Generations Questing from Thee? Exploring the Missionaries of Miami
In 1840, a group of Oxford students turned their attention to the Miami Indian community in northern Indiana. They were members of the Society of Inquiry—a missionary group on campus, that did things during their meetings like “spend some portion of time in prayer for the conversion of the world.” The Society of Inquiry, who hoped to convert the world, “became deeply interested in their [the Miamis] welfare.”
John Milton Campbell and John J. Scott proposed that university students travel north and west. They met with the Miami University faculty and the Oxford ministers. Gaining approval of the churches, these students traveled from Oxford to Peru, Indiana, a town with hundreds of Myaamia people in and surrounding it. They visited with the leading families of Šimaakanehsia, Jean Baptiste Richardville (Pinšiwa), and Francis Godfroy (Palaanswa).
Their reconnaissance left them worried. “The gospel, which Christians are bound to preach to every creature, has not yet been carried to these heathen at our very doors.”
Students should read:
- “A Brief History of the Society,” in Catalogue of the Society of Inquiry of Miami University (1849) pages 3-7.
- The Western Peace-maker, and Monthly Religious Journal (1840), page 374.
After reading these primary sources written and published by Miami students, discuss them as a group.
- What does this tell us about Miami in 1840?
- Is it in or out of step with similar institutions?
- Did these students understand the Myaamia community, and how or how not?
- What do we do with the knowledge that Myaamia people had nearly 150 years of experience with Catholic missionaries by 1840, and that the people they met were Catholic, church-going, and baptized?
- While we may no longer consider Miami as primarily producing lawyers and ministers, we still (to some degree) hope that our institution produces positive change locally and globally. What do you expect to do with your knowledge, and who do you intend to change or benefit from that?
- Describe how past Miami students have grappled with complex questions from multiple points of view.
- Discover and appreciate the similarities and strangeness of the past.
- Interpret a primary source to understand another person’s perspective.
- Compare past attempts at moral identity formation to today’s university mission.
- Reflect on how Miami has attempted to fit into the world, versus change the world.
- Catalogue of the Society of Inquiry of Miami University (1849)
- Student Life; Student Organizations; Religious; 1833-1970
- Box 1 [3A-K-6A] Files: Christian Organizations, 1910-70. Miami University Archives - This source is not currently digitized. It is an explanation of the efforts of the “Society of Inquiry,” and evangelical student group on campus in the 1830s and 1840s. Many of the members of this student group went on to missionary work far afield, including in South America and Africa.
- The Western Peace-maker, and Monthly Religious Journal - This Oxford publication recounted missionary efforts by the Miami University community in the 1840s. The essays display the kind of theological ideas in current vogue at the university, which help us see the evangelical zeal of a significant portion of the community at the time.
- Forty-second annual circular of Miami University (1867) - This list of faculty, trustees, and students by year. It includes names of graduates, including marks indicating ministers. This can be used as an index for Christian ministers.
- Miami University Alumni Catalog (1909) - This lists all Miami people, most prominently alumni, including short biographies from 1809-1909. It could be used for searching specific names within library or general search engines.
Interdisciplinary Connections: Research and Teaching Process
I discovered Miami’s missionaries while researching the history of Miami University’s interactions with Indigenous communities. I was surprised at how Protestant (really, Presbyterian) and mission-driven the school appeared in its early decades. I spent a lot of time “googling” early alumni to try to find out what they did after Miami. As a teacher, I’m struck by how Miami and other schools have touted their ability to transform their region or nation or humanity—both in the past, and in the present.
To understand Miamians as missionaries, it helps to think about individuals, in addition to institutions. Missionaries are not insular, and therefore we need to think about their networks like spokes spreading from Oxford to places near and far. In addition to books about Miami University history (such as Walter Havighurst’s The Miami Years (1969) and Curtis Ellison’s Miami University, Bicentennial Perspectives (2009)), the role of higher education and Christian missions in the early republic helps us imagine the various ideas about the changing purpose of American colleges.
- Boonshoft, Mark. Aristocratic Education and the Making of the American Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.
- Conroy-Krutz, Emily. Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015.
- Larabee, David. A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017.
- Tewksbury, Donald G. The Founding of American Colleges and Universities Before the Civil War. Archon Books, 1965.
Researchers should also be aware of the educational (and other) attitudes of communities targeted for Miami’s missionary zeal. An accessible book about Indigenous colonization and education in the 1820s is John Demos’s The Heathen School. Five Miami University students attended this school for Indigenous youth immediately before enrolling at Miami in 1826.
- Demos, John. The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Early Republic. New York: Knopf, 2014.
Considering a school as an engine of change is common. Considering Miami (or another school) as a school for future missionaries intersects with the disciplines of history, comparative religion, and education, to name a few.
The Society of Inquiry, on a basic level, wanted and expected to affect another community. They hoped to “fix” something about a community that, to them, required their aid. To some extent they neglected strategic communications, political science, effective fundraising, and most importantly understanding their real-world “client” (the Myaamia community). They reported their findings, and self-published them (journalism), for posterity.
Miami continues to send students abroad; many within our community embark on “mission trips,” while others perform service learning.
If Miami began as an academy to train lawyers and ministers, then what do we train students to do now? How did Miami’s missionary zeal change as generations came and went through Oxford? How do we prepare ourselves or our students to go out into the world beyond Miami University? Are we still “proselytizing” something, and what is that?