Perishing Heathens

Stories of Protestant Missionaries and Christian Indians in Antebellum America

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Julius H. Rubin
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of Nebraska Press
    , October
     276 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Utilizing powerful storytelling, Julius Rubin tells the story of Christian Protestant missionaries and those they sought to convert among Native Americans. The stories shared by Rubin are the experiences that are glossed over in Sunday school, Bible studies, and even seminary level history classes. The people Protestant missionaries sought to convert were “cohesive peoples who exercised a sovereign identity and maintained control over their land and resources” (101). But as Rubin explores the relationship between native peoples and those who sought to convert them, he shows that issues of fear and power were at play, as the United States seized land and control and missionaries demonstrated a lack of theological understanding of the purpose of their work.

As a graduate student these stories were never mentioned in our examinations of the history of the Protestant Church. On a surface level we examined failed missionaries to native peoples such as John Wesley, but the depth and one-sided nature of the relationship between missionaries and native peoples was not discussed. 

The story of David Bacon serves as a lesson that wanting to convert others or proclaim the Gospel is not enough to make someone a missionary. While publicly Bacon believed his missionary work would be a success, his private remarks showed that even he knew that “failure to learn the language…shortage of funds…and failure to build a mission” (37) would destroy his missionary efforts. Over and over again we see in the missionary work of Bacon that lack of resourcing and understanding of the native people led to his inability to successfully serve as a missionary. 

Rubin stresses the importance of missional theology in the third chapter as he explores the identity of American evangelism. This identity can be lost by missionaries serving today because of the shift that has occurred as America exited the antebellum period and moved quickly into an industrialized nation, and now a post-industrial and postmodern world. But even within the large shift that has occurred in such a short period of time, missionaries still experience similar difficulties. As a young missionary Sarah Louisa (Foote) Taylor noted, melancholy and doubt were frequently felt by missionaries during the antebellum period, partly because “they encountered disease, death, and the particularly unsettling death of children” (83), but also because they failed to establish the “why” for what they were doing. This led to the “guilt and depression” (98) felt by so many of the missionaries as recounted by Rubin.

Among other things, Perishing Heathensexamines the connection between establishing and advancing nationalism while at the same time growing the kingdom of God through missionary efforts. This unusual combination of nationalism and faith required that the national identity of native peoples be lost, which isolated native peoples and those who sought to convert them. Those being converted were seen as ungodly and less than by those sent to serve them, while at the same time missionaries did not have the backing they thought they would from their home congregations and denominations. 

Rubin connects the lives of native peoples to the lives of those they went to convert. In this era in American history, this was a messy experience resulting in failure and loss of identity for both the converts and the missionaries.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Teer Hardy is a graduate student at Wesley Theological Seminary and a United Methodist Pastor.

Date of Review: 
May 3, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Julius H. Rubin is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Saint Joseph. He is the author of Tears of Repentance: Christian Indian Identity and Community in Colonial Southern New England (Nebraska, 2013), The Other Side of Joy: Religious Melancholy among the Bruderhof, and Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America.


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