Adventist Missionaries among the Karaja Natives of Brazil

 

                                           Ubirajara de Farias Prestes Filho

 

The first Seventh-day Adventist missionaries arrived in Brazil, in the South and Southeastern part of the country, at the end of the nineteenth century.  Many of these early missionaries were German immigrants. By that date the SDA church had many missionaries of German descent who had become Seventh-day Adventist in heartland of the United States and in Germany.  Since millions of German immigrants arrived in the Americas specially the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, many who became Adventist in the United States took the Gospel back to Germany and to South America. This helped in the founding of German Adventist communities in Brazil. The Church had difficulty growing in the beginning, probably because of the language barrier; still it was able to structure extensive missionary efforts so that Brazil, by the end of the twentieth century, was one of the places on the planet where Adventism grew like wild fire. The last numbers in Brazil calculated approximately 1.400.000 Adventists in the country.

Although the growth of the Adventist Church among the general population in Brazil is amazing, the same has not been true Adventism among the native population, in Central Brazil.  Before the Arrival of the Portuguese at the beginning of the sixteenth century most of the territory that is now called Brazil was in the hands of hundred of native communities.  These communities, with the passage of time, were pushed further and further back in to the Brazilian interior with many communities disappearing into history.  In this paper I traced some efforts made in Brazil by the Adventist Church to evangelize the Karaja people in the state of Goias.

There were many efforts to evangelize the natives of South America.


[1]  One of the first cases appearing in Adventist publications, occurred in the British Guyana. On April 21, 1911, Elder Ovid Elbert Davis began a trip to find the native Indians of Pemom (self denotation of the Arekuna, Kamarakoto, Taurepang and Macuxi), supposedly interested in Christianity, in the region of Mount Roraima, which is in the frontier between Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana.[2] It was a long trip, to a region difficult to access. Davis wrote a small Diary, and this information can be found at the General Conference Archives. His writings demonstrate that his health was being affected by a fever of unknown origin. On July 27, suffering with a high fever, he reached the region of Monte, with a small group that accompanied him.

At Mount Roraima the Elder’s health got worse. According to a native guide (probably of Macuxi ethnicity), Davis died on July 31, 1911. The native Indians prepared a grave and a simple burial ceremony was performed. Before his death, Davis supposedly told the natives to wait for the coming of new missionaries that would continue his work. About fourteen years past until this happened. 

Days latter, the news of Davis’ reached Georgetown, British Guyana. Soon church publications were announcing the fact, which cause significant repercussion. Davis was considered a man of faith, whose example was to be followed. The years went by, and the Adventist publications disclosed the idea that the native Indians continually made contact with Georgetown, asking for missionaries, according to Davis’ promise. It was only in 1927 that an Adventist couple went to the region of Monte Roraima, settleling down in a Pemom villages to open schools.  They provided health assistance and most important performed baptisms. Several letters, missionary accounts and ethnographic studies testify to this information.[3]

            Much more successful in the effort to evangelize native Indians of South American came with the work of Manuel Camacho and Fernando Stahl, among the Aymara and Quechua people in 1910.  Because of the numbers reached and the dozens of schools founded in the region of Lake Titicaca, the work among the Aymaras and Quechuas became a much more emulated model.[4]

One of the persons who encouraged Stahl’s work among the native Indians was Elder Alvin Nathan Allen, who was the president of the Adventist Mission in Peru. Allen invited Stahl to visit a native school near Puno, at the margins of Lake Titicaca. This school had been established by Manuel Camacho, an Aymara Indian who had accepted the Adventist message. By the middle of 1910, the two missionaries started to work with these native Indians. Camacho had more than fifty students, and on Sabbath at least half of them would meet. Before leaving, Allen baptized fifteen people and encouraged the native Indians with promises of additional schools. Since then, the schools directed by the Adventist missionaries in Peru grew rapidly, a fact that made Fernando Stahl’s name known in Adventist publications, the superintendent of the work among the native Indians. The mission model in Peru became, in certain ways, a standard for Adventism in South America, when dealing with native Indians.

