Project Canterbury

Missions to the Oneidas

By Susan Fenimore Cooper

Serialized in The Living Church

Number I. April 11, 1885 , pages 14-15

The Oneida tribe of the Five Nations has received religious instruction from several different sources. The Jesuits of the Church of Rome, penetrated from the St. Lawrence to the shores of the Oneida Lake, very early in the settlement of Canada. It was probably in the year 1657, during the colder months of the year, that the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ was first solemnly preached in the Oneida village by two Jesuit Fathers. Two aged men, and several children, were baptized; but it was not until 1668 that a regular mission was established, and a little bark chapel built. After a checkered story, the mission languished, and, with the first years of the eighteenth century, the Jesuit missions in all that region gradually died away, and what is remarkable, very little trace of their teaching now exists, even in the traditions of the Oneidas. Occasionally, when the soil is opened by the plough on ground once occupied by those Fathers, some rosary, or religious medal, will come to light. But the red people themselves are at a loss to explain its meaning. The impression made on the tribe was only momentary.

After the Oneidas became subject to the Crown of England, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, founded in 1701, sent missionaries to the Five Nations, and occasional visits were paid to the Oneidas. As early as 1634 Charles I. and Archbishop Laud had taken steps for raising funds, and securing religious teachers for the Indians in the colonies then subject to the Crown of England. Had the political condition of England been different during the 17th century, we may well believe that more would have been effected for the instruction of the Indians. Among the clergy and laity of the Church of England at that period, there were persons saintly in heart and life. But that was a century of great political and religious disturbance. The progress of all true Christian work was slow. From the first incipient dawn of the plan in 1634, nearly three quarters of a century were needed before the full organization of the venerable Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, as it now exists. It was one of the missionaries of that society who first offered the holy worship of the Prayer Book on the shores of Oneida lake. The Oneidas shared the labors of one missionary with the Mohawks. They repeatedly uttered a cry for more frequent services, for a missionary of their own. Occasionally they reproached the English with being less interested in their spiritual welfare than the French had been. And this reproach was a just one. It is clear that political and commercial ambition gave great additional energy to the action of the French in sending missionaries into the American wilderness: but it is also clear that religious Faith was one element at the heart of the work. The error of that age in France was religious superstition; it was not presumptuous infidelity, another form of superstition, that is connected with mere fallible human reason. France was at that time in a state of comparative peace within her own borders. England, at the same date was suffering from a prolonged internal crisis, both political and religious. Many individuals of the Church of England were full of religious power, but the heart of the country was not sufficiently warm, nor her hand sufficiently helpful, toward the heathen tribes within her jurisdiction.

The Propagation Society, very soon after its foundation would appear to have been in correspondence with the Dutch clergyman at Albany, the Rev. Godfriedees Dellins, with regard to the Five Nations and their religious interests. The Rev. Mr. Dellins knew something of the Mohawk language, and was familiar with the habits of the people. He acted as an agent, or counsellor, of the venerable society for a time.

A year or two later the Rev. Bernardus Freeman, also a Dutch clergyman, was regularly employed by the S.P.G. as a catechist among the Mohawks, and most important was the service he rendered them. He had become a proficient in the language of the tribe, and assisted by Lawrence Claesse, the interpreter, he translated for their use the Gospel of St. Matthew, the first three chapters of Genesis, portions of Exodus, a few Psalms, and many passages of Holy Scripture relating to the Birth, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ. Several chapters of first Corinthians, including the fifteenth chapters, were also translated by him. His work was not completed until he had also translated the Morning and Evening Prayers, and the Litany. Mr. Freeman was desirous of receiving orders in the English Church; but there were obstacles to prevent his crossing the ocean, and the Government of the Mother Country, solely from political motives, always declined to allow the Colonies a bishop of their own. Mr. Freeman was disappointed; but he continued to labor faithfully as a catechist, and above all as a translator. His translations date from the first years of the eighteenth century. They were not however printed, but were sent to the society in manuscript.

