This was an essay I wrote for my Early American Literature class back in 2018. I still find it very intriguing and a current problem even today. I left some notes at the very bottom of the essay — free-form type thoughts on what I think about this piece now.
The Wielded Weapon of Christianity and its Role in Reform
Jesus does not really look like the paintings, it was just based off of Michelangelo’s boyfriend, you know that right? It seems like the emerging Republic could not quite grasp this idea. Even in today’s world it is still mind-boggling for people to wrap their indifferent minds around. Nevertheless, Christianity found itself to be the founding religion among the new Republic of America. For the white people, it brought along with it peace, camaraderie, love, and power. When looked at from the surface, even in its innate or finite state, Christianity is a wonderful religion. It is upon the work of William Apess’s “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” that we see the abuse Christianity can serve when the scriptures are skewed with the influence of bad leadership. Christianity seemed to be a paramount necessity for the national identity of Americans. However, this “loving” Christianity proved to be an major influencer that affected the society as a whole in regard to control of power and individuality. Apess and Emerson both saw the power of Christianity, but differed on the ways in which wielding it could bring reform — Apess saw it as a way to freedom as Emerson saw it as an example to follow of non-conformity.
Although the term “genocide” was not yet invented during the 1830’s, it is a perfect (though presentest) description of what Apess is conveying to his audience; the white man’s power of Christianity and divine right was to dismantle the very nature of the Native Americans. Apess is telling the true foundational history of the Republic that consisted of bloodshed and corrupt doctrines rather than a Thanksgiving feast of friendship. Christians, as a whole, are suppose to be known for their love and kindness but the Native Americans were not treated with a hint of equality let alone love. Apess speaks on behalf of his fellow people when he talks about a “desire to place a few things before my fellow creatures who are travelling with me to the grave, and to that God who is the maker and preserver both of the white man and the Indian, whose abilities are the same, and who are to be judged by one God, who will show no favor to outward appearances, but will judge righteousness” (Apess 135). Apess shows that the inequality posed against the Native Americans was not based on the quality of their persons, but rather, by the white man’s abuse of knowledge and how they wielded Christianity as a double-edged sword meant for murder. God will not judge the skin of his creation but rather his soul and Apess makes this known to his white audience by using the very Bible they hold so tightly to.
Apess has many rhetorical strategies that he uses to further persuade his audience. One of the most useful is the repetition of Biblical passages that he has “flipped” back to their true meaning. He does this as a means of driving home the same point while bringing something a little new to the table each time he repeats a theme. In turn, it makes his important ideas come off as new all-the-while calling out his white oppressors as hypocrites of the Christian faith. A major motif of this repeating rhetoric is love, it appears over fourteen times on page 137 alone. The beginning discussion of love begins with Christianity’s first two commandments, “‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. The second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’” (Apess 137). If God himself proclaimed these two commandments to be the greatest of all the rest then they must be important. Both commandments include the concept of love and Apess takes advantage of this by blatantly calling out his white audience for not loving their neighbors, the Native Americans, even the Natives who had converted and were brothers and sisters in the faith (like Apess) received no love. Apess further concludes that these Christian societies and missionary efforts that they claim to be doing fall short of love and are simply being used to strip Native Americans of their agency and culture. This mistreatment of the Native Americans in no way honors God or follows the doctrines of true Christianity.
