“Owned by the white people”: America and Native Americans in Church History Sunday School Lessons, 1934

By August 10, 2010

I recently moved, and in the process spent some time going through the several boxes of papers (consisting mostly of photocopies of archival documents, papers written for courses as both an undergrad and grad student, and old syllabi) I’ve accumulated over the last few years. Among those papers were several tracts and pamphlets published in the early 20th century by the LDS church—a gift from a BYU professor cleaning out his own collection of research material a couple of years back. I sat down and started reading one of those pamphlets last night—Church History Sunday School Lessons, 1934. As I scanned the first several lessons presented, I was struck by two things—first, that the manual spent the initial four lessons on the following subjects: “Columbus, the Great Discoverer,” “Martin Luther,” “How the Pilgrims Helped,” and “How Washington Aided.” These four lessons were grouped under the larger heading “Getting the World Ready for the True Church.” That seemed an odd—though not necessarily surprising—narrative to present in a Sunday School setting, and I’m curious how those particular individuals and groups were selected to be included. Perhaps a little digging might turn up some interesting results that I can blog about in the future. For now, I’d like to focus on the second thing that struck me about those initial lessons—the place of American Indians in this narrative of the Restoration.

They make their first appearance in the very first sentence of the first lesson (“Columbus, the Great Discoverer”):

As we look at America today, we see it owned by the white people who have filled it with cities, railroads, autos, and flying machines. But it was not like this three hundred years ago. At that time the Pilgrims had just landed among the savages, called Indians, who owned everything—the rivers, the lakes, the mountains. America had been theirs for over two thousand years. Six hundred years before Christ the Lord led their fathers to this Promised Land, under the direction of the great Prophets Lehi and Nephi. The Lord promised them, “You can have this beautiful country forever if you will serve me, but if you don’t, it will be given to the Gentiles.” After hundreds of years, the Nephites grew wicked and were cursed with a dark skin. It was in this condition that Columbus found them (p. 1).

The lesson goes onto explain that “the Lord wanted to send his True Church to the Promised Land” but was unable to because He “couldn’t send it to these savages who roamed the land in idleness.” Luckily, Nephi “saw white people coming, sailing over the many waters, coming to find the Red Men and to get things ready for the True Church.” Using 1 Nephi 13 as a guide, the manual identifies Columbus as the first of these “white people.” His arrival in the New World, the first lesson concludes, was evidence that “The Lord was making ready for Joseph Smith” (pp. 1-3).

American Indians make only a brief appearance in the second lesson (“Martin Luther”), in the form of a transition sentence in the opening paragraph. But they are again featured in the third (“How the Pilgrims Helped”). The Pilgrims are portrayed as sincere, honest, and meek devotees of Christ striving for true religion. They can do no wrong in the author’s mind; in a passage reflecting the historiographical picture of the Pilgrims then in vogue, we learn that the Pilgrims not only settled New England, but also initiated the basis of what would become American democracy and religious freedom. And no one, we are assured, was kinder to the Natives whom they encountered upon their arrival. “Every writer who tells about these noble Pilgrims, says they were ‘a religious body of freedom seekers, ruling with such reason and mercy for themselves and the Red Man, that they soon became the pattern for all future colonies'” (p. 6).

The central message of the first three lessons then (as it relates to American Indians) is that through God’s great providence and mercy, these poor, benighted, and racially-cursed souls were treated with kindness and justice by those blessed white people God led to the Promised Land. The concern, though, is not at all with the salvation of the Natives through the paternalistic care and ┬ápreaching of the European settlers (as one might expect from the author’s use of 1 Nephi 13 as a guiding text (see 1 Nephi 13:30-31)). Rather, the sole concern is with the Promised Land being prepared for the Restoration of the True Church through Joseph Smith. This is made explicitly clear in the fourth lesson (“How Washington Aided”). Readers are informed that “at Washington’s time, there remained four big things to do, getting America ready for the true church. As soon as these were done, the Lord would be ready.” So what were those “four big things”?

First: The Indians must be conquered.

Second: The rule of the French broken.

Third: America must be taken from the grip of England.

Fourth: Religious Freedom given to the Promised Land. (p. 8).

Hence Washington’s important role in this particular narrative of the Restoration’s prehistory. These “savage Indians” were no match for “the power of the Lord [resting] upon Washington,” nor were the Indians’ supposed allies, the French. “When he was nineteen, fighting with unusual courage against the French and Indians, he was chosen captain in the army.” Escaping near death because “his mission had only begun, he was saved in a marvelous manner. After many years of fighting, the Indians were driven far beyond the Hill Cumorah where Moroni hid the golden records, and where Joseph Smith was to live.” The French, meanwhile, were similarly driven from the lands “where the Kirtland and Nauvoo Temples were to be built,” as well as from “the Rocky Mountains … where fifty years later the pioneers were to come.” This was, of course, all providential, because “had the Indians or French known that the valuable Book of Mormon records were hid in one of their hills, they would have searched carefully for it. We now see these tow big events finished” (p. 8). Upon taking care of these ethnic and racial foes, Washington then proceeded to win the Revolutionary War and institute the laws necessary for the Restoration of the gospel in the United States. “Six years after Washington died,” the lesson concludes, “Joseph Smith came, getting things ready for the restoration” (p. 9).

