Above: Episcopal Shield
Image in the Public Domain
THE REVEREND JOHN ROBERTS (1853-1949)
Episcopal Priest and Missionary to the Shoshone and Arapahoe Nations
The history of Christian missions among indigenous peoples includes ethnocentrism, racism, and the destruction of native cultures. To destroy a culture is to leave many people without a stable moral compass, and to forbid the use of one’s tribal language is a crime against the people themselves and cultural anthropology. Fortunately, however, many missionaries have cared deeply about and respected the people among whom they have worked. The Reverend John Roberts was one of these shining lights in Christian missions.
Roberts, who hailed from Wales, became a priest in 1878, in the Bahamas. Two years later, while in New York City, he contacted John Spaulding, Bishop of Wyoming and Colorado, who was recruiting missionaries to work among the native peoples within his diocese. Roberts engaged in this work from 1883 to his death, in 1949.
Roberts began this ministry in Colorado but moved on to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming by 1883. There we worked among the Shoshone and Arapahoe nations, whose languages he learned. His partner in life, love, and missions was Laura Brown, whom he married in 1884, and with whom he had six children, five of whom lived to adulthood.
Roberts gained the trust of the people and, in 1887, the Shoshone chief granted him permission to build a mission school for girls. And the priest built more than that; he established congregations. He was successful in large part because he respected the cultures of the Shoshone and Arapahoe nations, seeking to bring them to Christ, not to eradicate their heritage.
Once, more years ago than I wish to admit, I watched a program on a now-defunct religious cable television channel. This was a documentary about Roman Catholic missionary work in a tribe somewhere in the western United States. The program showed part of a Mass. The priest, who was the only white person in the building, functioned as a sacramentalist; the tribesmen and women did everything else. And the processional cross had eagle feathers attached to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This was a high compliment in that culture.
Wouldn’t the world be a boring place if we were all the same?
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
OCTOBER 25, 2010 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF ANGELINA AND SARAH GRIMKE, ABOLITIONISTS
THE FEAST OF VINCENT PRICE, ACTOR
Creator God, we thank you for bringing your missionary John Roberts from his native land to live and teach your Gospel in a spirit of respect and amity among the Shoshone and Arapahoe peoples in their own language; and we pray that we may also share the Good News of your Christ with all we meet as friends brought together by your Holy Spirit; for you are the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, living and true, to the ages. Amen.
Deuteronomy 31:30-32; 4:6b-12a
—Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 243
Revised on December 7, 2016