The Unlikely Legacy of John Stewart

It’s an improbable and amazing story. But, then again, God always seems to work in mysterious and wondrous ways. The 200th anniversary of the first permanent Methodist Episcopal mission in America began with a man named John Stewart, who was born in 1786 in Virginia to parents of mixed ancestry, including African, and European. Because his parents were free, Stewart was able to receive a public education and was raised as a Christian, his brother being a Baptist minister.

Stewart, who experienced ill health as a child, remained in Virginia as a young adult, while his parents moved to Tennessee. Eventually, Stewart left Virginia in search of his parents and ended up in Marietta, Ohio in 1811. There, he fell into the hands of robbers, who stole everything he owned. Distraught and depressed, Stewart started drinking to deal with his problems and even thought about suicide.

Realizing that he needed to get his life together, Stewart recommitted his life to Christ and became an apprentice on a sugar maple farm. Once he got back to Marietta, Stewart fell into drinking again, and, once more, promised God that he would change his life. This time, after deciding to form a blue-dying business, Stewart also made a decision to join a Methodist Episcopal church.

At the same time as John Stewart was discovering his life’s calling, the Methodist movement had already been established in America for seventy years, had moved beyond the original thirteen colonies, and was expanding west.

  • 1736: John and Charles Wesley arrived in Savannah and stayed less than two years
  • 1739-1740: George Whitfield had his first American preaching tour
  • 1763-1766: The first Methodist societies were founded in Maryland, Virginia, and New York
  • 1771: Circuit rider Francis Asbury traveled to America and became a leader of American Methodism after the Revolutionary War
  • 1780: John Wesley’s A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists became a standard songbook
  • 1784: John Wesley ordained Thomas Coke in England, appointed him as a general superintendent and sent him sent to America to oversee the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America.
  • 1784: At the Christmas Conference in Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore, 86 Methodist preachers gathered to form a new denomination. On three successive days, Thomas Coke ordained Francis Asbury as a deacon, an elder, and subsequently as general superintendent (bishop).

John Stewart was born in 1786, two years after the American Methodist Church had established its own denominational identity and was pushing beyond the boundaries of the thirteen original colonies. At the time, there was lots of evangelism among the Methodist circuit riders but little organized mission.

As a new Christian and a Methodist, John Stewart suffered from tuberculosis for four years. In 1815, after he was cured, Stewart felt God calling him to share God’s word with the Native Americans in Ohio, so he made his way to Sandusky to work among the Wyandotte (Huron) Indians. On his journey, Stewart sang and preached to the Delaware tribe.

Of course, Stewart could not communicate with the Indians because he did not know their language. However, after reaching Sandusky, Stewart became acquainted with a black man who had become a prisoner of the Wyandottes as a young child. Jonathan Pointer became Stewart’s interpreter, and in 1816 Stewart began to reach out to the Wyandotte Nation. This was during the time of the camp meetings, which were held in forest clearings and consisted of passionate preaching, enthusiastic singing, fervent prayers, and many conversions. Through his singing and preaching, Stewart converted Pointer as well as some of the women, tribal members, and chiefs to Christianity, thus forming the first permanent Methodist mission in America.

When Stewart traveled down to southern Ohio in 1817, rival missionaries began accusing him of performing ministerial functions without a license. This caused some to lose faith in Stewart, even calling him a runaway slave. However, after Stewart returned in 1819, he became fully licensed by the Methodist Episcopal Church.

As a response to John Stewart’s work with the Wyandotte Indians in Ohio, the Missionary Society was formed in New York City on April 5, 1819. Subsequently, on August 7, 1819, the Ohio Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church established the first official mission to the Indians. The Church financially supported John Stewart as well as the mission.

Today, the Wyandotte Indian Mission is one of forty-nine United Methodist Heritage Landmarks, which are considered to be the most sacred places in global United Methodism. Our General Board of Global Ministries is the successor to the Missionary Society, which was affirmed by the 1820 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church as our first mission society in the United States.

