Give Peace a Chance

By Elesha Coffman, assistant editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY

Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee were not the only men who met at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. Grant brought several members of his staff and insisted on introducing each personally. Lee graciously shook each man's hand, but he was reportedly startled at the appearance of one of Grant's aides, Ely Parker, by whose hand the original copy of the articles of surrender were written. At first, Lee thought Parker was a freedman or mulatto, but he quickly realized Parker was actually an American Indian (Seneca, from upstate New York). "I am glad to see one real American here," Lee said. Parker is said to have responded, "We are all Americans."

Parker spent his career trying to reconcile white and native Americans—not an easy task in the late 1800s—with a plan that looks strikingly modern. After the war, when Grant was elected president, Parker was named the first American Indian commissioner of the Office of Indian Affairs. Under his leadership, with the president's support, the government took a very different approach to relations with Native Americans—"the hitherto untried policy in connection with Indians, of endeavoring to conquer by kindness." Known as the "peace policy," this plan took authority over the native population away from the military and handed it to citizens and missionaries instead. War-weary Americans hoped "Christian gentlemen" could do a better job of "civilizing" Indians (i.e. making them into white Americans).

It was a good idea, on paper. Denominations were given authority over various Indian agencies on the basis of missionary work already done and ability to support further programs. Of the 12 participating denominations, four bore the heaviest burden: Baptists (five agencies for 41,000 Indians), Episcopalians (eight agencies for 26,900 Indians), Methodists (14 agencies for 54,500 Indians), and Presbyterians (nine agencies for 38,000 Indians). Missionaries took responsibility for education, medicine, and other social services on the reservations. However, if Indians caused trouble outside the reservations, they were subject to military action, which appealed to western settlers whose top interest was unimpeded access to land.

Though neither president Grant (who lacked his wife's Methodist convictions) nor Parker (who rose through the Masonic ranks) seems to have had strong reason to support the peace policy's Christian underpinnings, both were committed to letting the churches manage affairs. Unfortunately, almost everyone else in government opposed the idea. A partisan, prejudiced Congress intentionally stalled in making the appropriations necessary for starving American Indians on reservations to get food. Army generals, afraid that peacetime would reduce their ranks, argued they should have more authority, using sensationalized accounts of Indian aggression to bolster their claim. The corrupt agents Parker swept out of the Indian bureau retaliated by making false accusations about him. Frustrated and politically hamstrung, Parker stepped down after just two years.

Sadly for the church, Christian ministers themselves probably hastened the demise of the peace policy. Denominations quarreled over who had the right to establish missions in certain areas. Missionaries sometimes put so much emphasis on Bible teaching that they neglected teaching survival skills, like farming. Some church agents, who were often paid as little as $1,500 per year, proved susceptible to corruption; others quickly abandoned the work to take more lucrative posts back East.

Today the U.S. government, through "charitable choice" options, is once again considering handing social service responsibilities to churches. While charitable choice has great potential, the peace policy experiment offers some useful cautions. To quote Abraham Lincoln, "Almost anyone can stand adversity. To test a person's character, give him or her power."

* Our upcoming issue, "How the West Was Really Won," explores the role of Christians on the American frontier. To subscribe, see instructions at the end of this page.

* Christian History issue 33: The Untold Story of Christianity & the Civil War, is available at:

* For more on Ely Parker, see:

Elesha Coffman can be reached at