Letterbook of the Company for propagation of the Gospel in New England

Letterbook for the Company for Propagation of the Gospel in New England. Autograph manuscript [1688-1761]. 322 pp. From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.

The Lost Tribes of Israel I

And I heard the number of them that were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of the tribes of the children of Israel. After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and people, and tongues, stood before the lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.

Revelation 7:4,9-10

Indigenous Americans were a vexing problem for early American interpreters of Revelation who believed them to be ancient Canaanites, the lost tribes of Israel, or minions of the Antichrist. Indeed, to the early settlers, indigenous Americans were all of these and more. Whatever their role in the great cosmic drama, they were, in the minds of the early settlers, in need of conversion. To this end, groups like the Corporation for Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England were founded with the first full generation of English settlers, and they set about their task with relish. 

At right: Corporation for Promoting and Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England. Strength out of Weakness. Or, A glorious manifestation of the gospel amongst the Indians in New-England. Held forth in sundry letters from divers ministers and others to the corporation established by Parliament for promoting the gospel among the heathen in New-England, and to particular members thereof since the last treatise to that effect, formerly set forth by Mr. Henry Whitfield late pastor of Gilford in New-England. London: Printed by M. Simmons for John Balgue and Samuel Howes, and are to be sold at their shop in Popes-head-alley, 1652. From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.

This zeal was prompted by a common belief that native Americans were lost Jews who would be reconciled with Christ at the end of time. The members of this corporation included such luminaries as Thomas Shepard, Henry Whitfield, and the famous translator John Eliot, who rendered both the Old and New Testaments into the language of the Algonquian Indians. Although the belief that Indians were the lost tribes of Israel quickly faded, Edward Johnson's Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Saviour in New England argued that a mass conversion of Indians was necessary if America were to be the site of the new heaven and new earth.

At right: The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Translated into the Indian language, and ordered to be printed by the Commissioners of the United Colonies in New-England, at the charge, and with the consent of the corporation in England for the propagation of the Gospel among the Indians in New-England. Cambridge, [Mass.]: Printed by Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson, 1661. From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.

After a century of frustration, the religious concerns of early settlers began to give way to more overtly political speculations, leading to rather outlandish propaganda pieces like the Apocalypse de Chiokoyhikoy, which claimed to be an account of the end of the world by an Iroquois prophet. Not surprisingly, this work prophetically denigrated the British in order to support the cause for American independence even among the Iroquois, and this just recently after conflict with the French had lead Americans to identify the native allies of the French with the minions of Satan.

At right: Henry Whitfield. The Light Appearing More and More towards the Perfect Day. Or, A farther discovery of the Present state of the Indians in New-England, concerning the progresse of the gospel amongst them, manifested by letters from such as preacht to them there. Published by Henry Whitfield. London: Printed by T.R. & E.M. for John Bartlet, 1651. From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.

At right: Edward Johnson. Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Saviour in New England. Andover: Warren F. Draper, 1867. [Facsimile. Originally published: London, 1654.] From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.