There’s a lot that could be discussed in this material, from the antiquated notions of “advanced” European cultures systematically defeating the lesser “primitive” cultures they encountered (and being backed by Deity in their conquest, no less) to the selective reading and interpretation of scripture offered. In addition to recognizing “that the land and cultural birthright Indians once possessed in the Great Basin were taken from them” (as Elder Jensen recently encouraged Latter-day Saints to do), I think that it’s important to recognize the subsequent ways in which Latter-day Saints treated those whose land they assumed control and ownership over. In narratives of church history like the one presented above, these “savage” “Red Men” are not only poor, idle, and spiritually lost souls racially marked for their disobedience, but their “conquering” is to be recognized as a necessary precursor to the restoration of God’s true church. Thankfully, such narratives have largely disappeared from official church publications, but I’m afraid that in the minds of some (several?) Latter-day Saints, the underlying assumptions and attitudes toward Native Americans persist.

Article filed under Memory Race


  1. Thanks, Chris. This is something else. I find it striking (although I probably should be used to it) how closely associated acceptance of the Gospel is with whiteness and “civilization.” Oh, “of course” the Lord couldn’t restore the Gospel to non-white peoples who don’t build houses and who rely primarily on an oral culture. The Indians, as you note, are primarily there to get conquered, since we wouldn’t want them to get their hands on the gold plates before the whites, would we. Thanks goodness for Elder Jensen and changing paradigms.

    Comment by David G. — August 10, 2010 @ 10:57 am

  2. It’s probably worth noting that that particular set of lessons was written for young children (7- and 8-year-olds), situating the advent of the Church in the only history they had learned yet in school, about Columbus and Pilgrims and the American Revolution. They have one-dimensional heroes and villains whose motives and actions are ultra simplistic. You might find that makes you hate the lessons even more; still, don’t make the mistake of thinking that this was as complex as lessons ever got. The missionary prep and adult classes for that year also had quite a bit of church history — although I don’t see anything in those sets that addresses quite the same issues for direct comparison, the early church history lessons in both of those other courses are a lot more considered than these lessons for very young children.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 10, 2010 @ 11:48 am

  3. David, Chris

    So what do you make of 1 Ne 13:14-15?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 10, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

  4. Agreed, David.

    Thanks, Ardis. That is helpful to know. There’s no indication on the manual itself that these are intended for young children, though the fill-in-the-blank “review” game are the end of the manual made me wonder if these were lessons for the youth. I am a bit surprised that these were taught to 7 and 8 year olds. I wasn’t necessarily getting at the simplicity of these lessons, anyway (they’re not much more simple in their content than much of what is outlined in Gospel Doctrine manuals today, to be honest), but rather at the racism contained therein.

    Steve, what do you mean, exactly?

    Comment by Christopher — August 10, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

  5. Well, I realize it was the racism you were getting at, but part of the racism comes from the black-and-white presentation. A more textured lesson on the same subject that treated the inhabitants of America as people who had lost their right to the promised land through apostasy — building on the Book of Mormon scripture — might not have been quite so blatantly objectionable to you.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 10, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

  6. Well, “the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten” does sort of sound like “being backed by Deity in their conquest, no less.”

    As I was discussing with David the other day, a lot of these things bring up theological issues.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 10, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

  7. Fair enough, Ardis.

    Sure, Steve, but what exactly are you asking me? For my own theological interpretation of those verses? I’m more interested in this topic for historical purposes, not devotional or theological ones.

    Comment by Christopher — August 10, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

  8. Your last sentence come across as rather devotional. Colors the whole post.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 10, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

  9. Huh?

    Comment by Christopher — August 10, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

  10. You moralize in that last sentence, Chris (not in a way that I disagree with at all), which makes it look like the point of the post is to demonstrate the moral backwardness of the manual writers. (I sort of have a problem with that, seems presentist).

    So it comes across as though you are attacking particular notions in the BoM text itself. And that seems theological too.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 10, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

  11. Steve, I get the sense that Chris is directly critiquing the manual’s interpretation of 1 Nephi 13 here, and not the BoM itself. Your own work has done the same, albeit in a different context. The only place I see him bringing up the text itself (without quoting from the manual) is to point out that the manual writers have ignored other parts of the 1 Nephi 13 narrative.

    And I see the last sentence more as a way of saying, “Hey, for the most part the church doesn’t teach these things anymore, but unfortunately some of the ideas persist.” Although we haven’t worked through the theological issues as thoroughly as we have with anti-black racism, how is that statement all that different from saying, “For the most part the church doesn’t teach that blacks are descendants of Cain/Ham anymore, but unfortunately these ideas still persist”?

    Comment by David G. — August 10, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

  12. Steve, I’m not entirely sure how to respond, but I’ll give it a shot. I fully recognize that my own views/biases/etc. color the way I read and write about things. In this instance, for example, my own perceptions of persistent racism in the church surely color the way I read and wrote about this particular sunday school manual. But I assure you that the post wasn’t intended as anything more than a brief commentary on a historical document.

