As missionaries labored through the ages, they often faced difficulty convincing the established church to accept new converts as Christians. Differences in race and culture proved to be a stumbling block for churches whose congregations were homogenous in nationality and practice.
Acknowledging that foreign converts could not be expected to relate to the same traditions, missionaries nonetheless realized that they must avoid the temptation to lower the bar. Faithfulness to Scripture needed to be maintained as the standard under which these new churches were formed.
The apostolic church at Jerusalem already faced these struggles. The Jews, who viewed themselves as God’s chosen, were sometimes unwilling to accept the Gentile converts that God was bringing into the church. As recorded in Acts 15, a conference was required to address this matter and to receive reports from the mission field. The reports from Peter and Paul resulted in the church rejoicing in the great things God was doing. At the same time, decisions were made as to what must be taught to and expected of the new converts. We have seen that history repeated through the ages in connection with missionary enterprises.
Stephen Riggs was born just over two hundred years ago, on March 23, 1812. He grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, receiving his instruction from the Latin School of Ripley, Ohio and later at Jefferson College. Following a year at Western Theological Seminary, Riggs was licensed to preach as a Presbyterian minister. He met and married Mary Ann Longley in early 1837.
Soon afterward the young couple was sent by the American Board of Foreign Missions to labor among the Sioux Indians at Fort Snelling, Minnesota.¹ The assignment fell under the auspices of the Foreign Mission Board because of the considerable sacrifices required of the missionaries and the fact that little was known of these warring Indian tribes. The Sioux, at the time, were often referred to as “fierce savages.”
After an arduous three-month trip, Rev. Riggs arrived at Fort Snelling in June of 1837. He and his wife spent the summer learning the Dakota language.
In the fall, Rev. Riggs and his wife Mary went to Lac Qui Parle on the St Peter’s River to assist Dr. Thomas Williamson at a small church that had been established two years earlier. Williamson was so impressed with Rev. Riggs’ linguistic gifts that he was moved to recommend that Riggs prepare various translations for religious and educational purposes. Riggs, a faithful preacher and diligent scholar, occupied himself by transforming Dakota speech into a written language and translating some of the books of the New Testament for use by the natives. The church grew from seven to forty-nine members over the next five years.
The labors among the Indians involved tremendous sacrifice for Riggs and his wife. They lived in one room that served as kitchen, bedroom, and nursery. Rev. Riggs’ desk was the lid of the meal barrel. Mary, who had received training as a teacher, was instrumental in the development of schools for the Indian children.
Problems of Commitment
Perhaps more of a disappointment than the living conditions was the lack of support from the calling churches. Their enthusiasm for the work waned as they struggled with embracing the red man as a fellow saint in Christ. Some white settlers also opposed the work. Military men stationed in nearby forts treated the Indians poorly and took multiple Indian wives and mistresses. As a result, little fruit was evident for many years.
Within the calling churches, mission methods were disputed. Some argued that civilizing the tribes should come before the presentation of the gospel. Riggs disagreed. He insisted that the preaching of the gospel was the only power unto salvation and civilization, writing, “That uncivilized heathen nations should first be civilized, and then Christianized, is a sentiment of the past. Now it is coming more and more to be acknowledged, that the Bible is the great civilizer of the nations.”
This idea was in contrast to the methods of Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries who were present twenty years earlier. Now, the Protestant missionaries were determined to preach to, educate, clothe, and civilize the tribes. Schools were established alongside the churches. The missionaries preached obedience to God’s commandments and insisted that the gospel would bring about a change of life. They refused to receive members into the churches without a godly walk to accompany their confession. This resulted in controversy, especially at one point when a prominent Indian Chief requested membership in the church but refused to give up his multiple wives.
In order to effect this change, Rev. Riggs spent much time trying to understand the religion of the Indians. The Dakotas were very superstitious, viewing every object known to them as having a spirit capable of helping or hurting them, and therefore worthy also of worship.
He listened to their legends and wrote down their stories, not only using them to determine sentence structure and syntax of the language, but, more importantly, to understand their principal gods. He found that their religious understanding involved a mythology very similar to that of the Greeks and Romans and even had corresponding gods. The similarities were so striking that Riggs became convinced that the Dakotas had their origins in Europe.
Yet, in spite of many years of labor, Riggs could not claim that his work was a success. The Dakotas killed his cows, stole his horses and other goods, and even threatened his life. Some were willing to admit that Christianity was true but were not willing to live according to God’s commands. Promises to live a Christian life were forsaken as soon as whiskey was made available at the nearest trading station. The killing, stealing, and polygamy that were part of their culture were more precious to them than the gospel. To his wife, Riggs said, “We have sown our seeds in toil and in tears, but where is the fruit?”
