This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

The Baptist Frontier: Isaac McCoy, Indian Missions, and the Making of a Denomination




Williams, Daniel

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation




This dissertation explains how the missions to Native American tribes run by Isaac McCoy in the Old Northwest (Indiana and Michigan Territory) shaped the development of the Baptist denomination in the early American republic and how the Baptist denomination shaped the federal policies of Indian reform and Indian removal. It suggests that Baptist history grew out of the frontier, the zone of contact between white Americans and Native Americans, and it taps into the intellectual and experiential roots of Indian removal. It explores the web of evangelism that connected the frontier to the settled east. McCoy and his fellow Baptist missionaries brought their Christian faith and American culture with them to the field, intending to instill their worldview in their native charges. They lived and worked among the Indians and reported their interactions with them to their fellow Baptists in the east in an effort to enlist their aid in the cause of Indian reform. These reports spurred grassroots activism both to raise funds for the Indians and to influence government policy toward them; they likewise informed the decisions that leaders of the Baptist Triennial Convention made both financially and politically, although members of the Board did not always heed McCoy’s advice and their relationship was often strained. How Baptists in the east responded could thus either further or limit the work that the missionaries did on the field: sending donations, sponsoring Indian children, and signing petitions furthered the cause, while refusing to allocate funds, questioning missionary judgment, and blocking political proposals hindered it. Surrounded by natives whom he believed were ignoring his preaching and beset by administrative troubles with his Board, Isaac McCoy came to advocate Indian removal as the only way to save and civilize the tribes around him. He proposed giving them their own self-governing territory west of Missouri in order to give them time to convert to Christianity and adopt an American way of life. He attempted to enlist the Baptists to support the plan before Congress. Initially, he succeeded. During the heated debates over Indian removal instigated by Andrew Jackson, however, the denomination divided over McCoy’s plan, and the leadership refused to support it. Isaac McCoy, his fellow missionaries, and the Baptist Triennial Convention help us better understand the religious meanings of American Indian policy before the Civil War.