Reflections on Historical Leadders
Mosher Center Logo


Reflections on Historical Leaders

September 2016

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont

Last month the United States celebrated two hundred and forty years of independence. Declaring independence from Great Britain in 1776 was a bold and courageous act, but it was of course only one step in the longer, more painful process of achieving political sovereignty. A War of Independence had to be fought to secure the home rule that some colonists-turned-American citizens believed was necessary for them to flourish. Ever since American ideals and the American pattern of employing violent revolt to gain political freedom has inspired revolutionary movements around the globe. Surprise and even shock have accompanied those moments in world history when fundamental political change has occurred without prolonged warfare or the shedding of considerable blood; hence, the drama of 1989 with the sudden fall of Eastern European Communism and the hopefulness of the Arab Spring in 2011. Peoples seeking some measure of autonomy and greater say over their political futures have simply found it hard to imagine or realize a way forward that did not involve armed struggle.

That was certainly the sense of most American Indians in the era of the American Revolution. In the mid-eighteenth century, natives faced unprecedented pressures upon their lands and sovereignty as white settlers pushed westward, imperial rivalries intensified, and the racial divide widened. Under those conditions, the vast majority of Indians across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the Great Lakes region chose to engage in a series of “wars of independence” from British and then United States rule between the 1750s and the 1790s. However, just as there were some colonists who on principle believed that the way of war was no way at all (e.g. Quakers, Moravians, Mennonites), there were some native persons convinced that only peaceful means should be used to gain the security and autonomy their communities desperately wanted.

One of them was Papunhank. He was a Munsee Indian religious reformer in Pennsylvania. Following a personal spiritual awakening, he began preaching a message that emphasized a strict adherence to ancient native customs, an aversion to white ways, engagement in sacred dance, the use of morning and evening prayer, calls to moral uprightness, prohibitions on liquor, warnings of divine judgment, and an adamant opposition to war. Like other Indian prophets of his day, he believed that religious renewal could be an avenue towards community revitalization and survival. But as the French and Indian War broke out and bloody violence beset the American frontier for the next decade, Papunhank saw the need for a host of other strategies to keep his people alive. Geographic mobility, political neutrality, strategic alliances, diplomatic service, and an eventual embrace of Moravian Christianity all proved critical pieces in his quest to secure a measure of self-rule and peace for his people, and by extension, for other natives and whites. Throughout the middle decades of the eighteenth century, his labors repeatedly swam against a strong tide of opposition from most Euro-Americans and many other Indians, and in the end, could not prevent his people’s geographical removal and after his death, wholesale massacre. Yet he still managed partial success, no mean accomplishment given the long odds he faced. Alongside other leaders of independence movements, his leadership model may be worth a look, especially in a world so much in need of being reminded that as Papunhank himself put it “when God made Men he never intend[ed] they should kill or destroy one another.”