THE NEW RELIGION
About the year 1800 a new religion was introduced among the Six Nations, the exponent of which alleged to have received a revelation from the Great Spirit, with a commission to preach to them the new doctrine in which he was instructed. This revelation was received in circumstances so remarkable, and the precepts he sought to inculcate contained in themselves such evidences of wisdom and beneficence that he was universally received among them, not only as a wise and good man, but as one commissioned by the Great Spirit to become their religious teacher. The new religion, as it has ever since been called, embodied all the precepts of the ancient faith, recognized the ancient mode of worship giving it a new sanction of the Great Spirit, and also comprehend such new doctrines as came in aptly, to lengthen out and enlarge the original system without impairing it. Charges of imposture and deception were at first preferred against him, but disbelief of his divine mission gradually subsided, until at the time of his death the whole unchristianized portion of the Six Nations had become firm believers in the new religion, which to the present day has continued to some extent as a prevailing faith.
This singular person who was destined to obtain such a spiritual sway over the descendants of the ancient Iroquois was Ga-ne-o-di-yo, or "Handsomelake." a Seneca sachem of the highest class, he was born at the Indian village of Ga-no-wau-ges, near Avon, about the year 1735, and died at Onondaga in 1815, where he happened to be on one of his pastoral visits. By birth he was a Seneca of the Turtle clan, and a half brother to the celebrated Corn Planter by a common father. The most part of his life was spent in idleness and dissipation during which time, although a sachem and ruler among the Senecas for many years, and through the most perilous time of their history, he acquired no particular reputation. Reforming late in life, in his future career he showed himself to be possessed of superior talents and to be animated by a sincere and ardent desire for the welfare of his race.
At this period and for about a century preceeding, the prevailing habit of intemperance among the Iroquois was the fruitful source of their domestic trouble, this in connection with their political disasters seemed to threaten the speedy extinction of their race. A temperance reformation, universal and radical, was the main and ultimate object of the mission which he assumed, and upon which he chiefly used his influence and eloquence through the remainder of his life. To secure a more speedy reception of his admonitions, he clothed them with divine sanction, to strengthen their moral principles, he enforced anew the precepts of the ancient faith; and to insure obedience to his teachings, he held over the wicked the terrors of eternal punishment. Going from village to village among the several nations of the league, with the exception of the christainized Oneidas and Tuscaroras, continuing his visits from year to year, preaching the new doctrine with remarkable effect. Many abandoned their dissolute habits and became sober and moral men; discord and contentions gave place to harmony and order, and vagrancy and sloth to ambition and industry. The origin of this project has at times been ascribed to Cornplanter as a means to increase his own influence, but this is not only improbable but is expressly denied. The motives by which Handsomelake claimed to be actuated were entirely of a religious and benevolent character, and in pursuance of the injunctions of his spiritual guides.
At the time of his supernatural visitation, about the year 1800, Handsomelake resided at the village of Cornplanter, on the Alleghany river in the State of Pennsylvania. As he explained the case to his brethren, having lain ill for a long time he had given up all hope of recovery and resigned himself to die. When in the hourly expectation of death, three spiritual beings in the form of men, sent by the Great Spirit, appeared before him, each carried in his hand a shrub bearing different kinds of berries, which, having been given him to eat, he was by their miraculous virtue immediately restored to health. They afterward revealed to him the will of the Great Spirit upon a variety of subjects, and particularly in relation to the prevailing intemperance, commissioning him to promulgate these doctrines among the league, causing him to see realities of the evil-minded, and to behold with his mortal eyes the punishment inflicted upon the wicked, that he might with more propriety warn his people of their impending destiny. He was also permitted to behold the realm and felicities of the Heavenly residence of the virtuous. With his mind thus prepared, and stored with divine precepts, and with his zeal enkindled by the dignity of his mission, Handsomelake at once commenced his labors.
