More than just a paratrooper’s exclamation, “Geronimo” was one of the most colorful characters in the history of the American West.
Geronimo was an outlaw, an entrepreneur, an entertainer and an advocate. He spent over 40 years of his life terrorizing Arizona and Old Mexico, before surrendering to the U.S. government, more from exhaustion than necessity. He encouraged the Apache youth to find their new place in the white world and yet held out hope for returning to his native land.
Who could have ever imagined that this fierce warrior would one day end up preaching to a hundred or so contrite and crying Indians, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want”?
At 17, after an arduous apprenticeship, Geronimo was admitted into his tribe’s council of warriors. To become an Apache warrior, a young man had to prove his strength, courage and ingenuity on at least four war expeditions. The Apache youth had to be able to hide without being found, be content with such insufficient and inferior food as he could manage to pack or scrounge and anticipate and meet the needs of the elder warriors. Miles and miles of running (some histories report that a typical Apache warrior could travel on foot up to seventy miles a day, mostly running), bathing in ice water, wrestling and marksmanship made up a significant amount of the training, as well.
But more than physical accomplishments were expected from a warrior-apprentice. The aspiring warrior had to be familiar with all of the Apache’s instruments of war, their religious significance and the special incantations chanted over the warriors. Apache culture expected a sort of religious power to guide an able warrior and make him a leader worth following. It is no surprise that for Geronimo, war was “a solemn religious matter.”
Geronimo proved himself an able warrior, and shortly after joining the warrior council, he married Alope, a sweet-natured, delicate girl with whom he had three children. He farmed, occasionally raided nearby Mexican outposts for supplies and played with his children on the dirt floor of their wickiup.
This charmed life was not to last long, however. In 1851 Geronimo, with several of his fellow warriors, went to a nearby Mexican town to trade, leaving the women under a small guard. But upon his return, Geronimo found his wife and children and mother, along with many of the other women and children, butchered at the hands of hostile Mexican raiders.
The Apaches broke camp and made their way to the Mexican border, but Geronimo refused food or comfort the whole way, for as Geronimo recounts decades later, “None had lost as I had, for I had lost all.”
Though it was considered a great achievement in the Apache culture to go on “the war path,” for Geronimo, it was now a necessity. He vowed to avenge his family upon the Mexicans who murdered his loved ones and began to cultivate a violent, personal animosity toward the Mexican people that would rage for decades.
And Geronimo – Goyhakla – did exact his vengeance. His unfortunate Mexican victims cried out to St. Jerome (St. Jeromino) as they fell prey to Geronimo’s fury, thus bequeathing the Apache warrior a name that would haunt the Southwest for nearly 35 years until his surrender to the American army in 1886.
But in 1902, Geronimo was approached by two Dutch Reformed missionary pastors and invited to attend services held on the Ft. Sill reservation where he was a prisoner. Geronimo reluctantly agreed and showed up at an evening meeting where the pastor preached on the atonement.
After the sermon, Geronimo declared, “The Jesus Road is best, and I would like my people to travel it. … Now we begin to think the Christian white people love us!”
However, it was nearly a year later before Geronimo officially took the “Jesus Road.” After having spent the year vacillating between the claims of Christianity and his tribal religion, Geronimo found himself once again at the little mission work. Recently injured from a fall from his horse, the old warrior limped into the service and heard the pastor preach a sermon titled, “Jesus Made Just Like Sin for Us.” Right then, Geronimo begged that the pastors would “pray that Jesus would give [him] a new heart.”
A week later, Geronimo was satisfactorily examined, displaying “more knowledge than anyone had anticipated” and subsequently baptized into the Dutch Reformed Church.
“No consistory of our church,” explained Dr. Walter Roe, the examining pastor, “could refuse to admit this man into membership.”
Accounts of the newly converted Apache’s Christian walk are sketchy and, at some points, contradictory. Enthusiastic New York Times reporters recount that Geronimo “had embraced Christianity, had thrown down the scalping knife, and was actively engaged in Sunday School work among his fellow-red men” – nearly 14 years before his public profession of faith.
Still more curious are the conflicting accounts about Geronimo’s church attendance. Barrett, Geronimo’s amanuensis (with whom the old Indian spent many months), recalled that after his admission to the rolls of the church, Geronimo faithfully attended services at the Fort Sill Mission. But some years later, historian Frank Cummins Lockwood writes that Geronimo’s “attendance at services was irregular.”
Lockwood continues, “Surely, whatever may have been his profession, he was a poor practitioner.”
Geronimo, though, pleaded with the Fort Sill missionaries: “You must help me. … Pray for me. You may hear of my doing wrong, but my heart is right.”
Geronimo discusses his faith in his autobiography:
Since my life as a prisoner has begun, I have heard the teachings of the white man’s religion, and in many respects believe it to be better than the religion of my fathers. However, I have always prayed, and I believe that the Almighty has protected me.
Believing that in a wise way it is good to go to church, and that associating with Christians would improve my character, I have adopted the Christian religion. I believe that the church has helped me during the short time that I have been a member. I am not ashamed to be a Christian. … I have advised all of my people who are not Christians, to study that religion, because it seems to be the best religion in enabling one to live right.
There is no doubt that Geronimo had a tremendous amount of spiritual baggage with him as he walked the “Jesus Road,” and debate surrounds Geronimo’s eventual standing with the church. A few historians claim that the elderly Geronimo was excommunicated for drinking and gambling, but there is no mention of Geronimo ever having been excommunicated in the typically meticulous records of the Dutch Reformed Church. In any case, the lifelong habits of drinking and gambling were difficult for Geronimo to forsake. He was not, as one missionary would later admit, “a paragon of Christian behavior.”
Sadly, in 1909, after a night of heavy drinking, Geronimo fell from his horse into a puddle of standing water. He contracted pneumonia and died a short time later.
Was Geronimo a bright, shining star in the history of the church? Only God can see the heart. However, he was an outward member of Christ’s body and a study in the great expanse of God’s grace to needy sinners.
For the unabridged article, please visit www.leben.us.