I came upon the delightful account of the Wise Women of Waban as I was researching my chapter on “Equality and Native Americans in North America” in the recent book I had the delight to edit with our CBE president, Dr. Mimi Haddad, and my wife, the Rev. Dr. Aída Besançon Spencer, Global Voices on Biblical Equality: Women and Men Serving Together in the Church.
My appearance favors my mother’s side of the family—she was second-generation Greek and Czech—so that I often joked, when we were side by side meeting people, that “he who had seen me had seen the mother.” However, my father and sister were decidedly blessed with the “Algonkin” Lenni-
Lenape heritage on his side of the family, both of them favored with the striking features of the eastern coastal Amerindians: high cheekbones, a perceptible hook in the upper nose, olive skin, jet black hair, and deep brown eyes. As well, my father had a peripatetic temperament. One could drop him in the woods at any spot, and he could not only live off the land, but unerringly find his way home. He would leave in November, roam around his favorite farms and forests hunting first small game and then large game through December, and then come home with his buck on his car fender, butcher it the back yard, and give a welcome and generous portion to the pastor and the poor, a do-it-yourself approach perhaps rarer in “safe-serve” conscious central, urban New Jersey today, but a common activity of a fundamentalist church trustee back in the 1940s and ’50s. When he was not hunting, he was digging for arrowheads in the local park—no “keep off the grass signs” in those days—and plying me with a steady schooling of Native American lore. Much later in life, I returned to his birthplace in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and, researching in the wonderful archives and museums there, discovered the Walam Olum or Red Score of the Lenape, the tribal legends that so remarkably parallel the biblical account of the creation, with its stories of disruption of peaceful humanity by an evil snake, a subsequent flood destroying humanity, and deliverance of the few by riding on a turtle until the waters subsided.
But it was while I was researching the Algonquians farther north, in fact, in the region where I now live, that I learned of the remarkable women and men of the Christian Praying Indians.
John Eliot, indefatigable champion of the gospel, had failed to interest England in his suggestion to replace the British monarchy with a theocracy, its civil law with a theonomy, built on Jethro’s advice to Moses in Exodus 18. His book, The Christian Commonwealth: or, The Civil Policy of the Rising Kingdom of Jesus Christ, languished without publication until 1659 and the complete collapse of Oliver Cromwell’s commonwealth. But, when Eliot’s idea was suggested to the newly converted Praying Indians of Massachusetts, they embraced it, changing their whole government, including the remarkably humble stepping down of their rallying chief, Waban (for whom this area within the present city of Newton is still named), in favor of the older and profoundly respected Totherswamp[e]. But, as Eliot’s fellow missionaries watched the transformation take place, they were startled to see the women of the tribe throwing themselves into the reformulation with as much vigor as the men. In fact, they became very uncomfortable when the women began to apply the gospel with such gusto that even the wife of the new highest chief Totherswamp[e] asked pointedly “whether a husband should do well to pray with his wife, and yet continue in his passions and be angry with his wife.” Another wife asked, “Do I pray when my husband prays, if I speak nothing as he doth, yet if I like what he says, and my heart goes with it?” The missionary Thomas Shepherd remarked he had “heard few Christians when they look toward God, make more searching questions than these Indians.”1 So zealous were the women that they accused their sachem’s wife of “worldly conversation” on a Sabbath. But, the sachem’s wife argued so compellingly that the fault was not her speech in private, but the preacher’s for overemphasizing this topic on a Sabbath, that, “by common consent,” the entire assemblage decided to refer the matter to Eliot himself.2 The missionaries tried to put a curb on all this “unfit” participation by women, as Shepherd reported:
Perceiving divers of the Indian women well affected, and considering that their soules might stand in need of answer to their scruples as well as the mens, and yet because we knew how unfit it was for women so much as to ask questions publicly immediately by themselves, wee did therefore desire them to propound any questions they would be resolved about by first acquainting either their Husbands or the Interpreter privately therewith; whereupon we heard two questions orderly propounded.3
The attempt at suppressing the women was not only misguided, but ultimately a complete failure. Three hundred years later, the Praying Indians, based in Natick, not far from Waban, are now led by a female sachem and a female clan mother.
As in the case of the Praying Indians, the powerful witness of Christian Native American women and men has continued throughout the centuries since the time of exemplary men like the brilliant and devout military strategist Enrique, who preserved the Taino nation in the early 1500s from complete annihilation by the conquistadores, right through to today’s powerful women like the Reverend Cheryl Bear-Barnetson, who is interviewed in this issue.
Our tribute to God’s work among the five hundred nations includes an equal look at ministry by women in the surrounding pioneer areas. We begin with Saint Cloud State University professor Jason Eden’s study of the question of gender and missions in early New England. Longwood University professor Kristen Dayle Welch next examines the work of early Pentecostal Holiness preaching women, an account which Highrock Evangelical Covenant Church’s Michelle Sanchez completes for us. Hilary Davis follows with an insightful interview with the Rev. Bear-Barnetson, who is shown on our cover. Hilary has served with Mending Wings Ministries on the Yakama Reservation in Wapato, Washington. Physician Shirley Barron offers a review of Lynn Cohick’s Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, and former University of the Nations Bible teacher and present Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary graduate student Jennifer Creamer reviews T. Scott Womble’s Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Ninety Five Theses Which Dispute the Church’s Conviction Against Women. We then enjoy another sensitive poem from our Cherokee poet, Teresa Two Feathers Flowers, whose book of poetic reflections, How to Have an Attitude of Gratitude on the Night Shift, is being published by Indianapolis’s New Century Publishing.
History is filled with awe-inspiring examples from the lives of the human host of witnesses who have preceded us and now commune with our Lord face to face. As we meet them in these pages, may the Lord empower us with a similar godly boldness, which was the prayer of the disciples in Acts 4:29, so that someday, if the Lord tarries, as the ancients used to say, our deeds too will inspire those who come after us to champion the radical cause truly worth defending—the advancement of the rule of the great, sovereign, loving God who empowers all the saints to help heal and reconcile the world.
- Recounted in William David Spencer, “Equality and Native Americans in North America,” in Aίda Besançon Spencer, William David Spencer, and Mimi Haddad, eds., Global Voices in Biblical Equality, House of Prisca and Aquila Series (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2008), 120, citing Nehemiah Adams, The Life of John Eliot: With an Account of the Early Missionary Efforts among the Indians of New England, vol. 3 of The Lives of the Church Fathers of New England (Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847), 112–13.
- Spencer, “Equality and Native Americans,” 120; see also Adams, The Life of John Eliot, 128.
- Spencer, “Equality and Native Americans,” 119; see also Adams, The Life of John Eliot, 112.