Missionaries to Mississippi Indians

Frontier Mississippi provided staging grounds for religious experimentation involving southeastern Amerindian tribes and Christian missionaries. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Catholic missionaries such as Father Anthony Davion and Father Francis de Montigny planted crosses, sought to convert the tribes, and experienced culture shock amid the geopolitics of the frontier. When they sought to prevent the Natchez from ritually murdering relatives of the Great Sun, these missionaries braved the wrath of aggrieved tribesmen. Conflict among tribes and European powers, with the Choctaw of Central Mississippi favoring the French and the Chickasaw of Northeast Mississippi favoring the English, also affected missionaries. Some, including Father Nicholas Foucault, suffered martyrdom, while Davion and others merely suffered expulsion.

Protestant missionary efforts coincided with treaties that between 1801 and 1837 removed the tribes from Mississippi to Oklahoma, but the inspiration for these efforts came from John Eliot in Massachusetts and David Brainerd in New Jersey and the 1806 Haystack Prayer Meeting at Williams College. Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians sent missionaries to Mississippi and developed organizations for their support. In 1817 agents of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, headquartered in New England, established the Mississippi Society for Baptist Missions Foreign and Domestic to tell the “aborigines of the west” about the “Great Father.” The missionary organizations hoped that each station would produce more converts, who in turn would generate support for other missions around the world. As early as 1815 the Mississippi Association subscribed $67.93 for such purposes.

Early Protestant missionaries, among them Yale graduate Joseph Bullen, wandered in and out of tribal lands much as other frontiersmen did. Subsequent missionaries had to draw wagons across “deep creeks and gutters on poles,” accumulated debts, and accepted two-month delays for letters. But the term mission carried religious and diplomatic overtones. In March 1819 the US Congress passed An Act Making Provisions for the Civilization of the Indian Tribes Adjoining the Frontier Settlements. The Choctaw were entitled to six thousand dollars annually for seventeen years for sale of their land, with much of the money supporting mission schools.

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a venture of Congregationalists and Presbyterians, opened eight mission stations among the Choctaw and Chickasaw. Directed by Cyrus Kingsbury, these stations bore revealing names. Elliot and Mayhew in Oktibbeha County commemorated earlier missionary efforts. Goshen and Hebron bespoke a timeless affiliation with the Bible. Tribal names such as Yoknokchaya and Hikashubbaha preserved the sounds if not the culture of Amerindians. In 1820 Elliot had “seven log-dwelling houses” and a mill. By the 1830s associated mission stations claimed 250 scholars and about 400 members. A former missionary to Palestine hailed one of the stations as the “loveliest spot my eyes ever saw.”

Kingsbury associate Cyrus Byington learned the Choctaw language, reducing reliance on interpreters, but misunderstandings remained. Missionaries claimed that the Choctaw were “hardened stupefied sinners” who acknowledged a “Great Spirit” who was “very seldom the subject of contemplation” and exerted “no effect on their conduct.” The Choctaw at first distrusted the prosperity of the mission stations but were swayed by tribal leader Pushmataha to accept certain forms of mission benevolence. Some Choctaw resented missionary requirements for student labor at their schools, preferring their own emulative approach to child rearing. Apukshunnubbee wanted to spend tribal annuity money on blacksmith shops rather than schools. As younger mixed-blood leaders replaced full-blooded chiefs, school enrollments increased. Full-blooded chiefs favored traditional hunting and festive culture; mixed-bloods favored schools, farming, and Christianity. When missionaries allied with the mixed-bloods, they forfeited full access to the Choctaw.

Land claims, better prospects, and personal exhaustion affected missionary tenure. Maintained by the Synod of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Tennessee, the Cotton Gin and Monroe Station missions continued until the Chickasaw moved West in 1837. Several stations, like the nine-year mission in Jasper County, were abandoned during the 1830s to make way for white settlement. Ventures such as French Camp in North Mississippi endured.

Unlike colleagues in the Caribbean and India, Mississippi missionaries were not self-consciously radical. Baptist Isaac McCoy thought that the Choctaw should not live with whites, while Kingsbury opposed Pres. Andrew Jackson’s Removal policy. Slave laborers were at times retained despite the qualms of some missionaries. The American Board and the US government alike were uncomfortable with missionaries’ promotion of native languages. Missionaries also recognized oppression, theft of Indian land, and the vexatious ways of civil courts in Mississippi. Kingsbury negotiated with Pres. James Madison for a subsidy in 1816, journeyed to the Brainerd mission near Chattanooga, requited Choctaw aspirations for more schools, and opposed Methodist activities that produced immediate conversions. After the Removal of the Choctaw tribe, Kingsbury traveled to Pine Ridge, Oklahoma, in 1836 and became involved in controversy regarding slave ownership by the Choctaw.

In the later nineteenth century a second wave of missionary efforts led by Baptists, Catholics, and Methodists ministered to those who had not taken the Trail of Tears. In the twentieth century William Ketcham, a Catholic priest, helped to safeguard Choctaw rights.

Mission efforts increased literacy, produced dictionaries and Bibles in tribal languages, and encouraged the Choctaw association of church and ball ground as the focus of tribal activity and identity. Missionaries indirectly abetted white settlement and Amerindian Removal and ensured that Christianity would become part of that mixture of blood, motive, and metaphors characterizing the Amerindian experience in Mississippi.

Further Reading

  • G. H. Anderson, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions (1999)
  • Annual Reports of the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions for the United States (1815, 1816)
  • David W. Baird, in Churchmen and the Western Indians, 1820–1920, ed. Clyde A. Milner II and Floyd A. O’Neil (1985)
  • Center for Study of the Life and Work of William Carey, DD (1761–1834), “An Abridgement of Mr. David Brainerd’s Journal among the Indians” www.wmcarey.edu/carey/brainerd/journal.htm
  • B. B. Edwards, The Missionary Gazetteer (1832); William L. Hiemstra, Journal of Mississippi History (January 1948)
  • Clara Sue Kidwell, Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi, 1818–1918 (1995)
  • Robert T. Lewit, Mississippi Valley Historical Review (1963–64)
  • Isaac McCoy, History of Baptist Indian Missions (1840)
  • Percy L. Rainwater, Journal of Mississippi History 1 (1966)
  • Harry Warren, Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, ed. Franklin L. Riley, vol. 8 (1904)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Missionaries to Mississippi Indians
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 2, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018