            In 1924, the South Brazilian Union Conference, responsible for church activities in the south and southeastern part of the country, received from a Native community in the state of Goiás, in the Brazilian west central region, a request for a pastor to perform a baptism. The only missionary in the region was Carlos Heinrich, a volunteer nurse who had received authorization for limited medical practice. There is little information on this itinerant missionary. He was born in Germany, and decided to go to Brazil to be a self-supporting missionary. The first note in an Adventist publication about him says that he wanted to start missionary work among the native Indians on the countryside of Sao Paulo.

            In the state of Goias, Heinrich and his family worked in the medical area and preached to those who were interested. He sent information about the region to Elder Nels Neilsen, president of the South Brazilian Union Conference, emphasizing the interest of various native Indians in the establishment of a school for their people. In several letters Heinrich showed his desire to see missionaries among the native Indians of the west central region of Brazil. Extracts of his letters were published by the Review and Herald, giving the idea that the Indians of the region were anxious for the presence of missionaries.[5] Heinrich felt that the natives of the State of Goias hungered education and spiritual development.  He also felt that these needs should be met by the presence of missionaries sponsored by the Church.

            Heinrich says in his letters that the Xerente and Kraho people requested schools for their children. The fact is that in the twentieth century it was becoming more difficult for these ethnic groups to survive because lease holders and farmers were invading the little land that remained of what had once been vast territory. In face of that oppression, many made long trips in search of assistance or gifts were made by these communities. Heinrich affirms that all Xerente wanted to get ready for the Jesus’ coming. Clearly his letters express a sense of urgency, he felt the Adventist Church needed to send someone to work with the native Indians.

            Since that time, people had been seeking funds to start a mission in Goias. There wasn’t a definite project for the mission site. Only a visit by missionaries could define the appropriate area. Besides the fundraising campaign, there was a need for someone to take over the task of missionary. In the second trimester of 1926, Elder Alvin Nathan Allen was called to teach Bible and Pastoral Training at the Adventist Academy in Sao Paulo. His interests, however, were not in a school. Since the early years of his ministry, Allen’s vision had been to work among native people. 

            Alvin Nathan Allen[6] (1880-1945) was born to an Adventist family; he studied at the Battle Creek Adventist College and Union College in the United States. He married Luella Emily Goodrich in 1901, and went to the Bay Islands and Honduras, where Luella’s parents were missionaries. There he did studies in dentistry after discovering that the early Adventist missionaries in Central American had drawn hundreds to the Adventist message and established several churches through the ministry of pulling teeth.  Allen was also colporteur; taught schools and directed evangelistical campaigns, until 1907.

            At this time, the couple got a permit to study at the Washington Missionary College, where Allen was able to complete his studies in health. In 1908, he was sent to Peru as a superintendent of the Adventist work. It was at about this time that he became interested in preaching to native people. After Peru, Allen also conducted the Adventist work in Cuba and North Carolina. He also pastored in Tennessee and Kentucky.

            On July 1926, Allen received a call to work in Brazil, at the Adventist Academy in Capão Redondo, as a teacher for the missionary preparatory course. This was the opportunity Allen was waiting for, to perform a pioneer Adventist work. Years of experience an study motivated him in this attempt to evangelize the native Indians. By this date Allen had a family of six children, two of them died before reaching adulthood.  After arriving in Brazil the South Brazilian Union Conference committee, proposed to Allen the task of starting a mission in Goias. There were a lot of expectation placed on Allen.  He knew of the success that Fernando Stahl and his wife had with the native people of Peru and much the same was expected of him in the South Brazilian conference. He and the Conference leaders  intended to have many conversions in Brazil.

