Native Village
Youth and Education news

December 2009  Volume 1

Ohio church was first Methodist mission
David Yonke
Condensed by Native Village

Upper Sandusky, Ohio - When John Stewart felt God's call to become a preacher in 1816, he traveled through the Ohio wilderness until he reached a Native American settlement 75 miles southeast of Toledo.

Frail of health and recovering from alcoholism, Stewart delivered his first sermon under a tree to an audience of one Wyandot Indian.

While other Christian missionaries had come to the area before him, they failed to reach the strong and independent tribe.  But Stewart persisted, and his preaching soon led many Wyandots to convert to Christianity.

"He felt God wanted him to preach to the Indians and he went to the Indian agent, William Walker, who assigned Jonathan Pointer as his interpreter," said Jean Moon, a local historian who helps oversee the church.  "The Indians had viewed the Bible as 'the white man's book,' but Stewart told them that God is the God of all people.  And he had a lovely tenor voice. The Wyandots liked the music."

According to another local historian, Thelma Marsh, the Wyandot also regarded Stewart as "an honest, sober, and humble servant of a personal God."

John Stewart was born in Virginia in 1786, the son of "free black" Baptists. When his family moved to Tennessee, Stewart was ill, so he remained behind.

In 1816, John traveled to Ohio and was robbed in Marietta. Broke, miserable, and drunk on rum, he considered suicide.  But he found new life at a Methodist camp meeting where he heard "a voice from heaven telling him to Go, declare my counsel faithfully." That's when John went into the wilderness and settled with the Wyandots.

Several chiefs from the 12 Wyandot clans converted to Christianity. They included Chief Between-the-Logs, Chief Tarhe, Chief Mononcue, and Chief Squire Grey Eyes. This opened the door for Stewart to reach more tribal members.

Steward died in 1823 at age 37. A year later, at the Wyandots' request, the federal government built the tribe a one-room church made of local limestone with a slate roof. It cost $1,333.

But soon the United States Government began imposing their will. They wanted the Wyandots to move west and resettle on reservations. The tribe resisted until 1842 when several tribal members were attacked and killed by angry whites. In 1843, about 600 Wyandots left Upper Sandusky for Kansas. Later, some of them split off and moved to Oklahoma.

A few descendents, including Chief Leaford Bearskin of the Oklahoma clan, have returned to Ohio and visited the mission.

Today, the Wyandot Mission Church is the first officially recognized mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America.  Restored in 1889, it was designated a National Shrine of the Methodist Church in 1960.  In the summers, the church is open for nondenominational worship services.  Presbyterian services are also held in August. 

Inside the Mission Church, the stone walls are decorated with portraits of John Stewart, prominent Wyandot converts, and paintings of church services from the 1800s.

A pulpit stands on a raised platform and is flanked by gray wooden doors with simple white crosses. American and  Christian flags are on the platform alongside a Wyandot flag decorated with a turtle. The Wyandots and many Native American tribes believe the world was created on the back of a turtle.

Visitors sit on hand-hewn benches or dark walnut pews.

Sunday morning services usually draw between 30 and 96 people. On one Sunday, however, 150 attended. 

The Mission Church receives a few hundred dollars a year from the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. But most funds used to maintain the building and grounds come from collections taken during the summer church services.

Behind the church, Stewart and several Wyandot converts are buried in a small, fenced area of the cemetery. A plaque quotes Stewart's last words: "Be faithful."

Learn more:
John Stewart United Methodist Church:

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