The first missionary in orders in the Church of England sent to the Five Nations by the S.P.G., was the Rev. Thoroughgood Moor, who arrived in New York in 1704. He was sent especially to the Mohawks, but the Oneidas were apparently also considered as belonging to his care. His efforts were not successful. Fierce opposition was aroused against him by the traders who were jealous of any interference with tribes whom they had long considered as their own commercial prey. They raised up obstacles at every step, and finally by their plots drove him from the field, when as yet he had done little beyond laying a nominal foundation to the mission. The subsequent career of Mr. Moor was singular. He officiated in New York for a time and like many others, was much scandalized by the follies and vices of Lord Cornbury, the governor, who among other indecent freaks had appeared in Broadway, in the dress of a woman. The clergyman indignantly declared that for this, and other scandalous proceedings, he would not administer Holy Communion to the governor. This declaration was repeated to Lord Cornbury. He went to New Jersey where Mr. Moor was at the time and with the assistance of the Lieut. Governor of that colony, seized the clergyman, and with his own hands forced him into a barge, and had him carried as a prisoner to Fort George, in New York. After a time Mr. Moor succeeded in making his escape from the Fort, and secured a passage in a ship sailing for England. The vessel foundered at sea, and the missionary was lost. Scanty records of his labors among the Indians are all that have been preserved.

When Mr. Moor left Albany, the Rev. Thomas Barclay, the English clergyman in that city, undertook the oversight of the Indians. In 1709 Colonel Peter Schuyler, always a warm friend of the Five Nations, went to England, and took with him four chiefs. This visit was important in its results, so far as religious instruction went. The Mohawk chiefs were very urgent that missionaries should be sent to their people. After Colonel Schuyler's return a fort was built at the Lower Mohawk Castle, at the junction of the Schoharie and the Mohawk, and a chapel was also built within the fort; it was a substantial stone building, twenty-four feet square. A parsonage was also built and connected with it was a glebe of 300 acres. The expenses of this work were £900. Fort Hunter and the chapel were necessarily destroyed when the Erie canal was built, a century later. The parsonage is said to be still standing. The first service was held in the chapel October 5, 1712, the Rev. Thomas Barclay officiating. There were sixty Indians present.

Soon after the Rev. William Andrews arrived from England, as "missionary to the Mohocks and Oneides Indians." He reached New York in October, but was detained there waiting for a vessel to sail for Albany! He was "near a fortnight" on the voyage between New York and Albany, "owing to contrary winds." When he landed at the little wharf in Albany, November 13, the Indians received him "with abundant joy." Sunday, November 23, he held service in the stone chapel at the Mohawk Castle. The Litany was said in Mohawk. It was still in MS., but had made part of the services from the time of Mr. Freeman. The people gathered readily about Mr. Andrews for instruction, sixty or seventy at a time. Their village was palisaded, contained fifty or sixty wigwams of bark, supported by poles "twelve feet high." "Drinking is their great vice." "Otherwise they are a civil, quiet, peaceable people." "They are extream kind to each other." "They generally keep constant to one wife till death." Only three or four could speak a little broken English. Not one English colonist could be found at Albany to speak Mohawk. The Dutch were more familiar with the language. The most important work of Mr. Andrews was the revision of the translations made earlier by Mr. Freeman. When Mr. Andrews left England he received from the S.P.G. the MS. translations of Mr. Freeman. These were now carefully revised with the assistance of Lawrence Claesse, the interpreter. The Family Prayers, and Chnurch Catechism, were added to them. The Family Prayers were first issued as a tract by the S.P.G., for the use of the English colonists in America. When complete, the book was published in New York, in 1715, in a small quarto form, with a Mohawk and an English title-page: "The Morning and Evening Prayer, the Litany, Church Catechism, Family Prayers, and several Chapters of the Old and New Testaments. Translated into the Mohaque Indian Language, by Lawrence Claesse, Interpreter to William Andrews, Missionary to the Indians, from the Honourable and Reverend the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts." "Ask of me and I will give thee the Heathen for thine Inheritance, and the Utmost parts of the Earth for thy Possession. Ps.2:8." The book was printed in Mohawk alone, without the corresponding English, to save expense. This edition was not bound, the book-binders of New York at that time being very inexpert. This translation was used by the Oneidas, as well as the Mohawks, and, somewhat modified, it is in use among them at the present time. Those two tribes were in close alliance, the Mohawk Sachems calling the Oneidas their "Nephews," or, oddly enough, their "Daughters." They understood each other's dialects; of these, the Mohawk was the more guttural, the Oneida the more liquid. The Mohawk Prayer Book is in constant use among the Six Nations today, and is indeed used for public devotions by various sects of Christians unconnected with our Church, when holding service among the Iroquois tribe.