After his death, Sase-ha-wa, (Johnson) of Tonawanda, was appointed his successor. The first and only person ever "raised up" by the Iroquois, and invested with the office of a supreme religious instructor--a sincere believer in the verity of Handsomelake's mission, and an eminently pure and virtuous man--Sase-ha-wa (Johnson) has devoted himself with zeal and fidelity to the duties of his office, as a spiritual guide and teacher of the Iroquois. He was a grand-son of Handsomlake, a nephew of Red Jacket, and was born at the Indian village of Ga-no-wan-ges, near Avon, about the year 1774.
At the condolence and religious councils of the Iroquois, which are still held at intervals of a few years, among the scattered descendants of the long house, it has long been customary to set apart portions of two or three days to listen to a discourse from Johnson upon the new religion. On these occasions he explains minutely the circumstance attending the supernatural visitation of Handsomelake, and delivers the instructions, word for word, which he had been accustomed to give during his own ministration. Handsomelake professed to repeat the messages which were given to him from time to time by the celestial visitants, with whom he alleged to be in frequent communication, and whom he addressed as his spiritual guardian, thus enforcing his precepts as the direct command of the Great Spirit.
At their councils and religious, festivals, it was customary for the chiefs and keepers of the faith to express their confidence in the new religion, and to exhort others to strengthen their beliefs. The late Abraham La Fort, an educated Onondaga Sachem, thus expressed himself upon this subject at a condolence council of the league, held at Tonawanda as late as October, 1847.
"Let us observe the operations of nature. The year is divided into seasons, and every season has its fruits. The birds of the air, though clothed in the same dress of feathers, are divided into many classes, and one class is never seen to associate or intermingle with any but its own kind. So with the beasts of the field and woods. Each and every class and specie have their own separate rules by which they seem to be governed, and by which their actions are regulated. These distinctions, classes and colors the Great Spirit has seen fit to make. But the rule does not stop here. It is universal. It embraces man also. The human race was created and divided into different classes, which were placed separate from each other--having different customs, manners, laws and religions. To the Indians it seems that no more religion had originally been than was to be found in the operations of nature, which taught him that there was a Supreme Being, all powerful and all wise; and on this account, as well as on account of his great goodness, they learned to love and reverence Him. But these later times, when the restless and ambitious spirit of the whiteskinned race had crossed the boundary line and made inroads upon the manners, customs and primitive religion of the Indian, the Great Spirit determined to and through His servant, Handsomelake, did reveal his will to the Indians. The substance of that will was no more than to confirm their ancient belief that they were entitled to a different religion--a religion adapted to their customs, manners and ways of thinking."
As the discourses delivered by Johnson from time to time contains a very full exposition of their ancient beliefs and mode of worship, together with the recent views introduced by Handsomelake, mingled up in one collection, presenting probably a better idea of their ethical and religious system than could be conveyed in any other manner, it is given entire, and will explain itself as delivered, thus:
"The Mohawks, the Onondagas, the Senecas, and our children, the Oneidas, Cayugas and Tuscaroras, have assembled here to-day to listen to the repetition of the will of the Great Spirit, as communicated to us from heaven through His servant, Handsomelake.
"Chiefs, warriors, women and children, we give you a cordial welcome. The sun has advanced far in its path, and I am warned that my time to instruct you is limited to the meridian sun. I must hasten to perform my duty. Turn you minds to the Great Spirit, and listen with strict attention. Think seriously upon what I am about to speak. Reflect upon it well, that it may benefit you and your children. I thank the Great Spirit that He has spared the lives of so many of you to be present on this occasion. I return thanks to Him that my life is yet spared. The Great Spirit looked down from Heaven upon the suffering and the wanderings of the red children. He saw that they had greatly decreased and degenerated. He saw the ravages of the firewater among them. He therefore raised up for them a sacred inspiration, who, having lived and traveled among them for sixteen years, was called from his labors to enjoy eternal felicity with the Great Spirit In Heaven. Be patient while I speak. I cannot at all times arrange and prepare my thoughts with precision. But I will relate what my memory bears.
