I've been engrossed in reading recent monographs and historical work about Native Americans and Colonial Europeans. One fascinating thing that keeps popping out is the real power, and the effectiveness, of many Jesuit missionaries who came to the "New World" to bring the gospel. Especially when compared to other European nations who came to the United States, there is a hope that radiates of the page of even critical and analytical scholarship.
The Jesuit Missions sought to form communities that sustained themselves ('missions') and would provide the context of both hearing the Word of God, and growing into it. It is such a context in Kawnahwake in New France (south of modern Montreal) that Kateri, a Mohawk girl, would give her life for Christ and be venerated by Christians as a true saint of God. Here, both French and Iroquois would give praise to God in the life of this little girl (she died when she was 24).
This is not to vindicate French colonial behavior or France's imperial ambitions. Nor is this vindicating most Roman Catholic missions. Many were oppressive and acted as imperial outposts. However, in contrast to the English, these French seem worlds apart. There's something telling that the early Puritan 'praying-towns' were an abysmal failure and were an abandoned project during and after King Phillip's War.
What was the difference? I'm not going to examine imperial policy generally or certain cultural suppositions, though these are important lenses. Instead, let's look at merely how these missionary engagements were arranged.
The Missions were places where cultures blended. The French and Iroquois who lived there would take from one another liberally and generously. One would find French architecture on Iroquois buildings. One would find Frenchmen wearing moccasins, deer-skins, and smoking the 'calumet' (peace pipe) with their fellows. These were not mere pragmatic adoptions to win over the Natives. There was a genuine breakdown of us-them. French and Iroquois would intermarry. Te Deum was sung in Mohawk. There was real sense of unity out of a shared Christian identity.
The Praying Town was instead a place where not only God was offered through word and sacrament, but a new culture was brought to those Natives who came. Englishness was next to godliness and thus became an imperative of conversion. Becoming Christian meant dressing like a Puritan, it meant learning English, and practicing English customs (especially in regards to the land).
What was different? I think an especial key point in these differing perspectives was theological. There was particular understanding of doctrine and liturgy between these two groups. The Puritans seemed to have reified their positions into a hard-nosed way of life. There was no place for difference or different station. There were authority structures, but every man and woman was called to the same ideal.
I think this is a main reason why New England Puritan theology is so repugnant (to me at least). First, we must recognize that one's theology has implication for one's "culture", how one sees and acts in the World. For the Puritans this was a deeply bounded set. It was sectarian vision that misunderstood Christ. It was a recapitulation of the Judaizing heresy. The typing done by Puritans reflects a group who does not see the New Creation opened through Christ. They were an Israel Redivivus who had to subdue, ward off, or exterminate their 'Canaanite' neighbors.
These people, on the other-hand, understood a better vision of New Creation. They saw how Christ came to call all Nations. It's the missionary impulse that would send Paul out to the Gentiles, willing to speak Greek to the Greek, utilize his poets to disarm him, and preach Christ to him/her in words he'd understand. It was an undermining of previous forms, but not by rejecting them. They were able to 'incarnate' the Gospel in a way that Iroquois understood.
But not only this. The Missions also provided a continuing way of life. Liturgy was brought to them in their own language. The Eucharist was not compromised, but cultural forms (i.e. dress, language, posture) might reflect a different people and group. It was in this mixing that a Church-community was able to be formed and maintained.
The New France Jesuits were not the only ones to do this. The Moravians, much later, were able to bring the same thing. The emphasis on blood by these particularly sacramental Christians resonated with Indians for whom blood was a powerful source and symbol. Thus the purity of Christ's blood "clicked".
For those of us Christians, we need to take these stories to heart. We cannot let the Gospel of our Incarnated, Crucified, Resurrected, Ascended Savior be circumscribed to one particular time and place. We can't let our theological terms and diction, our emphases and 'story-telling' be stagnated. I mean, we are all reading the Bible in English, are we not? The work of Wycliffe and Tyndale 'enfleshed' the Canon into English phrases, and yet invented new ones to convey the truth of the text (e.g. loving-kindness, long-suffering, atonement).
We are both catholic and apostolic. There is a world-wide applicability to the Gospel, but it is rooted in history, in the appointed Disciples who brought the truth to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the whole World.