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The Missionary

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Rundle's Mission: The mission buildings at Pigeon Lake as photographed by J. B. Tyrell in 1886. Methodist missionaries in Britain were itinerant, travelling from village to village and preaching outdoors. In Canada's West, their practices were similar. 

They erected few buildings, and those they did construct were modest and served only as temporary residences. British Methodist missionaries such as Robert Rundle and Thomas Woolsey came without family and had no need for shelter other than that offered to them by their hosts in camps or fur forts. Today, one finds little physical evidence of their presence. 

Mount RundleWherever the missionary established a group of followers, they were organized into "classes." These groups would set regular meetings for home worship and study with a class leader in the absence of the missionary. This autonomy from an ordained church leader was a basic tenet of Methodist practice, as was the development of local leadership. Those visiting Aboriginal communities some 10 years after Rundle had returned to England, reported with surprise on the established worship practices in the Nakoda (Stoney) camps.

As the missionaries brought their families, they introduced western style living: their house wares, tools and practices were an object of great curiosity to indigenous people. Initial familiarization with western culture was as much a matter of modeling as of teaching. As the busy housewife prepared the noon-day meal or baked bread, the house suddenly became darkened by a crowd of the natives peering in at the windows. The native women laughed as the white woman made garments for her children. It seemed strange to them that the cloth should be cut into so many pieces and then sewed together again." 

-John Maclean, Native Tribes of Canada

As practitioners of a "religion of the book," Christian communities have regarded oral tradition as a lack of literacy. The teaching of reading and writing was a key concern for the religious, whether in medieval Europe or the many mission fields around the world. Literacy has become an important tool for full participation in modern societies. With the spread of literacy, aspects of oral culture that are incompatible with literacy-a different way of experiencing and living in the world-have been altered or lost.

Poster in Cree syllabics for political campaign of J. K. Cornwall, Peace River, Alberta. With the help of the syllabic script developed by James Evans, writing spread rapidly among Aboriginal peoples. The speed with which this skill developed is surprising-within months, letters and notes were relayed from forts to camps and back again. As a tool for communicating over long distances, writing came at an opportune time for Aboriginal peoples.

Many missionaries relied on writing to fill the long days of isolation from colleagues and family. Journals, reports, letters and treatises recorded observations of the land and people. Written words from the hands of missionaries are part of an important body of documents complementing those of the Hudson's Bay Company, various government records and the oral and written chronicles of Aboriginal peoples.

Related Writings and Excerpts:


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