Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Gospel of the Redman

This past week while attending Boy Scout camp, I came across a book in the camp's "Trading Post" that caught my eye. I also discovered that it is featured on the ScoutStuff.org site, the BSA's online store for scouting material. Entitled The Gospel of the Redman, such a book seemed both appropriate and out of place at the same time. I say "appropriate" considering the influence of American/Native Indian customs on the scouting movement (e.g. Order of the Arrow ceremony, etc.). However, it also felt highly "out of place" when I thought about the title and began to read the contents of the volume. The Boy Scouts of America, while holding up the ideals of reverence and belief in God, does not endorse any faith.

The brief description at ScoutStuff.org notes that: "Compiled from American Indian cultures, this classic work offers a glimpse of the ways, history, and philosophy of these proud peoples." This is misleading, though. "Philosophy" is much different than "religion," which is what this book is all about. Written by Earnest Thompson Seton (one of the founding members of the BSA movement) and his wife Julia in 1936, The Gospel of the Redman is a small treatise on the general spiritual beliefs of the American Indians. David C. Scott in an extended article on Seton and controversies surrounding the beginnings of the scouting movement observes:

The book describes and documents various philosophical teachings and beliefs of Native American Indians in a form that can be easily read, understood and taught in the outdoors. And it is highly spiritual and clearly states that "service to fellow man" is paramount. On page one Seton writes: "The culture of the Redman is fundamentally spiritual; his measure of success is, 'How much service have I rendered to my people?' His mode of life, his thought, his every act are given spiritual significance, approached and colored with complete realization of the spirit world.

Scott also notes that this book is used as "as a model for non-denominational Chapel services. " This is not surprising, considering Seton's universalistic approach to religion that attempts to summarize from the Indian religion what he sees as the essential common points of all faiths. After touting the endorsement of Jewish and Christian sources alike, he states in the forward that "it would seem that it (Indian spirituality) must be real religion since it is universal, basic and fundamental." (vii) At the same time, however, Seton also clearly has a bone to pick with Western Christianity, and wastes no time showing the seeming callousness of early missionaries to the Indians. For him Western culture, as a whole, is spiritually lacking, and he observes that the "culture and civilization of the Whiteman are
essentially material," while "The culture of the Redman is fundamentally spiritual" (1).

Unfortunately Seton not only errs in his universalism, but also in his blatant exaggeration of the virtues of the Native Americans as well. He states that "Their honesty is immaculate, and their purity of purpose and their observance of the rites of their religion are most uniform and remarkable" (2). As a Christian I would hardly make such a bold claim even for my own church, especially in a sinful world.

I will be forwarding my concerns about this book and its inclusion in the Scouting movement to the BSA. While I do not oppose educating on Indian spirituality in the right context, this book is clearly an apologetic for Indian religion, and therefore very inappropriate for the BSA to publicize and use. Even the religious awards used and worn by scouts are technically not officially sponsored by the BSA, but by a separate organizations. Instruction in the various faiths is left to counselors who are often not even members of scouting (e.g. the scout's minister) and is not like the regular merit badge program where the instructors must be from within the organization itself.


Steve Newell said...

My son is in Boy Scouts and I am an assistant Scout Leader. I have noticed in many of the "prayers" for meals and the closing of scout meetings, the prayers are to a generic god as not to offend anyone one. This is an example of prayer at a St. Louis Boy Scout camp:

For the gifts of food and freedom
and the hills to roam,
For crimson sunsets
and the earth our home,
For the stars at night
and the gentle winds in trees
we thank you great spirit for all these.

This is no different from the civil religion what we see in the greater culture. It's OK to talk about God but not talk about Christ.

Don Engebretson said...

Thank you for your comments, Steve.

The problem I am addressing here concerns whether Mr. Seton's promotion of Indian spirituality in a book officially offered by the BSA was appropriate considering the position of the BSA to not endorse any one faith. THE GOSPEL OF THE REDMAN, while initially touting Indian spirituality as an ideal universal religion, ends up placing it in a superior position to traditional Christianity, or to any other religion for that matter.

Seton quotes John James who wrote:
"I claim for the North American Indian the purest religion , and the loftiest conceptions of the Great Creator, or any non-Christian religion that has ever been known to this old world..." (2)

Quoting Tom Newcomb on the ethical behavior of Indians he writes:
"I tell you I never saw more kindness or real Christianity anywhere...and I tell you I have never seen any community of church people that was as really truly Christians as that band of Indians." (3)

Later Mr. Seton even takes a historical swipe at Christianity without any documented evidence:
"The cruelest folk recorded in history were the Christians of the Middle Ages." (43)

He also adds a few pages later that "Among the Christian nations of Europe it was the usual thing to torture all prisoners." (45) He states this while trying to defend the Indian custom of "scalping," which he ends up claiming was learned by the Indians from the "Puritan Pilgrim Fathers."

Mr. Seton even had the audacity to reference the 19th century Donner expedition as an example of the horrible behavior of Christians:
"In the terrible history of the Donner expedition that tried to cross the Plains and the mountains of California in 1846, we have a harrowing and disgusting picture of the way in which these Christians reviled, hated, harried, robbed and devoured each other..." (59)

I am still working my way through the rest of the book, so there will undoubtedly be more examples to quote.

And the above does not address the problem with shoddy historical referencing, misinformation on material from the Bible, anti-missionary bias, and Mr. Seton's issues with the government itself.

Although Mr. Seton should be remembered and honored as a founder and supporting of the early scouting movement, this particular work is not at all in keeping with the tenants of the Boy Scout policy.

As to prayers to a "generic God" and whether one can talk about God "but not talk about Christ" - that is a separate article. My point here concerns Seton's book and whether it is appropriate at an official BSA bookstore or camp. My position is that it is not, and I believe a careful reading of the work will show that there are better sources to teach Indian lore.

Steve Newell said...

If you look at the S-F prayer, it has a spirituality that is more inline with that of Native Americans.

Don Engebretson said...

By the "S-F Prayer," Steve, are you referring to the "Special Forces Prayer" (e.g.:http://www.prayer.sfahq.com/)?

Forgive me, but I'm not sure what your point is, exactly, at least in relation to my point regarding Seton's book and the BSA. Or are you commenting regarding the issue of prayers to a "generic god," and such? Just want to follow you here.

mythbegotten said...

Mr. Seton was a FOUNDER of the Boy Scouts! All of their practices relate to the teachings of Seton and his collaborators. If you are truly secure in your beliefs you should feel threatened by no others.