Rediscovering Native American-Methodist heritage

Thomas Kemper, general secretary with United Methodist Global Ministries. Photo by Hector Amador for Global Ministries.

Thomas Kemper, general secretary with United Methodist Global Ministries.
Photo by Hector Amador for Global Ministries.     

One of my most important discoveries during our 200th mission anniversary celebration this year is that of the important role Native Americans played in founding the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries’ first predecessor agency.

I also have been reminded of the frequent historical interaction of indigenous and Methodist cultures across the American decades, a history of both admirable and regrettable chapters that give context to the expanding opportunities we have today to be in ministry with Native American communities.

As a child growing up in Germany, I was aware of Native Americans, but only through the fiction of a writer named Karl May, who died in 1912, leaving a huge collection of adventure stories for youth. Included was a series on the American Old West, featuring the exploits of Winnetou, an Apache, and Old Shatterhand, his white blood brother. The characterizations and situations are stylized and stereotypical, but they fascinated my young mind and I still have the books. I wish I had known then about the true stories of Methodist-Native American relations in the Americas.                       

The mission bicentennial observance and Native American experience connect dramatically on Sept. 21 when Global Ministries returns to the Wyandotte people land in Ohio that figures in mission history, as well as the epic federal relocation of most indigenous groups west of the Mississippi River after 1830.

The land parcels are in Upper Sandusky at the site of the original Wyandotte Mission, begun around 1816 by missionary John Stewart, a free African American lay preacher whose work there inspired the founding in 1819 of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Stewart’s name stands first in the annals of American Methodist missionaries.

Stewart died in 1823 and was buried on his farm near the mission site, and the ministry continued. When in 1843 the Wyandotte were finally forced by the United States’ Indian removal policy and local white hostility to leave Ohio, part of the Trail of Tears, they looked for a way to protect the integrity of their Upper Sandusky burial grounds. John Stewart was reburied on the tribal grounds, where other prominent early Methodist converts, such as Mononcue, were buried as well.

The solution was to leave the land in trust to the Methodist Episcopal Church Missionary Society. The society was trusted through the heritage of John Stewart, a true friend of the Wyandotte who deeply respected their culture. 

The people of the Methodist, now United Methodist, community of Upper Sandusky, kept alive the memory of both the Wyandotte and John Stewart for almost two centuries. The current United Methodist church is named for Stewart and has played a major part in preparation for the ceremony of return on Sept. 21. The return is in the spirit of restitution and renewal built into the 2012 United Methodist “Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples.”  

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Ministries with Native Americans were among the original priorities of the Methodist Episcopal Missionary Society. Though our record of relations with indigenous people in North America contains many dark and horrible episodes, there are some admirable accounts, including that of Stewart and the Wyandotte.

The willingness of the missionary society to stand in trust for the Wyandotte is by no means the only occasion in which Methodists encountered the Trail of Tears, often in defense of Native people. Stories of solidarity can be found online — on the websites of annual conferences such as the Holston Conference, or local churches, such as Alpharetta United Methodist Church in Georgia, or in journals, such as “Methodist History,” the publication of the denomination’s Commission on Archives and History.

Historian Walter N. Vernon gives a moving account in Methodist History of the efforts of Methodist missionaries to stop the removal of the Cherokee from Georgia in the 1830s. Several mission preachers supportive of the Cherokee were imprisoned for defying state orders to leave the region so that Indian land could be given to white settlers. While the Methodist bureaucracy failed to back up the missionaries, the Cherokee did not forget when the Trail of Tears — a journey in which some 4,000 died on the way — took them to Oklahoma. Survivors were instrumental in forming what is today the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.

The deep roots of Methodism with some Cherokee families who resisted removal from Tennessee come through in a fine new video on “Native Moccasins Rock,” a ministry sponsored by Native American Ministries of the Tennessee and Memphis conferences. Narrator Mary T. Newman, a Global Ministries’ director, recalls her Methodist heritage back to Cherokees who hid in caves to resist the removal. The two conferences unite their efforts in “Native Moccasins Rock” to preserve and respect indigenous culture. 

Since moving headquarters to Atlanta in 2016, Global Ministries is even more committed to calling attention to the Native American heritages in Georgia in a variety of ways, including the possibility of displays in well-traveled public places on the indigenous groups — primarily Cherokee and Creek — that once called the state home.

We have stepped up collaboration with Native American groups in social, health, educational and relief ministries. Our report to the 2020 General Conference states that the United Methodist Committee on Relief “through its various programs, assisted 17 unique projects among 10 tribes/nations in seven U.S. states from early 2017 to mid-2019. The total funding for these projects was $2.28 million, benefiting 35,592 persons. An additional $1.5 million in grants is committed through the end of 2019.”

The report highlighted a grant of $943,057 to the National Tribal Water Center for the Newtok-Metarvik Community WASH Relocation Project, which is moving the entire southwest Alaska village of Newtok to the new site of Mertarvik, nine miles downriver on Nelson Island. In the planning for years, the relocation will preserve the sustainability and safety of the community due to more frequent storm erosion.”

Since the General Conference report was finalized, we delivered thousands and thousands of school supply kits to Native American schools in Oklahoma City and on the Pine Ridge and Standing Rock Sioux reservations in the Dakotas, with deliveries pending to the Navajo Nation.

The emphasis on Native Americans in our mission bicentennial observance has made me keenly aware of the integral contributions indigenous people have made and continue to make to our Methodist heritage. I think this inspires us to be a more self-conscious, repentant, reconciled and inclusive church. Thanks be to God!

Thomas Kemper is the general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries.

News media contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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