The missionary family realized that only the Spirit of God works true saving faith in the heart of man. Without this work there will be no true confession and no godly life. Salvation is a wonder of grace, truly all of God.
It was not until the second generation of work with the Dakotas in the mid-1800s that Christian churches began to become accepted. This progress came to a swift halt and seeming end with the uprising of the Sioux and the bloody battles that ensued in the 1860s and 70s.
In 1862 the Dakota Conflict occurred. Indians were adjusting to reservation life and fast becoming an independent and self-supporting people. They were, however, impatient with the government since conditions of the treaties were not being met. Over 4,000 Indians gathered to demand payments that were owed them, without which they would be unable to purchase food. The money was on the way, but the Fort’s Commander, unaware of that, dealt harshly with them. In addition, game was sparse, and a group of young Indians unsuccessful in hunting appeared at the home of some white settlers and demanded food. After not getting what they wanted, they killed men, women, and children.
Despite the attempts of some Sioux leaders to stress a peaceful response, other Indians were roused to excitement. It was the beginning of a great massacre, as hundreds of settlers were killed, forts were attacked, and missionaries were forced to flee for their lives. While some Indians came to the aid of the whites, many took to battle and the United States government responded with military action.
After being solicited by the government to serve as Military Chaplain to Indian prisoners, Rev. Riggs seized this opportunity to continue his work. As Indians were brought to trial, Riggs, though sympathetic, was required to find witnesses and translate for the military courts. Over 300 Indians out of the thousands who were imprisoned were sentenced to hang for their direct involvement in the war.
President Lincoln, as Commander-in-Chief, was required to approve these executions. Although busy with the Civil War, he took time carefully to examine the evidence. At the pleas of a number of missionaries, Lincoln requested a list of names of the prisoners who were directly involved in the murder or abuse of white women. Thirty-nine names were submitted to President Lincoln, and to the surprise and disgust of many of the people of Minnesota, only these executions were approved and all the others commuted. Later, one of the thirty-nine was exonerated, leaving thirty-eight men condemned to death by hanging.
Rev. Riggs and Dr. Williamson took care of the prisoners, translating for them and informing them of what was about to transpire. Fear took hold of those who were facing death.
The missionaries talked with the prisoners about death and sin and the message of salvation through Christ. On December 26, 1862, the largest execution in American history, the mass hanging of 38 Indian men, took place in Mankato, MN, where there remains today a memorial of this event.
Rev. Riggs and three other Presbyterian pastors continued to work with the remaining hundreds of prisoners after the hangings. As the days passed, some of the men became softened by the grace of God. They asked for copies of the Bible. They began to pray and sing hymns. They confessed that their gods had failed them, and they wanted to hear more about the God of Scripture, the only One who could provide comfort in the face of death. After a time, 300 adult Indians who were housed in the prisons made a public confession of their faith in Christ. The missionaries were amazed to see their growth in grace and were impressed with their prayers. They “prayed with such copiousness and fervency as to make it manifest that they are taught of God’s Spirit. They pray not only for themselves and absent families but also…for the soldiers who guard them, the officers, the President of the U.S. and also for those who are angry at them and seek their destruction.” When they were pardoned by the President, they returned to their homes and reservations and took their new faith with them.
The circumstances at the end of the war, providentially ordained by God, resulted in tremendous fruit. Little did Rev. Riggs realize that the tragedy that forced his family to flee the mission field would be the event that God would use to bring the greatest fruit to his labors. Churches and schools were established among all the Sioux tribes, and more missionaries were called to assist in the training of native pastors and teachers.
Riggs’ wife Mary died in 1869 at the age of 56 after raising eight children. One married a missionary to China, but the majority of the others continued to work among the Indians. Riggs continued to labor among various tribes, side by side with his ordained sons, until his death in 1883. He was 71.
He rejoiced to have been able to confess, “Thus God has been showing us, by His providence, and His grace, that the red men too, may come into the Kingdom.”
For Further Reading:
Riggs, Stephen R.; Mary and I: Forty Years with the Sioux; 1880; W. G. Holmes. http://archive.org/stream/maryifortyyearsw00riggrich#page/104/mode/2up
Woolworth, Alan R. ed.; Santee Dakota Indian Legends; 2003; Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe.
Robinson, Doane; A History of the Dakota or Sioux Indians; 1967; Ross & Haines, Inc.
Lambert, John C. ed.; The Adventure of Missionary Heroism; 2005; The Vision Forum
¹ Fort Snelling is still in existence today as a historical attraction on the Minnesota River in Minneapolis.