Throughout Apess’s appeal we see him not only represent his fellow Native Americans, but also Christianity as a converted, educated, self-reliant man so-to-speak. These attributes give Apess monumental credibility in regard to the cause he is bringing awareness to and fighting for. Apess is the example that a Native American can come from the outside of white Christianity to the inside. This meaning, Apess has the mindfulness of what it means to be both Native American and to be a follower of Christ (a majoritively white religion in the Republic). In turn, Apess has the ability to call out the white Christians for the sins they are commiting and the abuse they are putting on people of color. Apess compares the crimes of each skin color and concludes that if “these skins were put together, and each skin had its national crimes written upon it — which skin do you think would have the greatest?” (Apess 136). Here, white privilege is being “called out.” Apess should not have to remind the white Christians that robbing, murdering, and lying are crimes not only according to law (except lying) but to the Divine law (lying included). Apess even points out that Jesus and all his disciples were not white, which is a common misconception. Jesus would not have denied the Natives opportunities for advancement due to their skin color, since the Son of God himself, had a dark complexion. Instead, these sinful actions against the Natives are justified by skewing the Biblical texts with the only authority of doing so — their white skin color. Overall, Apess is showing the truth and power that Christianity can have when wielded with justice — it can bring true peace and equality amongst the human race.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was a religious man in the basic sense, but the true intentions of his piety held a different connotation. In Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” he is calling for individuality and uniqueness to find its place in society — this then would spark significant social reform. Emerson is constantly putting down any “mob-mentality” ideals where people just simply follow what they’re told and regurgitate what they already know. One of the main tactics Emerson uses are the examples of profound thinkers that brought newness to the culture and stuck themselves out as different and not just cogs in a machine. It is here that Emerson compares king Caesar to Christ, “A man Caesar is born, and for ages after, we have a Roman Empire. Christ is born, and millions of minds so grow and cleave to his genius, that he is confounded with virtue and the possible of man” (Emerson 242). Emerson calls out society for simply following kings as Christ-like. However, this statement is borderline heresy by giving equal credit to the Son of God and a king like Caesar. Throughout the entire New Testament, Jesus Christ separates himself from Caesar, so it is interesting that Emerson puts them together. Emerson’s boldness in this strategy, to a large Christian audience, proves the necessity for change and awareness. One showing that people will follow Caesar and people will follow Christ because they were marked with individuality and leadership, but it is up to the individuals themselves to make up their minds about them and their ideologies — to follow or not to follow.
Despite Emerson using Christianity as a major example of individualism he still holds man’s accomplishments as high, if not higher, than those of kings on earth and Heaven. It begs the question, who is Emerson’s Jesus? It seems as though Emerson sees Christ, not as the true Saviour, but rather as a great independent leader. It is through Christ’s human genius that he achieves his God status rather than the reverse. Throughout all of “Self-Reliance” great thinkers are placed right alongside Christianity, “No greater men avail to educate than Plutarch’s heroes… Phocion, Socrates, Anaxagoras, Diogenes, are great men… Hudson and Behring accomplished so much in their fishing-boats, as to astonish Parry and Franklin… Galileo, discovered a more splendid series of facts than any one… Columbus found the New World… Napoleon conquered Europe…” (Emerson 252). The list goes on of people who had an idea of their own and changed the society as a result of pursuing that idea. Emerson uses these heroic (especially in his mind) men as examples of how reformation is started and how the society as a whole benefits from it. In turn, reform sparks individuality in the future generation like it did between Hudson and Behring when they influenced Parry and Franklin. He desires a culture that is maked by self-reliance, individuality, and uniqueness with no regard in how this reform takes place. To Emerson, Christianity and Science play equal parts of importance as the flint and steel in igniting a society that thinks for itself with no care to which is the flint and which is the steel — they are indistinguishable.
The emerging Republic cleaved to Christianity for more than its religious doctrines, its power to mold societies was one of the main ways in which it was abused. The Republic oppressed the Native Americans as a collective unit (with a few exceptions). Apess and Emerson saw the danger in this and attempted to flip-the-script in which Christianity was viewed. Apess stuck closer to the Biblical text than Emerson but both wanted effective change to happen in their society — Equality for Apess and Individualism (breaking away from the collective unit) for Emerson. Both of these writers proved to be going against the status quo of the time. They wanted to reform the Republic to better fit its promises and goals that were claimed among the white population, like freedom. Apess made aware that people groups were still being suppressed and Emerson desired for people to escape the majority and take advantage of the freedom of unique thoughts. Reformation is inescapable. It is an event that depends on how it is wielded, and by whom it is wielded, that we will finally be able produce a national identity that all people can be proud of.
The author trying to grasp what this means now
I’m starting to like Emerson’s way of thinking a little bit more than I did back in 2018. Emerson deserves a lot more charitable views in this piece looking back at this writing, I guess it goes to show that we do change over time. Anyways, I do not consider Columbus or Napoleon as “hero-type individuals” as he hinted at, but his thoughts on drawing meaning from your individual self is a good notion — to not follow the masses and to question authority roles. I like it, I don’t know, it’s weird looking back on something I wrote a year ago. I don’t believe some of the things about Christianity that I pose above anymore, but I do stand by Apess — Christianity can be one of the most harmful religions out there. White privilege is still real, I know that. Some core doctrines in Christianity support white privilege and sexism, I know that. The genocide of Native Americans was done in the name of God, I know that. There’s a lot I still don’t know though. I guess I’ll lean into the mystery — the interconnectedness of it all.
Be free in the present,