Native Americans and John Wesley

In England, John Wesley, Methodism's founder, was appalled by the atrocities Europeans committed against Native Americans. He poured out his moral outrage on European Christians, including the English colonists. In his sermon "A Caution Against Bigotry," Wesley doesn't gloss over anything:

Even cruelty and bloodshed, how little have the Christians come behind them! And not the Spaniards or the Portuguese alone, butchering thousands in South America: not the Dutch only in the East Indies, or the French in North America, following the Spaniards step by step: our own countrymen, too, have wantoned in blood, and exterminated whole nations; plainly proving thereby what spirit it is that dwells and works in the children of disobedience.1

Tragically few listened to Wesley.

Warfare against Native Americans continued until the end of the nineteenth century as the United States moved westward. This expansion was inspired by the nation's "manifest destiny." Manifest destiny was the belief that the United States was destined or chosen to occupy all the geographical territory between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This idea was very popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Native Americans were viewed as obstacles to "manifest destiny."

The wars remove Native Americans from their homelands. For example, from the 1820s until the 1840s the Cherokees, Choctaws and other members of the Five Civilized Tribes were expelled from the Deep South to Oklahoma. These forced marches to Oklahoma are known as the "Trail of Tears" because of the disease, suffering, and massive number of deaths the tribes experienced, and the grief they felt leaving their homes. Some years later (1864) in the far southwest, 8,500 citizens of the Navajo Nation were forced out of their homelands. Their removal to a confinement camp in New Mexico is remembered bitterly as "The Long Walk." Throughout the nineteenth century there were countless military clashes between Native Americans and the United States Army supporting white settlers.

After 1854, the United States government adopted a general policy that undermined Native-American culture by replacing traditional forms of land ownership. Now land was allotted or given to individual Native Americans. Land not parceled out to Native Americans became government property. This land was then passed on to European Americans for railroads, homesteading, mining, and other purposes. The General Allotment Act passed in 1887 pushed this policy even harder. Native Americans were forced to conform to white culture. This Act was finally rescinded in 1934. The result was that through allotment, Native Americans lost millions of acres of their original territories.2

Access to land, water, minerals, and timber are still key issues. During the 1970s and 1980s, a bitter conflict over these rights exploded on the Hopi and Navajo Reservation at Four Corners, where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. This is the land the Navajo Nation received when released from the confinement camp following "The Long Walk." Rich deposits of coal, uranium and other valuable minerals are located in the Black Mesa and Big Mountain area. These lands, however, are sacred to the Navajo people. They are integral to their religious traditions. Strip-mining for coal had already been allowed by the United States government. Uranium mines were operating in nearby areas.

Beginning early in the twentieth century, non-Native Americans and mining and energy companies wanted access to this vast mineral wealth. The Navajo resisted. Pressure intensified by the 1970s. However, not only was the land sacred, but the area was also disputed between Hopi and Navajo Nations because the reservations assigned them included overlapping lands. There was also conflict between Navajo who wished to conserve their traditional religion and way of life, and others who wanted modern development to occur. Mineral developers and the United States government manipulated and exploited the conflict to their own benefit.

Congress, backing the private U.S. companies, passed the Hopi-Navajo Land Settlement Act in 1974. It divided 1.8 million jointly-owned acres between the Hopi and Navajo Nations. For nearly a hundred years the two people had shared the land. The Act also required the relocation of between 10-15,000 Navajo and about 100 Hopi.

The cost to the Hopi and Navajo peoples has been high. It has left division between the two nations, conflict over the meaning of the land, severe hardship for those forced to move, and serious environmental contamination. Above all, it has meant the loss of sacred sites that cannot be replaced.3

Even when mineral rights are not the issue, Whites have access to Native-American lands. By 1985, for instance, over half of the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota was being used by non-Native Americans.4 As noted in chapter 2, disputes with Whites continue through lawsuits brought by Native Americans to recover or defend traditional lands. Today Native Americans are the most poverty-stricken of all United States citizens.5 Land continues to be a critical issue.

While the English were building the New Israel in North America, Spain and Portugal were conquering Central and South America. The conquest of Canaan was the model for their invasion of America. Mexican biblical scholar Elsa Tamez explains:

The story of the conquest of Canaan is the most often used biblical foundation for the conquest of this continent. Juan Gines de Sepulveda [a prominent and influential Spanish philosopher of the 16th century] used this biblical theme to legitimate the war against its inhabitants...He justified the conquest in order to punish blasphemy, but also because the continent was a special donation by God, as the promised land (The Pope as Christ's vicar had the authority to give the lands.) God chose the Spanish to carry out this divine judgment against the infidels, and to conquer their lands. From this Sepulveda affirmed that such a war besides being licit, was necessary because of the gravity of the people's crimes.6

There were voices to the contrary. The loudest belonged to Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566). For many years he bravely defended Indigenous Peoples against the conquistadores. Most Spaniards, however, believed in the righteousness of their cause. They also believed that Native Americans were "naturally wicked." "God condemned the whole race of Indians to perish, for the horrible sins committed in their paganism," a priest declared. A popular saying said it: "Just as Joshua was willed by God to destroy the people of Canaan because they were idolaters, thus God willed Spain to destroy the Indians."7

No wonder some Native Americans reject Promised Land theology! As pointed out in the introduction, Robert Allen Warrior reads the Exodus and Promised Land stories "with Canaanite eyes." A member of the Osage Nation, he says:

Thus, the narrative tells us that the Canaanites have status only as the people Yahweh removes from the land in order to bring the chosen people in. They are not to be trusted, nor are they to be allowed to enter into social relationships with the people of Israel. They are wicked, and their religion is to be avoided at all costs. The laws put forth regarding strangers and sojourners may have stopped the people of Yahweh from wanton oppression, but presumably only after the land was safely in the hands of Israel. The covenant of Yahweh depends on this.8

From this viewpoint, the biblical texts are hardly saving messages! Rather, they are excuses for conquest and genocide.

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This page is an excerpt from Joshua and the Promised Land
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1. John Wesley, Sermon 33, "A Caution Against Bigotry." Sermons on Several Occasions by John Wesley (1746)(London: The Epworth Press, 1944), p. 432 There are various editions of Wesley's sermons. Abingdon Press has published the complete works of Wesley, including his sermons.

2. Kickingbird and Ducheneaux, One Hundred Million Acres, pp. 14-31.

3. This information is based on Peter Matthiessen, "Forced Relocation at Bit Mountain," and Deborah Lacerenza, "An Historical Overview of the Navajo Relocation," in Cultural Survival Quarterly 3 (1988), pp. 2-6.

4. Koning, Hans, The Conquest of America: How the Indian Nations Lost Their Continent. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993 p. 107.

5. M. Annette Jaimes with Theresa Halsey, "American Indian Women, At the Center of Indigenous Resistance in Contemporary North America," in Annette Jaimes, The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance (Boston: South End Press, 1992), p. 324.

6. Elsa Támez, "Biblia y 500 años," in Revista de interpretación bíblicalatinoamericana 16 (1993), p. 12. Used by permission of Editorial DEI.

7. Koning, The Conquest of America, pp. 53, 27.

8. Robert Allen Warrior, "A Native American Perspective: Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians," in R. S. Sugitharajah, ed., Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991), pp. 289, 291-92



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