A Description of New Netherlands
Adriaen van der Donck - 1649
OF THE MANNERS AND PECULIAR CUSTOMS OF, THE NATIVES OF THE NEW-NETHERLANDS
Of their Religion, and whether they can be brought over to the Christian Faith.
The natives are all heathen and without any religious devotions. Idols are neither known nor worshipped among them. When they take an oath they swear by the sun, which, they say, sees all things. They think much of the moon, and believe it has great influence over vegetation. Although they know all the planets from the other stars, by appropriate names, still they pay no idolatrous worship to the same, yet by the planets and other signs they are somewhat weatherwise. The offering up of prayers, or the making of any distinction between days, or any matter of the kind, is unknown among them.
They neither know or say any thing of God; but they possess great fear of the devil, who they believe causes diseases, and does them much injury. When they go on a hunting or fishing excursion they usually cast a part of what is first taken into the fire, without using any ceremony on the occasion, then saying, "stay thou devil, eat thou that." They love to hear us speak of God and of our religion, and are very attentive and still during divine service and prayers, and apparently are inclined to devotion; but in truth they know nothing about it, and live without any religion, or without any inward or outward godly fear, nor do they know of any superstition or idolatry; they only follow the instilled laws of nature, therefore some suppose they can easily be brought to the knowledge and fear of God. Among some nations the word Sunday is known by the name of Kintowen.
The oldest among them say that in former times the knowledge and fear of
God had been known among them, and they remark, that since they can neither
read nor write, in process of time the Sunday will be forgotten, and all knowledge
of the same lost. Their old men, when we reason earnestly with them on the matter,
seem to feel pensive or sorrowful, but manifest no, other emotions or agitations
when we reprove them for bad conduct and reason with them on its impropriety,
and say that there is a God in heaven above whom they offend, their common answer
is--'We do not know that God, we have never seen him, we know not who he is--if
you know him and fear him, as you say you do, how does it then happen that so many thieves, drunkards, and evil-doers are found among you. Certainly that God will punish you severely, because he has warned you to beware of those deeds, which he has never done to us. We know nothing about it, and therefore we do not deserve such punishment.'
Very seldom do they adopt our religion, nor have there been any political measures taken for their conversion. When their children are young some of them are frequently taken into our families for assistants, who are, according to opportunity, instructed in our religion, but as soon as they are grown up, and turn lovers and associate again with the Indians, they forget their religious impressions and adopt the Indian customs. The Jesuits have taken great pains and trouble in Canada to convert the Indians to the Roman Church, and outwardly many profess that religion; but inasmuch as they are not well instructed in its fundamental principles, they fall off lightly and make sport of the subject and its doctrine.
In the year 1639, when a certain merchant, who is still living with us, went into that country to trade with an Indian chief who spoke good French, after he had drank two or three glasses of wine, they began to converse on the subject of religion. The chief said that he had been instructed so far that he often said mass among the Indians, and that on a certain occasion the place where the altar stood caught fire by accident, and our people made preparations to put out the fire, which he forbade then to do, saying that God, who stands there, is almighty, and he will put out the fire himself; and we waited with great attention, but the fire continued till all was burned up, with your almighty God himself and with all the fine things about him.
Since that time I have never held to that religion, but regard the sun and
moon much more, as being better than all your Gods are; for they warm the earth
and cause the fruits to grow, when your lovely Gods cannot preserve themselves
from the fire. In the whole country I know no more than one Indian who is firm
in his religious profession, nor can any change be expected among them, as long
as matters are permitted to remain as heretofore. If they are to be brought
over to the Christian faith, then the public hand must be extended to them and
continued; we must establish good schools at convenient places among them, for
the instruction of their children; let them learn to write our catechism, and
let them be thoroughly instructed in the fundamental principles of our religion,
so that in process of time they may be enabled to instruct each other and become
It certainly would be attended with some trouble and expense to the government,
still, without such means and measures, it will be difficult to do any good
among them. Our negligence on those matters is very reprehensible, for the Indians
themselves say that they axe very desirous to have their children instructed
in our language and religion.