“Why . . . presume to dictate . . . “

How to treat the Native Americans was a perplexing question for the American colonists. Aside from problems arising from different concepts of land, its ownership and use, there was the matter of religion. Many firmly believed that attempts should be made to convert Indians to Christianity and subsidized missionary societies with that goal. After the Revolution American policy was directed not only toward converting Indians but toward “civilizing” them and encouraging them to adopt a more settled way of life. However, not everyone subscribed to the doctrine of conversion. Some questioned proselytization and suggested that Indian religious beliefs and practices be respected. Sarah Cary of Chelsea, Massachusetts, was one of these. In addition to property in Massachusetts, her husband Samuel owned a sugar plantation in Antigua of which her son Sam was in charge when she wrote this letter to him in July 1792.

My dear Sam,
. . . There was always since my remembrance a Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Indians, with how much success I am not able to tell, but I am rather inclined to believe very little. . . . As to their religion, there are various accounts about it. Some say they worship the sun, and at break of day every person upward of twelve years old goes to the waterside until sunrise, then offers tobacco to this planet, and does the same again at sunset; that they acknowledge one Supreme God above them, but do not adore him, believing him to be too far exalted above them, and too happy in himself to be concerned about the trifling affairs of poor mortals. My dear Sam, is not the particular mode of their worship as acceptable to their Maker as ours? Why are we arrogantly to presume to dictate to any sect of people if they have not the advantages of Christianity revealed to them? Neither will the fruits of that holy religion be expected to influence their conduct. For wise purposes, no doubt, have our doctrines been withheld from them. The Judge of all the earth will do right. He is the great Creator of all, and doubtless receives with equal condescension the worship of the Pagan and the Christian. Do these sentiments agree with yours? . . .
Farewell, my dear boy, and believe me to be
Yours most affectionately, S. Cary.

Sarah Cary’s letter to her son can be found in The Columbia Documentary History of Race and Ethnicity in America compiled by Ronald H. Bayor (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), taken from Caroline G. Curtis, The Cary Letters (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1891), pages 97-99. The letter can be seen online HERE. The image of Sarah Cary can be found in the Bellingham-Cary House BROCHURE.

posted June 9th, 2014 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Indians, Religion


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