First Native American Christian congregation: the Mahicans

Stories that Take You for the Ride of Your Life

June, 2015

First Native American Christian congregation: the Mahicans

In 1740, Christian Henry Rauch established the Moravian mission at Shekomeko and began initiating Mahicans into the Christian faith. The Mahicans were in search for spiritual solace against their struggle for survival, declining fortunes, and illness, readily accepted the new faith to earn the distinction of the first Native American Christian congregation. However, political prosecutions, hostile attitude of white settlers, and harassment meted to their missionaries led to the end of the Moravian mission at Shekomeko in the present day New York.

Established in Bohemia and Moravia during the 15th century, the Moravian Church found its way to a resurgence in the 1720s under Saxon patronage. Within a decade, the first Moravian center in North America was opened at Pennsylvania’s Bethlehem. Christian Henry Rauch arrived in New York on July 16, 1740 and began the Moravian mission to preach and convert Mahicans, who had spread across the eastern side of the Hudson River.

A meeting with a Mahican delegation opened the road for Rauch to teach the Native Americans. He accompanied him to Shekomeko, then a forest village in today’s Dutchess County. Tschoop and Shabash, two Indian chiefs, were converted to Christianity and given the names John and Abraham respectively. In January 1742, three Mahican leaders accompanied the missionary to Bethlehem in Pennsylvania for baptism, and by summer, Shekomeko became home to the first native Christian congregation in North America.

Many Moravian missionaries and their families arrived in Shekomeko by 1743, and Mahicans readily accepted their preaching. In March 1743, the Holy Communion was distributed and over 60 baptized Indians were part of the congregation. The Moravians erected a chapel four months later, and missionaries set up outposts in Kent and Connecticut bordering New York.

The mission played an instrumental role in helping Mahicans overcome alcoholism and brutal practices. The diligent work and guidance of the Moravians improved the quality of their lives. Missionaries learned Indian languages and imparted education to the Mahicans. They provided legal advice that protected Mahicans from being cheated by European settlers.

White settlers in New York looked toward the Moravian mission with disdain as they helped the Mahicans improve their conditions. They worried that the Moravians supported Mahican claim over lands occupied by settlers. They accused the Moravian mission of instigating natives against settlers when the French and Indian War broke out.

False rumors by the colonists led to the political prosecution of the missionaries. Alcohol traders, unhappy over Moravian efforts to free Mahicans from addiction, stirred up resentment against the mission. European settlers petitioned their governments claiming that the Moravian mission was in league with the outlawed Jesuits. As a result, missionaries were detained, interrogated, and fined frequently.

The provincial assembly enacted a law in 1744 requiring missionaries to take an oath of allegiance to the King and apply for the consent of authorities to continue their mission. It was a violation of the fundamental principles of the Moravian Church, and they were forced to cease their activities. In 1746, white settlers in the region demanded a warrant to exterminate all Shekomeko inhabitants. This caused widespread fear among the Moravians and Mahicans, and they abandoned Shekomeko for good and escaped into oblivion.

In The Rule of Ranging, my hero Finn meets with Moravians couple of times and learns about their history.

(Image credits: Father Bonnecamp from the Celeron expedition arrives in Logstown in Welcome to Logstown by Robert Griffing.)

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