"It was in the month of June when Handsomelake was yet sick. He had been ill for years. He was accustomed to tell us that he had resigned himself to the will of the Great Spirit. 'I nightly returned my thanks to the Great Spirit,' said he, 'as my eyes were gladdened at evening by the sight of the stars of heaven. I viewed the ornamental heaven at evening through the opening in the roof of my lodge, with grateful feelings to my Creator. I had no assurance that I should at the next evening contemplate His works. For this reason my acknowledgment to Him was more fervent and sincere. When night was gone, and the sun again shed its light upon the earth, I saw and acknowledged in the return of day His continued goodness to me and to all mankind. At length, I began to have an inward conviction that my end was near. I resolved once more to exchange friendly words with my people, and I sent my daughter to summon my brothers Cornplanter and Blacksnake. She hastened to do his bidding, but before she returned he had fallen into insensibility and apparent death. Blacksnake, upon returning to the lodge, hastened to his brother's couch and discovered that portions of his body were yet warm. This happened at early day before the morning dew had dried. When the sun had advanced half way to the meridian his heart began to beat, and he opened his eyes. Blacksnake asked him if he was in his right mind, but he answered not. At meridian he again opened his eyes, and the same question was repeated. He then answered and said, 'A man spoke from without and some one might come forth. I looked and saw some men standing without. I rose, and as I attempted to step over the threshold of my door I stumbled, and should have fallen had they not caught me. They were three holy men who looked alike and were dressed alike. The paint they wore seemed but a day old. Each held in his hand a shrub bearing different kinds of fruits. One of them addressing me said, 'We have come to comfort and relieve you; take of these berries and eat; they will restore you to health: we have been witnesses of your lengthy illness; we have seen with what resignation you have given yourself up to the Great Spirit: we have heard your daily return of thanks; He has heard them all; His ear has ever been open to hear; you was thankful for the return of night, when you could contemplate the beauties of heaven; you was accustomed to look upon the moon as it coursed in its mighty paths; when there were no hopes to you that you would again behold these things, you willingly resigned yourself, to the mind of the Great Spirit; this is right; since, the Great Spirit made the earth and put man upon it, we have been His constant servants to guard and protect His works; there are four of us; some other time you will be permitted to see the other; the Great Spirit is pleased to know your patient resignation to His will; as a reward for yonr devotion He has cured your sickness; tell your people to assemble to-morrow, and at morn go in and speak to them.' After they had further revealed their intentions concerning him they departed.
"At the time appointed Handsomelake appeared at the council and thus addressed the people upon the revelations which had been made to him:
"'I have a message to deliver to you. The servant of the Great Spirit has told me that I should yet live upon the earth to become an instructor to my people. Since the creation of man the Great Spirit has often raised up men to teach his children what they should do to please him; but they have been unfaithful to their trust. I hope I shall profit by their example. Your Creator has seen that you have transgressed greatly against His laws. He made men pure and good. He did not intend that he should sin. You create a great sin in taking the firewater. The Great Spirit says you must abandon this enticing habit. Your ancestors have brought great misery upon you. They first took the firewater of the white man, and entailed upon you its consequences. None of them have gone to heaven. The firewater does not belong to you. It was made by the white man beyond the great waters. For the white man it is a medicine; but they, too, have violated the will of their Maker. The Great Spirit says drunkenness is a great crime, and He forbids you to indulge in this evil habit. His command is to the old and young. The abandonment of its use will relieve much of your sufferings, and greatly increase the comforts and happiness of your children. The Great Spirit is grieved that so much crime and wickedness should defile the earth. There are many evils which He never intended should exist among His red children. The Great Spirit has for many wise reasons withheld from man the number of his days, but He has not left him without a guide, for He has pointed out to him the path in which he may safely tread the journey of life.