            Initially, it wasn’t very well defined which people Allen would be working with:  the Xavante, Xerente, Kraho or Karaja. All of these groups occupied portions of the region.  Eventually it was determined that work would begin with the Karaja. Thus, after raising funds for the preparations and for a first trip to the Araguaia River, Alvin Nathan Allen left Sao Paulo, on April 11, 1927. However, before going to the Araguaia River, Allen visited some cities in the State of Goias where he had been asked to perform some baptisms. This trip took more than seven months at a time when the roads of west central Brazil were difficult to access.

            The main sources to understand what this trip was like is Alvin Allen’s diary, which can also be found at the General Conference Archives. There are 250 typed pages written between 1927 and 1930. Through his diary Allen gather the information about his work in Brazil, which he also used to generate articles about the mission. Besides that, it was difficult to send periodical information about the progress of the activities of the mission.

Allen’s first trip helped to define the creation of a mission in Piedade, at the Araguaia River, a few miles from Leopoldina (today Aruana), at the border between the States of Goiás and Mato Grosso. The mission started in 1928, with a lot of difficulty. There were little resources, and the transportation of needed material took many days. Moreover, in spite of Allen’s efforts to make converts, there was a resistance among the native Karaja to accept the Adventist message. Allen had found a situation much different from Peru, where Aymara and Quechua groups, very much influenced by catolicism, and had established contact with Christianity for several centuries. In the Karaja case the contacts with Christians were sporadic, and became more intense and frequent from the beginning of the twentieth century. Unable to reach the success he dreamed of, in 1934, Elder Allen left the Araguaia Mission.

 In 1934, with Elder Allen’s departure, the headquarters of the mission was transferred from Piedade to the Karaja de Fontoura settlement, in the Island of Bananal, also in the Araguaia. From that point on, there was a gradual reduction of the importance of the Native Mission of Araguaia for the church administration, with no baptisms less and less importance was given to the Karaja.

            The mission directed by Allen in Araguaia, between 1928 and 1934, had little growth compared to the Adventist influence in Peru and in the Guiana. For instance, after 1934, the Adventist missionary activities in Araguaia were paralyzed. However, in the Brazilian Adventist literature a group of ideas about the Araguaia and the Karaja continued to persist. These images stimulated the recovery of the mission in the fifties, with the first baptisms in the seventies, in the Karaja of Fountura settlement. In this period, some Karajás were baptized by the Adventist pastor Calebe Pinho. Today, there is group of at least 40 Adventist Karajas and about 50 visitants, and a pastor working in the main villages of the Bananal Island. Some Karaja young people study in Adventist schools, for example a young lady Waxiaki Karajá, got her degree in Education in 2005 at the Adventist University of Sao Paulo.

            The Adventist publications have a lot of information about the missionary activities among the native Indians in South America. However the way the texts were written, it is difficult to perceive the differences between the many native groups mentioned.  To the early Adventist, all natives were Indians. In the first half of the twentieth century, the missionaries had no knowledge of ethnicity, which made their work even more difficult, resulting in mistakes in the interpretation of Karja activities and cultural customs.  These barriers limited the effectiveness of missionary activities.

            With the emphasis of the Adventist work placed in the big cities where more persons could be reached with greater success, the pioneer initiative of Adventist mission among native Indians diminished considerably. In the first decades of church expansion in South America, there was a great concern for the people that still had not accepted the Christian message. However, after years of work, some missions were considered more successful than others. Where ever the social and cultural impact was more visible, more attention was given. However, even the missions where there were no baptisms the church impacted the communities and brought changes.  The few converts, the case of the Karaja of southern Brazil, provides an important example of the influence the Adventist message may have among native people.

 

 

 

 

End Notes:

 



[1] About the adventist activities in South América, see: GREENLEAF, Floyd. The  Seventh-Day Church in Latin America and the Caribbean. Let the earth hear his voice. V. 1 / 2. Berrien Springs Michigan: Andrews University Press, 1992.

[2] O. E. Davis Diary.

