April 1, 2018
I hope everyone is enjoying the season of renewal and regeneration, whether as part of the Christian cycle of death and rebirth or in spiritual sympathy with the natural rhythms of the earth’s springing. If you are anything like me (and let’s face it, you’re not), rather than hunting for Easter eggs or devouring chocolate bunnies on this morning, you will be asking yourselves the existential question, what would Apess do?
That William Apess identified with the Christ story in profound and personal ways is made evident in his writings and certainly pertains to his thinking. Perhaps this should not be surprising, given his status as an ordained Methodist minister, but he was also a Pequot Indian and the associations with Christ he most often drew upon in his writings focus on how we treat one another as fellow human travellers on this earth rather than the mystery of Christ’s rising from the tomb. These associations were directly related to the tensions he often experienced as an Indian promoting the gospel of the white man–and never more so than as he began to set his mind to confronting the long history of abuses taking place on the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation in Cape Cod in 1833.
One of the first things Apess did when he decided to make the Mashpee cause his own, was to retrieve his family, living in Essex, MA at the time, and bring them by boat to Cape Cod. On June 18th the boat debarked in Barnstable, the local hub and a town largely hostile to the cause of the Natives at Mashpee. Here Apess’s family was refused lodging at every inn, despite one of his children being ill. Finally, with nowhere else to turn, he was able to secure shelter in a local stable, charged two dollars for the privilege. The anecdote, which he relates in his 1834 book, Indian Nullification, is clearly analogous to the New Testament story of Mary and Joseph seeking lodging in Bethlehem. But Apess’ story is designed to demonstrate how Natives were essentially better practitioners of Christian values than the white populace of Barnstable. Apess cannot but compare his usage here with how strangers were treated in Mashpee, where, as he observes, due to longstanding traditions of hospitality, “I do not believe that one of the whole tribe would turn [a stranger] from his door, savages though they be.” He concludes the passage by observing “we regarded ourselves, in some sort, as a tribe of Israelites suffering under the rod of despotic pharaohs; for thus far our cries and remonstrances had been of no avail. We were compelled to make our bricks with straw.” Despite dealing with both such systemic and day to day prejudice, however, Apess consistently promoted a doctrine of peace, understanding that resistance through peaceful measures was the most effective course Native people of New England could chart for themselves to achieve societal reform.
A peaceful bearing, the admonition made during the sermon on the mount to “love one’s enemies,” is easily the most radical philosophy at the core of Christian belief, though it has not always been viewed historically, as a vehicle of resistance. In The Journal of Presbyterian History, Brown historian William G. McLoughlin identifies the years 1829-1833 as the era that included the “first efforts among Christian ministers to resort to conscientious civil disobedience.” The ministers in question were those with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and, in particular Samuel Worcester and Elizur Butler, who were appointed to administer to the Cherokee. Following Congressional passage of the 1830 Indian Remvoal Act, these ministers chose jail time over submitting to the State of Georgia in its attempt to usurp Cherokee sovereignty. As such, Christian non-violent resistance in the U.S. attaches itself directly to the struggles of Native Americans. In 1831 the white missionary, Worcester, wrote to Governor George Gilmer of Georgia, “my own view of duty is, that I ought to remain and quietly pursue my labors for the spiritual welfare of the Cherokee people, until I am forcibly removed . . . and if I suffer in consequence of continuing to preach the Gospel, and diffuse the written word of God, among this people, I trust that I shall be sustained by a conscious void of offense.”
Worcester made perfectly clear that he was willing to be a prisoner of conscience, but it is uncertain what specific political outcome he sought as a result of his actions beyond challenging the justness of the law itself. Worcester was a committed advocate to the Cherokee people leading up to the removal and his case would travel all the way to the Supreme Court in 1832 leading to legislation that continues to this day to define the status of Native Americans in relation to the U.S. government. But Worcester’s primary goal was not to orchestrate a movement of civil resistance or prevent the removal of the Cherokee to territories west of the Mississippi, so much as it was to continue his missionary efforts without interference. Worcester, in fact, would remove his own mission west even prior to the signing of the 1835 Treaty of New Echota which split the Cherokee Nation and paved the way for forced removal.
The movement at Mashpee was, in most ways, designed to mimic non-violent strategies the Cherokee people had put in motion, by forging a constitution and passing resolutions asserting sovereign control over Mashpee homelands. Apess, who seems to have anticipated a prison sentence as a result of his actions at Mashpee, surely knew of Worcester’s stance and its successful outcome in the 1832 Worcester vs. the State of Georgia decision. But he seems to have come to Mashpee with a more coherent strategy, taking direct non-violent action and hoping to use his subsequent jail sentence as a means of bringing moral clarity and transparency to the abuses taking place on New England Indian reservations.
Apess insisted that the Mashpee resolutions, such as forbidding white neighbors from their longstanding practice of harvesting Mashpee woodlots, be carried out peacefully, drawing upon radical Christian philosophies of non-violent resistance. But the Christ he drew inspiration from was arguably different in character than the one acknowledged by Worcester and the ABCFM missionaries. Throughout his career Apess identified the values espoused by Christ with the traditional values of Native people. By contrast, he found little evidence that white colonists had set any kind of Christian example in their collective actions toward Indians. In his 1833 “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” Apess queries, “My white brother, what better are you than God? And if no better, why do you, who profess his Gospel and to have his spirit, act so contrary to it?” He goes on to remind his audience that “Jesus Christ being a Jew, and those of his Apostles were certainly not white.”
Quite possibly, Apess is the first to float the notion in print discourse, that Christ was a man of color,although undoubtedly it had been an idea in circulation among communities of color in the Northeast for some time. It is an idea that was still considered radical some 130 years later when Malcolm X made a similar declaration in 1963. And even today it remains a notion on the very margins of acceptable Christian thought. Kelly Brown Douglass and Delbert Burkett, in their study of the figure of the “Black Christ,” do not see direct references of such a being emerging in print in the U.S. until after the Civil War. But Apess, who seems to have thought deeply about Christ’s intentionality when he staged his peaceful “revolt” at Mashpee, saw Christianity as a system of belief that had its roots in Native space. The “Native Christ” was not a rhetorical provocation on his part, but a symbol of the consistency of his indigenous Christianity. Certainly though, he understood how such a concept would provoke white audiences, as he calls out “what is the matter now? Isn’t religion the same now under a colored skin as it ever was?”
For the most part, this is not a question with which white America has been eager to engage, knowing that the answer might very well provoke a tectonic shift in the cognitive terrain upon which we build our fortresses of certainty, our shining cities upon a hill. But I float it out there this morning, in this season of renewal, in hopes that we are fast approaching a day when such considerations might not set the world on edge. Because, I think that’s what Apess would do.