’s because almost half the fatalities came from dissen’ tery”- tip your waitresses, I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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