Historical Events

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Stefansson explores the conversion of the heathen Eskimo by comparing them to all other religions - "I remember the professor of church history and allied subjects explaining how in Europe Christianity underwent local changes to suit itself to the environment and understanding of the different peoples as it spread northward during the early centuries of our era."

February 9, 1912

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 27 - On the Conversion of the Heathen

Biblical Fundamentalism
Christianization
Religion
Eskimo

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Some friends of mine who travel in Africa are of the opinion that the greater part of black Africa is on the way toward becoming uniformly Mohammedan. They explain this by saying that the natives do not understand Christianity, but they do Mohammedanism; that Mohammedanism seems adapted to local needs, and apparently is in Africa the right thing in the right place. 


A few years ago, when I was a student in a divinity school, I remember the professor of church history and allied subjects explaining how in Europe Christianity underwent local changes to suit itself to the environment and understanding of the different peoples as it spread northward during the early centuries of our era. It is, of course, a truism that every one of us must think in the terms of his own experience. “ When I was a child, I thought as a child ” applies also to the races who are really in the childhood stage of intellectual evolution. It ought to be self evident, and really it is when one stops to think, that the Christianity of the cultured, club frequenting, wealthy man of the city can never be quite the same as that of the farmer in the backwoods, for the thoughts of each and their outlook on life are colored by their associations; still it is apparently true that when the clubman writes out his check for foreign missions and the farmer drops his silver coin in the contribution - plate, each seems to think that the money is going to be spent to produce in the minds of distant savages exactly the type of Christianity which the giver himself holds or which he is in the habit of hearing from his own pulpit. 


It has been my fortune at various times and in many lands to see several other religions besides Christianity in actual operation, and to see the operations of Christianity in a large assortment of environments. The religious phenomena among primitive races are in general as fraught with human interest as any of the phases of their lives, and the manifestations of the Christianity which they acquire from missionaries, or from already converted fellow -country men of their own, should be quite as interesting to us as the native religion of these people — more interesting, in fact, through the circumstance that here we see familiar ideas in strange guise, and have before us phenomena which we are better able to understand than the purely native religions of races that differ antipodally from us in their outlook on life. 


One of the races which just now is being converted to Christianity is that of the Eskimo. Those of us interested in missions may have at our fingers' ends the statistics of the work : In such a year the missionary went to this or that district; in so many years he made so many converts; religious services were regularly held; the results of the work are most gratifying. These things we can get out of the missionary reports, and we can hear them from lecture platforms and pulpits when in their sabbatical years the missionaries return to us to tell about their work and its results. I know of no case where there is any reason to doubt the accuracy of the report of these missionaries so far as outward facts are concerned. If they say that twenty - five have been baptized, you may take it for granted that twenty - five have been baptized. There is no reason to undertake an inquiry into these statistics. What we shall undertake thing which the missionary seldom attempts -is to examine the minds of the twenty - five converts and see just how much of a spiritual transformation the baptism has wrought, and under what form the teachings of the missionaries are now being treasured in their simple hearts. 


I have lived with the Eskimo until they have become as my own people. I pass my winters in their houses and my summers in their tents; I dress as they do, eat what they eat, and follow the game across the tundra to get my food exactly as they do, and I have come to feel that I understand them as well as I do my own people. My footing among them is antipodal to that of the missionary —he comes to teach, but I to learn. He tells them, “Don't do this” and “Don't do that,” and the people soon learn what it is he approves of and of what he disapproves; but I merely look and listen, with interest, but without comment. They will show him the characteristics which they know are likely to win his approbation, and they will keep from his knowledge the things he considers reprehensible; with me they take it for granted that I feel as they do in fact, I do in many cases. In dealing with the missionary the Eskimo say “ Aye, aye,” and “ Nay, nay,” and they watch him out of the corners of their eyes to see whether they said “ Aye ” and “ Nay ” at the right time. The footing of the scientific student is also different from that of the whaler or trader who is not interested in their language or their lore. He laughs at their beliefs and calls them silly, exactly as the missionary frowns over them and calls them wicked. His interests are in fur and in whalebone, as the missionaries are in the teaching of doctrine and the enforcement of Sabbath observance, and the habits of the foxes are of greater interest to him than the habits of the people. 


When Christianity came to Rome, the temples of the gods became the churches of God, but there was still the atmosphere of the temple about them. The feasts of the heathen became the feasts of the church. Yule became Christmas, and in German countries the gods Thor and Odin became devils, snarers of souls, and the enemies of the Kingdom. Just so among the Eskimo the missionary becomes in the minds of the people a shaman. His prohibitions become taboos; and as miracles could be wrought under the old system by formulæ and charms, so the Christian religion among them becomes not one of “works,” but of ritual, and prayers are expected to have their immediate and material effect as the charms did formerly.