Wyandot Indian Mission Church, the first Methodist mission in America, was built for the Wyandot Indian tribe in 1824 in Upper Sandusky. The tribe was forced west in 1843 and left the property in the care of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. John Stewart United Methodist Church will formally return to land to the Wyandottes on Sept. 21. (Bill Sandridge photo)

Staff Writer

UPPER SANDUSKY — Sacred lands where the Wyandots once worshiped will be formally returned on Sept. 21.

The property in Upper Sandusky includes the Old Mission Church and a cemetery where John Stewart, the first Methodist missionary, is buried alongside Wyandot tribal members.

“I think it’s just the right time to do it,” said Betsy Bowen, co-chair of the records and history committee at John Stewart United Methodist Church which oversees the Mission Church and three acres.

A ceremony will include leaders of the United Methodist Church, the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma and the Wyandotte Nation of Kansas.

“It will be a historic day for the Wyandotte Nation,” said Chief Billy Friend of Wyandotte Nation, Oklahoma, in a prepared statement. “One hundred seventy-six years ago, we left the church in the Methodists’ hands to take care of it for us until we came back. That time has come.”

He said the Wyandotte Nation has “a deep appreciation” for the community and the records and history committee for taking care of the church for so long.

“Now we look forward to working together with these people in preserving and maintaining this historic landmark,” Friend said.

History of the Mission

The Wyandot Indian Mission was founded by John Stewart in 1816.

Born in Virginia, Stewart was the son of free black parents of mixed ancestry. In 1816, he traveled to Ohio and was robbed in Marietta. Destitute and despondent, he was walking the streets one night when he heard singing, said Bowen.

“He went into a Methodist camp meeting and received Jesus as his savior and began going to church and Bible study,” she said.

Bowen said Stewart was walking through the woods one day when he heard a calling that said, “Go, declare my council faithfully.”

Stewart traveled across the Ohio wilderness and arrived at the settlement of Wyandotte Indians at Upper Sandusky, where he began preaching. Some chiefs converted to Christianity, and more tribal members followed.

In 1819, Stewart was granted a license to preach, becoming the Father of Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Missionary Society of the General Conference was formed that same year to care for the work already being done in northwest Ohio.

Three years later, the Mission Church became the first officially recognized mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America.

Stewart retired early due to poor health, and died in 1823 at the age of 37.

‘The final straw’

The Rev. James B. Finley came to the mission in 1821. The following year, he and some of the Wyandotte chiefs traveled to Washington, D.C., to request government funds to build a church, said Bowen. The request was granted and in 1824, a one-room stone meeting house was erected for $1,333.

Wood was milled at the nearby Indian Mill, and blue limestone was quarried from the bottom of the Sandusky River.

The tribe worshiped there until 1843. Bowen explained that the federal government had been trying to get the Wyandots to move west and resettle on reservations, but the tribe resisted until a chief was attacked and killed by white men in 1842.

“That was the final straw,” she said.

Tribal members were, however, allowed to plan their own departure, said Bowen.

“In July 1843, 664 Wyandottes met here for the last time, put fresh flowers and leaves on the graves of their loved ones,” she said.

Before leaving, the tribe deeded the land and church to the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, forerunner of today’s United Methodist Global Ministries, to protect its sanctity.

“I think the return of the property in September is part of that restorative justice,” said Bowen. “And to actually understand that for 27 years — from 1816 when John Stewart came until 1843 when they left — was a time of a shared history between the Wyandots and the Methodists, and it was working.”

The Wyandots went to Kansas. But in the 1850s, the government decided they wanted that land, too, said Bowen.

“So they told the Wyandots who were there that they could stay and keep what they had built up, their homes, the land that they had purchased, but they would have to give up their tribal status, their tribal citizenship, and become American citizens,” she said.

Some 250 refused and moved on to Oklahoma to start over.

“So they’re actually the only federally recognized tribe, because they never broke a treaty. And we can’t say that. The government can’t say that. We either broke or changed every treaty,” Bowen said. “So when the land is returned on that day, Sept. 21, it will be returned to the Wyandottes of Oklahoma, because they are the only federally recognized tribe.”

After the Wyandots left, other denominations used the little stone church, but eventually it went unused and fell into ruin.

Bowen said the arrival of the Rev. Nathaniel N.B.C. Love in the 1870s brought new life to the church.

“He fell in love with the church and the grounds,” she said.

When Love returned to the area in the 1880s, he took it upon himself to rebuild the Mission Church with the help of the Methodists.

