Oklahoma Methodists attending their annual gathering this week praised the American Indian preachers and missionaries of yesteryear who kept the faith in the face of the bigotry of their white counterparts in the church and discrimination from the American government.
Tuesday, delegates at the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference’s meeting in Oklahoma City observed an Act of Repentance aimed at educating Methodists about the important role many American Indians played in the growth of Methodism in the state and nation.
“They actually gave birth to the Methodist Church in Oklahoma,” the Rev. Robert Hayes Jr., the conference’s bishop said. “They established Riley’s Chapel near Tahlequah in 1844 and it was the first Methodist structure.”
Hayes said the premise for the Act of Repentance observance came from the United Methodists’ General Assembly, the denomination’s governing body which decided in 2012 that Methodist conferences around the country would be required to have such an observance for American Indians and indigenous people around the nation and the world.
He said Oklahoma has the denomination’s highest number of predominantly American Indian churches, about 90. Because of this, Hayes said, he wanted the Oklahoma conference to “set the standard” in its response to this denomination-wide observance.
Hayes said the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference is taking a three-year approach to the Act of Repentance. This year’s approach was aimed at educating conference delegates. Next year, conference delegates will perform mission projects benefiting the three American Indian Methodist churches in the metro area. A worship service including both the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference and the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference will be the highlight of the third year, he said.
“In 2016, my last year here, we will celebrate a worship service together, building bridges binding us close together so we can better understand the struggles and all that the Native American community have been through,” Hayes said.
American Indians’ influence
The Rev. David Wilson said the majority of the American Indian United Methodist congregations in Oklahoma are in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, which also is led by Hayes. Wilson, who is the Indian missionary conference’s district superintendent, said these churches belong to the separate conference by design because of the ways they incorporate the American Indian traditions and culture with Methodism — making them unique.
“It’s difficult not to get engulfed by the dominant culture,” he said.
Wilson said it was very important that delegates learned about American Indians’ history with the Methodist church, including the faithfulness of these faithful American Indian preachers:
•James McHenry, a Creek Indian who became an elder and deacon in the church. He was a dedicated defender of Indian rights who fought the federal government’s forced American Indian removal so much that whites in Alabama put a price on his head before the government sent him to Indian Territory.
•Samuel Checote, a Creek who was the first American Indian district superintendent in the United Methodist Church. Checote served as a circuit preacher and presiding elder while also being elected principal chief of the Muscogee Nation three times.
•Willis Folsom, a Choctaw who was a circuit preacher for an area that stretched from Pocola to Pauls Valley. Church leaders credited him with Methodism’s survival among the Choctaws during the Civil War and its survival in the decades after the war.
Wilson said although many white missionaries came to Indian Territory (which later became the state of Oklahoma) with the goal of evangelizing the American Indians, their success was limited because they did not speak the language of the American Indian tribes.
American Indian Methodists had no such limitations.
“In essence, our ancestors were the very first missionaries (for Methodism),” said Wilson, a Choctaw who was born in Muskogee.
Wilson said one historic story he often shares chronicles the faith of American Indian Methodists whom the federal government forcibly removed from their homes in North Carolina to Indian Territory.
“They literally took apart their Methodist church in North Carolina and brought it with them on the Trail of Tears. Think about that. That act of faith was amazing,” he said.
Wilson said author Tash Smith, Ph.D., who plans to release a book about American Indians in Oklahoma and Methodism, crafted the presentation given to the conference delegates.