22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 1 Corinthians 9:22
Too often, the history of missionaries in America has been one of overriding a group’s identity to Christianize them. Capt. Richard Pratt said, referring to Native Americans in 1892, “Kill the Indian in him, save the man.” But I discovered a missionary who did it right and the Cheyenne loved her.
Marie Gerber Petter came to America from the Swiss Jura Mountains with her husband Rodolphe in 1890. The couple arrived with the express purpose of taking the Gospel to Native Americans. But first, they had to learn English and raise funds for their goal, which they did by visiting Mennonite churches in the mid-West.
In 1893, the couple moved to Cantonment, OK to live among the Cheyenne. Rodolphe and Marie were fluent in French, German, English, and Rodolphe could read Latin and Greek. Together, he and Marie began to learn Cheyenne. Their perseverance and passion for the language impressed the Cheyenne greatly. The Petter’s shared the Gospel but did not denigrate the Cheyenne religion in the process.
Marie Gerber Petter (on the left), 1862-1910 and Rodolphe Petter (2nd on left) 1861-1947 Chief Mower seated next to Petter. In the Petter tent, Cantonment, Oklahoma
Instead, they tried to copy Paul’s example and be all things to all people.
When Marie realized the Cheyenne women had some amazing needlecraft and beadwork skills, she immediately set about creating sewing circles. A beautiful, nonconfrontational way to find common ground with the women in the tribe. They sewed together and spoke Cheyenne, the roles of teacher and student going back and forth. And Marie was an eager student. She was on fire to learn the language because she desperately wanted the Cheyenne to meet her Savior.
The Petters not only brought the Cheyenne the Gospel, but they also did the tribe a huge service by turning an oral language into written form. The couple produced a Cheyenne dictionary, a Cheyenne grammar book, two Cheyenne hymn books, a translation of John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, the complete New Testament and a beginner’s guide for learning Cheyenne.
I found the following quote in the Chicago Community Mennonite archives that I thought summed up what this amazing couple accomplished for the Lord: “Lawrence Hart, Mennonite pastor and Cheyenne Chief has credited Petter with the preservation of the Cheyenne people. When everything else was taken away (buffalo, deer, fishing streams, native arts and horses) [the] Petter[s] helped sustain a Cheyenne identity by preserving the language. The Petters, wrote Chief Hart, are now viewed as Saints among the Cheyenne.”
Now, that’s how you spread the Gospel.
Marie and her husband served among the tribe for over twenty years, always respecting the culture and fighting assimilation, yet modeling the love of Jesus Christ in a way that is still winning Cheyenne souls to this day.