In 1715, Mr. Andrews wrote to the venerable society as follows: "I was intended to have gone this summer again among the Oneidians, but was advised against it. When I was among them before, I baptized several children, whose parents were Christians. Since, some of them have died, upon which some of the Indians have a foolish conceit I had poisoned 'em, and spread the report among the other tribes. The Mohawks only laughed." In 1717, he wrote again: "The base practices, and wicked examples of white men, calling themselves Christians, are the great obstacles to the conversion of the Indians, which render the name of Christian odious to them." "The soldiers here of the garrison are as wicked wretches, for drunkeness, swearing, and debauchery as, I think, can live." The traders buy rum in New York at 3 sh. a gallon, and sell it to the Indians at a profit of 15 or 16 sh. a gallon, and one-third water. This their sordid gain they will not part with, though it be the utter ruin of these poor miserable people." In 1719 he resigned the mission.

There was an interval of twenty years, with only occasional services, until 1740, when the Rev. Mr. Barclay of St. Peter's church, Albany took the oversight of the services to the Mohawks, and their "Daughters" the Oneidas; he visited the people frequently, occasionally passing a month or two among them. Then came the "Old French War," which had a very bad effect on the mission. Two Christian Sachems however, kept up the services, by means of their precious Prayer Book, and translations from the Gospels. During three years "Old Abraham," or Tyoheusere, "a very pious Indian," kept up the services.

In 1750 the Rev. Mr. Ogilvie took charge of the mission. He found the people at the "Upper Castle," where there was no garrison, in a better condition than those at Fort Hunter. "Old Abraham" had been acting as missionary and catechist." "Drunkenness has been greatly prevented by him." "For some time past he has entirely neglected his hunting in order to instruct his brethren in the principles of religion, and to keep up Divine service among the aged people and children, while others are in the woods." Occasionally the good old man would set out on a pilgrimage to the Oneidas. Carrying the precious Prayer Book, and passages from the Gospel with him, he would go up the river in his canoe, to the carrying place, thence to the wood creek, and so pass into the Oneida Lake. Here in the different villages he would collect the people, read the Gospel to them, or unite with them in the prayers he had learned to love so well. By the Litany they were "mightily affected." The Rev. Mr. Ogilvie passed the whole winter of 1751 among the red people. He read the prayers in the language, and preached through an interpreter. The Holy Communion was celebrated once a month. There were public prayers Wednesdays and Fridays, and on all Holy Days. The dissolute characters of the white traders, as usual, was the greatest obstacle to the religious improvement of the Indians. On Christmas Day quite a number of the more devout walked sixty miles from their hunting-grounds in the forest, to receive the Holy Communion.

In 1760 the Rev. Mr. Ogilvie, acting as chaplain to the army in the expedition to Oswego, officiated constantly to the Mohawks and Oneidas. There were 940 Indians with the army. Passages are given from his reports: "I have baptized during the year thirteen Indian children and two adults, and have admitted four Indian women to the Holy Communion after a careful examination." "General Amherst being at Oneida Lake went as far as the Oneida town. Upon his arrival he found the Indians at worship, and expressed a vast pleasure at the decency with which the service of our Church was performed by a grave Indian Sachem I went there on the 18th of July; a large congregation collected. Divine service was performed with great solemnity. Six adults presented themselves to be examined for baptism; all gave a very satisfactory account of the Christian Faith, and appeared to have a serious sense of religion. I baptized them, and afterwards married them, three men and their wives who had lived many years together, Indian fashion. I married nine couples and baptized fourteen children." Soon after the date of these extracts Mr. Ogilvie was ordered to Montreal. The mission was again left vacant. The Indians depended chiefly upon their native catechists until 1770, when the Rev. Harry Munro appeared among them, and rendered faithful service for a time. But the war of the Revolution was drawing near, and with it came great, and lasting changes.

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