When Sympathy Calls for Action

W.F. Turner

October 07, 2011

Seven years after Francis E. Leupp begins to imagine Indian youth attending White public schools, the Yakima City Church (now First Christian Church of Yakima (FCCY)) calls William Franklin (W.F.) Turner as their congregational minister.  Turner remains the congregation’s pastor for six years.  During Turners tenure at FCCY, he develops, according to D. Duane Cummins “an immediate and sympathetic interest in the Yakama Indians.”

Turner acquires his sympathetic interest, unlike James Wilbur, from a distance.  As the congregational pastor of FCCY, Turner spends his time serving the needs of the Yakima congregation.  When it comes to learning about the Yakama people and their culture, Turner depends on stories told by” white farmers and business people [of the church who had]… elbow[ed] Indians out of their land.”  One story Turner tells is,

‘We heard of the old “Pom Pom” Indian worship as well as that of the “Shakers,” and of the “Long House” and annual camps with their “stick games,” weird customs, and often orgies….Finally the writer was aroused by a story of a young Indian mother who writhed in the agonies of childbirth for some three or four days while Indians, following the best course they knew, danced about her bed beating tom-toms and singing and making noises and incantations until she was relieved by death with no physician called in to relieve her.  All this with many other bad conditions only a few miles from a beautiful modern city with great Protestant churches who seemed wholly indifferent and doing nothing to change the situation.

Turner’s choice of stories to tell exposes the set of Doctrine lenses—one of manifest destiny and another of Christian conversion/social-gospel theology—which frame his sympathetic interest.

Turner’s sympathy first arises out of a manifest belief that what is his normal and within his cultural context is right and correct.  Culture different than his own is “weird” and, at times, what one is best relieved from by death.  Turner is sympathetic towards those people who live a cultural life different from his own.

Sympathy also arises from his conversion theology.  Like James Wilbur before him and most of American Christianity of his era, Turner believes those who discern Creator/Creation through non-Christian lenses (like “Pom Pom” and “Shaker”) often participate in “orgy” worship practices.  Turner has deep sympathy for those whom he understands as unconverted pagans.

However, while Turner is sympathetic to the Yakama because of a perception that his culture and his religion are the only right and correct way of living/believing, sympathy also arises out of the social-gospel theology of his era.  The social-gospel construct of the early twentieth century called Christians to place as much care and energy into another’s wellbeing on earth as in heaven.  Turner recognized few within society and the Protestant church were paying attention to the lack of health care, commodities, and housing on the reservation.  This lack of care certainly aroused Turner’s sympathy, yet it also called him to “change the situation.”  Therefore, though Turner’s relationship with the Yakama is one sided and developed from a distance, it is one which calls him into action.

© David B. Bell 2011

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