Restored, rededicated

A rededication service was held in 1889. In attendance was Margaret Gray-Eyes Solomon, daughter of Chief Squire Gray-Eyes and a member of the Wyandot tribe that was relocated to Kansas. She married David Young, who died along with her children. She then married John Solomon and returned to Wyandot County, where she was given the nickname Mother Solomon.

“She grew up in this space, saw the church built, was forced away, came back and saw it rebuilt,” said Bowen.

Mother Solomon, the only member of the Wyandot tribe who was able to attend, sang at the ceremony. She died in 1890 and is buried in Old Mission Cemetery.

The church was designated a national historic shrine by the General Conference of the Methodist Church in 1960.

“For 200 years, the people called Methodists have had a unique bond with members of the Wyandotte tribes,” said Thomas Kemper, general secretary of United Methodist Global Ministries.

“John Stewart, our first-ever missionary, launched a historic friendship with them in 1816,” he said. “Since 1844, we have served as stewards of this sacred land and these historic spaces. Now, it is time to return these lands to the Wyandotte people so they can continue the generations-long tradition of honoring our collective heritage.”

Upper Sandusky historian Thelma Marsh is credited with starting tours at the historic church in the 1960s, said Bowen.

“She was a teacher and she lived just back in the Mission Division,” Bowen said. “She would go by the church, and she fell in love with the space.”

Marsh joined the Methodist Church and formed a history committee. She also began interacting with the Wyandots in Michigan and Oklahoma.

Bowen said tribal members have made it their mission to keep their history and culture alive. Wyandotte teens now travel annually from Wyandotte, Oklahoma, to visit landmarks associated with their ancestors.

A member of John Stewart church since 1981, Bowen got involved with the history committee a few years later. After Marsh died in 1992, Bowen began helping with tours at the Mission Church.

“We want to get this information out there. It’s so important that people learn how much history we have right here and how important it is,” she explained.

Inside the Mission Church, the walls are decorated with portraits of John Stewart, Wyandot converts and paintings of church services from the 1800s. A pulpit stands on a raised platform at the front of the room. Gray wooden doors are adorned with simple white crosses. Visitors sit on hand-hewn benches or dark wooden pews.

The church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Tours are offered from 1-4 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during the summer months. Worship services are also held there at 8 a.m. every Sunday in June, July and August.

Bowen said the John Stewart church will continue to oversee the care of the church and lands for the Wyandottes after the transfer of ownership from United Methodist Global Ministries.

“It isn’t our history, but we have developed a passion for it,” she said. “We also respect the fact that this is the Wyandots’ history. And we are honored to be able to share it, not only here but with them when they return.”

‘They’ll be walking back to take possession’

“A Remembrance of Our Shared History: The Wyandotte/Wyandot and the People Called Methodists” will begin at 1 p.m. Sept. 21 at John Stewart United Methodist Church, 130 W. Johnson St., Upper Sandusky.

The event includes a mile-long procession from the church to the Mission Church and cemetery. The route is the same the Wyandots took leaving Ohio, said Betsy Bowen, co-chair of the records and history committee of the John Stewart United Methodist Church.

“But this time we’ll welcome them back,” she said. “And the Wyandottes will walk back as the Wyandots walked away in 1843. So they’ll be walking back to take possession.”

The day’s schedule of events includes:
• 1 p.m.: Arrival
• 1:30 p.m.: Program begins at John Stewart United Methodist Church
• 2 p.m.: Procession to the burial grounds and Mission Church (Alternative transportation will be available in both directions)
• 4 p.m.: Ceremony continues at the old Mission Church, at the corner of East Church and North Fourth streets
• 5 p.m.: Celebration dinner at John Stewart United Methodist Church

Scheduled speakers include: Chief Billy Friend of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma; Chief Janith English, Wyandotte Nation of Kansas; Grand Chief Ted Roll, head of the Wyandot of Anderdon Nation (Michigan); Bishop Gregory Palmer, West Ohio Annual Conference, United Methodist Church; Bishop Tracy Malone, East Ohio Annual Conference, United Methodist Church; Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, board president, Global Ministries, United Methodist Church; Thomas Kemper, general secretary, Global Ministries, United Methodist Church; Fred Day, general secretary, General Commission on Archives and History, United Methodist Church; and Upper Sandusky Mayor Scott Washburn.

The celebration is open to the public. To register to attend, search “Remembering our Shared History” at eventbrite.com. For more information, contact info@umcmission.org.

Wolf: 419-427-8419
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