    I’m not sure where you get the idea that I’m attacking particular notions in the BoM text itself. I merely noted in that final sentence that interpretations of the text like the ones articulated in the 1934 manual persist today in the minds of some Latter-day Saints. Again, this is a historical point, not a theological one, no matter how much you want to make it one.

    To be completely open, I do find the views expressed in the manual to be abhorrent. I’m sorry that you find such “presentism” troubling.

    Comment by Christopher — August 10, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

  13. As I stated, I don’t have a problem with the sentence. It’s just that saying that he was only interested in historical issues seemed like a bit of a dodge to me. I’m not sure that’s the only purpose here (nor do I think it should be). My point was just to press the theological question, which I don’t see as irrelevant. If that’s impolite, I’ll knock it off.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 10, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

  14. Christopher:

    If I can present Steve’s Question in a different way. From the perspective of history, there is the definite impact of how the scripture was theologically interpreted. The Manual from 1934 presents ideas which are racist. Was this racism because of the scripture they were interpreting, or was the way they were interpreting the scripture because of their racism?

    My personal opinion would be that the evidence tends to indicate that our theology is often dictated by our racist world view, but then that our racist world view is perpetuated by our theology.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 10, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

  15. That’s an interesting re-phrasing of Steve’s question, Matt. I’m not sure how to determine an answer to your question as it relates to this specific document, but would tend to agree with your own personal opinion in general.

    Comment by Christopher — August 10, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

  16. I sort of meant to focus on 1 Ne 13:14, like I mentioned in comments 3 and 6, and not all the other aspects of the post. Didn’t mean to pick a fight.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 10, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

  17. Bad thread jack, sorry, feeling a little cantankerous today. Good post Chris.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 11, 2010 @ 12:41 am

  18. I find it interesting that the narrative presented about Washington in the Sunday School manual mirrors the structure of an unpublished biography written about Warren G. Harding in 1923. In the manuscript, a true Harding believer talks about Washington’s early exploration in the Ohio River Valley and how his efforts opened the areas to pioneers like Harding’s ancestors. The is presented as almost a fait acompli and a triumphant course of history. He also connects Harding’s father to Abraham Lincoln in a fated train station meeting. This leads me to think about how much the manual was influenced by popular narrative techniques of the era. I am not trying to downplay the racist aspects of the text, but I was struck by the similarities in narrative technique within the two documents.

    Comment by Joel — August 11, 2010 @ 10:34 am

  19. Well, now we understand why there is a Correlation Department.

    Comment by Dave — August 11, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

  20. No worries, Steve. We’re good.

    That’s interesting, Joel, and something I found interesting, too (though I didn’t have specific examples in mind), but simply didn’t have enough time to explore before writing the post. If you have the time, a comparison of the two might make for an interesting post. I’m scanning the manual so that I have a PDF of it, and would be happy to pass it along if you’re interested.

    Indeed, Dave. Indeed.

    Comment by Christopher — August 11, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

  21. In narratives of church history like the one presented above, these ?savage? ?Red Men? are not only poor, idle, and spiritually lost souls racially marked for their disobedience, but their ?conquering? is to be recognized as a necessary precursor to the restoration of God?s true church. Thankfully, such narratives have largely disappeared from official church publications, but I?m afraid that in the minds of some (several?) Latter-day Saints, the underlying assumptions and attitudes toward Native Americans persist.

    The most recent Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine – Sunday School Manual scheduled for 2012 includes the following:

    The discovery and colonization of the Americas

    ? The Gentiles who ?went forth ? upon the many waters? are understood to be Christopher Columbus and other early explorers and settlers of the Americas (1 Nephi 13:12?13). What enabled these explorers and settlers to be successful in their endeavors? (See 1 Nephi 13:14?19.)

    ? What role did these early explorers and settlers play in the Restoration of the gospel? (They prepared the way for the founding of the United States of America. The Constitution of the United States established freedoms regarding religion that were necessary for the Book of Mormon to be brought forth and the gospel to be restored. See D&C 101:77?80.)

    Although updated for etiquete and political correctness, edited in a more dynamic format (questions to be answered by the audience), I don’t see much of a change in the message of the narrative.

    I predict the answers to the questions will strongly reflect the narrative you describe, and they will be nodded with an amen in Sunday School.

    Comment by Manuel — August 11, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

  22. Of course they not called “conquerors,” rather they are given the softer terms “early explorers and settlers,” which connotationaly dismiss any imagery associated with the term “conquering.”

    Comment by Manuel — August 11, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

  23. 1 Nehpi seems to miss the whole settlement of the West by the Spanish (?) How the Spanish brought the Bible to the Indians and build a large string of Missions to teach them to be Christians.

    Comment by Bob — August 12, 2010 @ 8:02 am

  24. There is some discussion in the comments on this thread from last year that mention alternative readings of 1 Nephi 13 by Latin American Latter-day Saints. I really do think researching such alternative interpretations (of not only 1 Nephi 13 but the BoM as a collective text) would be a worthwhile and insightful project.

    Comment by Christopher — August 12, 2010 @ 9:13 am

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