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Because of the close relationship between federal Indian policy and American churches during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Christianity has a long and important history in Oklahoma's Indian Country. Driven by a belief in the necessity of converting Indians, and openly supported by federal policymakers, missionaries arrived as early as the 1820s, convinced, as Henry Warner Bowden has written, "that one set of cultural standards–the one shared by churchmen and politicians–promoted both spiritual progress and national stability." As a result, church leaders and politicians alike believed that conversion to Christianity would quickly, humanely, and permanently solve the Indian question. Indeed, in 1869 the Board of Indian Commissioners noted in its annual report that where assimilating Indians was concerned, "the religion of our blessed Savior is . . . the most effective agent for the civilization of any people."

By the 1850s missions flourished in the eastern half of Indian Territory especially among the Five Tribes, among whom the history of mission work reached back to the preremoval era. Following removal, missionaries reestablished churches and mission stations in the Indian Territory. These institutions often worked in tandem with schools and academies such as the Presbyterians' Dwight Mission (Cherokee, 1820, 1828), Chuala Female Academy (Choctaw, 1842), and Tullahassee Manual Labor Boarding School (Creek, 1850), the Congregational/American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions's Wheelock Academy (Choctaw, 1832), the Methodist Episcopal Church's Quapaw Mission (1843), and Bloomfield Academy for Chickasaw Females (1852).

Between the end of the Civil War and the 1890s federal policymakers and mission groups intensified their efforts in the western half of Indian Territory. In 1869 federal officials inaugurated the Peace Policy, a church-led, reservation-based assimilation program rooted in the belief that missionaries were the most effective agents of the government's civilizing agenda. Although the Peace Policy lasted less than a decade, its support for church-sponsored work was such that by the late nineteenth century every mainstream denomination, including the Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Quakers, and Catholics, had mission stations on Oklahoma's reservations. (The Mormons were absent, excluded by official policy and public prejudice.) The Baptists and Methodists claimed the lion's share of the missions, but the Catholics ran noteworthy missions and schools in the Potawatomi Nation at Sacred Heart Abbey, at Anadarko on the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation, and in north central Oklahoma among the Ponca, Otoe, and Osage. The Mennonites established an especially strong mission station among the Comanches at Post Oak Mission and at Colony.

By the twentieth century Christianity was a major faith in the Oklahoma Indian community. The Methodist Oklahoma Indian Mission Conference, for example, reported in the year 2000 that it had seventy-two hundred members worshiping in eighty-nine churches in Oklahoma, Kansas, and north Texas. Baptist and Methodist congregations outnumbered the rest of the field, but there were sizeable numbers of Catholics and a growing number of Pentecostals as well.

Regardless of the denomination or tribal affiliation, American Indian Christians do not always reflect the assimilated image that policymakers had once anticipated. From the beginning, Christian and tribally specific beliefs and practices often combined to produce syncretic expressions that were and are simultaneously Christian and Indian. As James Treat writes, American Indian Christians "have constructed and maintained their . . . religious identities with a variety of considerations in mind. . . . Many native Christians accomplish this identification without abandoning or rejecting native religious traditions." Thus, the appearance of native hymn traditions, for example, has helped many tribes to maintain the cultural and spiritual power of language and belief according to traditional ways. In the late nineteenth century, moreover, mission stations often became associated with kin-based bands, thus serving as a focal point for new communities in which Native people who became deacons or lay leaders continued to maintain and express traditional ideals of generosity and kinship. In these and other ways Christianity gave many of Oklahoma's Indian people a way to accommodate the changing social and cultural contours of their world, and in doing so to maintain an important sense of ethnic identity and pride.

Clyde Ellis


Henry Warner Bowden, American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

Louis Coleman, "Cyrus Byington: Missionary to the Choctaws," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 62 (Winter 1984–85).

Hugh D. Corwin, "Protestant Missionary Work Among the Comanches and Kiowas," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 46 (Spring 1968).

Isabel Crawford, Kiowa: A Woman Missionary in Indian Territory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, [1915] 1998).

John Preston Dane, "A History of Baptist Missions Among the Plains Indians of Oklahoma" (Ph.D. diss., Central Baptist Theological Seminary, 1955).

Bruce David Forbes, "John Jasper Methvin: Methodist 'Missionary to the Western Tribes' (Oklahoma)," in Churchmen and the Western Indians, 1820–1920, ed. Clyde Milner and Floyd A. O'Neil (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985).

Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin, eds., Encyclopedia of Native American Religions (New York: Facts on File, 1992).

Marvin Kroeker, Comanches and Mennonites on the Southern Plains: A. J. and Magdalena Becker and the Post Oak Mission (Hillsboro, Kans.: Kindred Productions, 1997).

Luke E. Lassiter, Clyde Ellis, and Ralph Kotay, The Jesus Road: Kiowas, Christianity, and Indian Hymns (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002).

Jack Schultz, The Seminole Baptist Churches of Oklahoma: Maintaining a Traditional Community (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999).

James Treat, ed., Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada (New York: Routledge, 1996).

Walter Vernon, "Methodist Beginnings Among Southwest Oklahoma Indians," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 58 (Winter 1980–81).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Clyde Ellis, “American Indians and Christianity,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=AM011.

Published January 15, 2010
Last updated March 12, 2020

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