[3] Missionary books: COTT, Betty. Trailing the Davis Indians. Mountain View: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1936; Destination - Green Hell. Washington, DC: Review an Herald Publishing Association, 1972.; Jewels from Green Hell: Stories of the Davis Indians of British Guiana. Washington, DC: Review and Heral Publising Association, 1969. One example of ethnographic study: ANDRELLO, Geraldo. Profetas e Pregadores: a conversão Taurepang à religião do Sétimo Dia. In: WRIGHT, Robin Michel (org.). Transformando os Deuses: os múltiplos sentidos da conversão entre os povos indígenas no Brasil. Campinas, SP: Editora da Unicamp, 1999.

[4] Sthal wrote two books: STAHL, F. A. In the land of the Incas. Mountain View, Califórnia: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1920.; In the Amazon Jungles. Mountain View, Califórnia: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1932.

 

[5]  See, for example, Indian Work in Goyaz, Review and Herald, April 28, 1927, p. 18.

[6] NEUFELD, Don F. (Ed.) Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, v.10/11, 1996. (note: Alvin Nathan Allen)

 

 

 

Primary Sources

General Conference Archives:

A. N. Allen Diary

O. E. Davis Diary

 

Periodical:

Review and Herald

The South American Bulletin

 

Short Bibliography

- ANDRELLO, Geraldo. Os Taurepáng: migrações e profetismo no século XX. Dissertação (Mestrado em Antropologia Social) - IFCH, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Campinas, 1993.

______. Profetas e Pregadores: a conversão Taurepang à religião do Sétimo Dia. In: WRIGHT, Robin Michel (org.). Transformando os Deuses: os múltiplos sentidos da conversão entre os povos indígenas no Brasil. Campinas, SP: Editora da Unicamp, 1999.

 

- COTT, Betty. Trailing the Davis Indians. Mountain View: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1936.

______. Destination - Green Hell. Washington, DC: Review an Herald Publishing Association, 1972.

______. Jewels from Green Hell: Stories of the Davis Indians of British Guiana. Washington, DC: Review and Heral Publising Association, 1969.

- GREENLEAF, Floyd. The  Seventh-Day Church in Latin America and the Caribbean. Let the earth hear his voice. V. 1 Berrien Springs Michigan: Andrews University Press, 1992.

______. The Seventh-Day Church in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Bear the news to every land. V. 2. Berrien Springs Michigan: Andrews University Press, 1992.

______. A different Kind of Bandeirante. In: SECOLAS Annals, Volume XVIII, March 1987, History Departament, Georgia Southern College, Statesboro, Georgia.

- HOSOKAWA, Elder. Da Colina, Rumo ao Mar - Colégio Adventista Brasileiro em Santo Amaro - 1915-1947. Dissertação (Mestrado em História Social) – FFLCH, Universidade de São Paulo, 2001.

- NEUFELD, Don F. (Ed.) Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, v.10/11, 1996.

- PINHEIRO, Paulo. Missão Carajás. Tatuí: Casa Publicadora Brasileira, 1994.

- SCHUNEMANN, Haller E. S. A noção de providência em Adventistas do Sétimo Dia.  Dissertação (Mestrado em Psicologia) - Departamento de Psicologia, Universidade de São Paulo, São Paulo, 1995.

______. O Tempo do Fim: uma História Social da Igreja Adventista do Sétimo Dia no Brasil. Doutorado (Ciências Sociais e Religião) – Universidade Metodista do Estado de São Paulo, São Bernardo do Campo, 2001.

- STAHL, F. A. In the land of the Incas. Mountain View, Califórnia: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1920.

______. In the Amazon Jungles. Mountain View, Califórnia: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1932.

- TORAL, André Amaral de. Cosmologia e sociedade Karajá. Dissertação (Mestrado em Antropologia Social) - Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, 1992.

- WILCOX, E. H. In Perils Oft. Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1962.