During the Second Great Awakening in the 19th century, there had been a Christian religious revival in the United States, whereby religious leaders appealed directly to the populace, regardless of social status. Where religious leaders had long been aristocrats and those of the higher order, those of the Second Great Awakening lead because of their rhetorical ability to sway the masses. This caused a shift in religious class structure, and Christianity began influencing all sectors of the American societal and political structures. One of the most pressing political issues of the early to mid-19th century concerned how the United States government should deal with the American Indians. The Christian consensus of the time was divided, with many leaders advocating for complete removal to the west and others seeking more humane treatment for a race of people who had long occupied the land prior to the formation of the United States.
Many political leaders of the early 19th century, such as President Andrew Jackson, cited Christian ideals when arguing for American Indian removal. In Jackson’s Annual Message in 1830, Jackson invoked religion and exposed his own deeply racist past, as shown here: “is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian” (1). Here, Jackson equates civility to Christianity and degrades the American Indian culture, dismissing them as uncivilized “savages.” Moreover, Jackson was not the only religious zealot to invoke Christianity as a cause to remove American Indians from the land. Here, in an excerpt from an appeal to Congress from the New York Baptist Society, Archibald Maclay makes his case for removing American Indians, also in a religious context, coming from the Baptist section of the Christian faith: “[the Natives] are … a miserable and dependent race of human beings” (1). Coming from a Christian leader of men, these words, and the racist views behind them, are deeply disturbing.
In contrast to the religious and bigoted racists of the time, there were luckily also those religious leaders who advocated humane treatment for the Natives, who had lived the land long before Europeans “discovered” the New World. For example, the Quakers of Baltimore also petitioned Congress, not for removal this time, but on behalf of the American Indians, as shown here: “we … implore the Houses of Congress to interpose such powers as they possess and save the aborigines from … injustice and oppression” (Hopkins 1). Also, women petitioners, such as the Ladies of Steubenville, Ohio also invoked prayer as they appealed to Congress to aid the American Indians and save them from slaughter and dispossession.
Ultimately, those religious and political leaders like Andrew Jackson would win the day, and the American Indians would be forced off their land, led on long cross-country marches, such as those seen during the Trail of Tears, and herded onto reservations, where they would live out their days in poverty and despair. In letters, Native peoples, such as the Cherokee, proved themselves to be far more than the “savage” degenerates described by religious zealots like Archibald Maclay. In fact, in publications such as the Cherokee Phoenix, the Cherokee showed they could speak with civility, clarity, and even elegance. Nonetheless, it is sad that the Second Great Awakening of Christianity in this country did little to prevent the suffering of an entire nation of people who laid claim to American lands long before there was an America. Native Americans would face racism and persecution for many years to come, from religious and political leaders alike. Those like the Quakers and the Ladies of Ohio would unfortunately become the minority in America’s deeply racist past.
- Hopkins, Gerard T. “Memorial of the Representatives of the Yearly Meeting of Friends or Quakers of Baltimore.” 22 March 1830. PDF.
- Jackson, Andrew. “Andrew Jackson’s Message to Congress on Indian Removal (1830).” Our documents.gov. 14 Sept. 2017. PDF.
- Maclay, Archibald. “Memorial of the Board of Managers of the New York Baptist Missionary Society.” 2 March 1830. PDF.
- “Petition to Congress: Memorial of the Ladies of Steubenville, Ohio.” 18 Feb. 1830. PDF.
- “Removal of the Cherokee Indians beyond the Mississippi.” Cherokee Phoenix, vol. 1, no. 47, 4 Feb. 1829. PDF.