Review: Choosing the Jesus Way
Angela Tarango. Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014. 219 pp. ISBN 978-1-4696-1292-8.
Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle by Angela Tarango contributes to a relatively small but growing body of scholarship addressing the dynamic and varied ways American Indians have engaged with Christianity. Tarango’s work focuses on Pentecostalism, specifically the Assemblies of God (AG), and the first generation of Native American Pentecostal missionaries from 1918 through the 1980s. Tarango looks at how these Native converts struggled for leadership and representation within the AG, arguing that one of the core missionary tenants of the AG, the Indigenous Principle, was embraced and used by these converts and a few white female missionary allies to fight for Native recognition and autonomy within the AG. Tarango argues that in doing this, they took a colonizing theology and turned it into a practical tool for resistance within the AG. This effected change not only for Native Pentecostals, but for the AG as a whole. Additionally, through this struggle they defined themselves as both Native and Pentecostal and in doing so the Indigenous Principle “became truly indigenous” (5).
An historical reconstruction of the ways Native Pentecostals changed and were changed by the AG, the body of the book is organized thematically and then roughly chronologically within the various themes. Chapter One explains the Indigenous Principle and the AG’s first missions to American Indians. Tarango gives brief introductions to the emergence of Pentecostalism, the development of the AG itself, and the formation of foreign and home missions, before focusing on the Indigenous Principle. First articulated in a Pentecostal framework by Melvin Hodges in the 1950s, the Indigenous Principle dictated that missionaries should plant the seeds of Christianity and then leave the church in the hands of the local people, allowing the Holy Spirit to work within and through these communities. While they generally accepted it as sound theology, most missionaries did not embrace the Indigenous Principle because of paternalism, nationalism, and ethnocentrism. But, argues Tarango, because of its presence within the AG’s missiology, certain white missionaries encouraged Native Americans to attend Bible college and/or become missionaries themselves, and it provided the foundation for later Native activism within the AG.
In the second chapter, Tarango tackles the actual processes of missionizing among American Indians, focusing on stories of specific first generation Native American and white Pentecostal missionaries from the 1940s through the 1960s. She explores the reasons they became Pentecostal missionaries, using mainly conversion narratives, and then examines the mundane processes of actually building a mission. She argues that these missionaries followed the Indigenous Principle to different degrees and embraced it for different reasons. Native missionaries, she argues, saw the Indigenous Principle as the most effective way to build churches among their people, while giving them autonomy and potential leadership positions in the AG. She identifies white missionaries as either pragmatists or idealists; pragmatists saw the Indigenous Principle as the most effective way to get actual results in the mission field, while idealists regarded it as theory that could never be fully implemented. Outnumbering the pragmatists, idealists converted Native people, but did not encourage them to take leadership roles.
Chapter Three “wades into the messy and at times ugly undercurrents that took place in Pentecostal missionary work to American Indians” (81). This chapter moves beyond the pragmatic descriptions of missionary work and directly addresses issues such as racism, ethnocentrism, and paternalism. Using the words of the white missionaries, Tarango demonstrates a range of opinions from general suspicion and uneasiness with Native religious practices, to outright condemnation mixed with blatant racism. Most interesting is her exploration of Native conversion and healing. With limited sources she explores the recorded reasons that these first generation Native AG leaders converted to Pentecostalism. Here Tarango convincingly argues that Native converts were looking for new ways to heal themselves and their communities from the lasting and devastating effects of colonialism and the current expressions of racism and ethnocentrism. These converts saw healing potential within the AG, but instead of focusing on healing individual bodily afflictions as was dominant with white Pentecostals, Native converts looked for spiritual and mental healing for themselves and their communities. Using the Indigenous Principle, they redefined Pentecostal healing to fit their own local cultural frames of reference. Actively propagating certain cultural elements, such as the use of Native languages in services, as separate from religion, they worked towards distinctive locally organized, locally run, and locally focused communities of Native Pentecostals.
Chapter Four explores the birth and growth of the American Indian College and Mesa View Assembly of God, both used by Tarango as actualizations of the Indigenous Principle. Begun by Alta Washburn, a white female missionary, the American Indian College became, with much struggle, the first all-Native Pentecostal Bible College. Mesa View Assembly of God was the first all-indigenous church founded by Charlie Lee, a Navajo Pentecostal convert and leader. For Tarango, the work of Sister Washburn and Brother Lee “were the first large-scale actions that took the practice of the Indigenous Principle and catapulted it on a national level that the AG could no longer ignore” (117-118).
Finally, Tarango traces the struggle for Native leadership positions within the AG and the creation of the position of Indian representative in the final decades of the twentieth century. According to Tarango, Native leaders within the AG held fast to the Indigenous Principle during this time, which allowed them to define themselves as both Indian and Pentecostal and to fight for representation within the AG, though this representation “remained incomplete as of 2008” (169).
This book will be of interest to scholars and students of American religious history, Native American studies, and U.S. history. With very limited sources, Taranago weaves a story that has not previously been told. While Native Americans make up a very small minority within the AG, this case study provides another much needed example of how Native people creatively and actively engaged with Christianity.