Around this time, John Stewart married a mulatto woman named Polly, and money was raised by the Methodist church to help buy them a tract of land for their home. Missionaries were also appointed to assist Stewart’s ministry. Unfortunately, Stewart’s health began to decline, and he died on December 17, 1823 at the age of 37.

What does the unlikely legacy of John Stewart teach us as United Methodists?

  • Mission is the lifeblood of The United Methodist Church. After John Stewart became a Methodist, he was compelled to share his faith with those who had never heard the gospel.
  • God used a black man of mixed racial heritage, one who would have been rejected by many at the time, to share God’s love and the gospel of Jesus Christ with the Wyandotte Indians.
  • Whereas the Methodist circuit riders cross-crossed America, John Stewart stayed in one place, choosing to devote his life to a particular people and missionary endeavor.
  • God’s grace enabled Stewart to persist in the face of many difficulties and challenges, and he has left a legacy that will never be forgotten.
  • John Stewart UMC in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, is an active church today and carries out Stewart’s missionary legacy.

Mission and evangelism still lies at the heart of Methodism. Two hundred years after the first permanent Methodist mission was established, United Methodists are in in the forefront of mission in every corner of the world. Fifty years after the first Methodist mission was formed, women in the Methodist Episcopal Church came together to create the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, the precursor to today’s United Methodist Women. In addition, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) was formally constituted in 1940 and is known around the world as one of the premier disaster relief agencies.

In 2019 The UMC is celebrating 200 years of mission around the world. As part of that observance, the General Board of Global Ministries will return the title of the land of the Wyandotte Indian Mission back to its original owners, the Wyandotte Nation. The unlikely legacy of John Stewart changed the world. What might your legacy be?

We heed, O Lord, your summons, and answer: Here are we! 
Send us upon your errand, let us your servants be.
Our strength is dust and ashes, our years a passing hour;
but you can use our weakness to magnify your power.

(John Haynes Holmes, 1913)

May Day Surprises

It was quite a day! I knew it was May 1 because the appointive cabinet was meeting at the Iowa Conference Center for the first of three days, and my monthly From the Heart of Iowa newsletter is published. Little did I know what surprises the day would hold.

After our weekly Wednesday worship service in the Conference Center chapel, the cabinet had the privilege of meeting Katherine Parker, who is a General Board of Global Ministries missionary serving as a Health and Community Transformation Advisor with the United Mission to Nepal. As a missionary, Katherine is itinerating in the U.S. right now, and we were blessed by her presence among us. Missionaries take extended time away every three years to visit the conferences that support them.

Katherine, who is a native of California, graduated from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA. with a degree in biology. In 2000, she became a mission intern for three years with the Asian Rural Institute in Japan and also Practical Farmers of America in Iowa. Before starting her ministry in Nepal in 2013, Katherine was assigned to Cambodia, where she worked with the Community Health and Agricultural Program.

Having spent several weeks in Nepal last summer, I was fascinated with Katherine’s description of Nepal as a closed country for 350 years. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that Nepalis began to encounter Christ, and the first churches were formed by Nepalis returning to their native country. Today, Nepal is a primarily Hindu country (81.3% of the population), followed by Buddhist (9%), Muslim (4.4%), Kirant (3.1%), and Christian (1.4%).

The United Mission to Nepal is a partnership of seven denominational agencies whose mission is, “Inspired by the love and teachings of Jesus Christ, in partnership with the Christian community and others in Nepal and worldwide, we will serve the people of Nepal, particularly those who live in poverty: to pursue peace and justice for all; to address the root causes of poverty; and to make Christ known by word and life.”

Katherine’s ministry in Nepal is centered in three areas: 1) Adolescent empowerment, including sexual reproductive health and rights and menstrual hygiene; 2) Maternal and child health; and 3) Water, sanitation, and hygiene. Katherine of part of the 5th generation of her family to serve in the Methodist connection. What a joy it was to hear Katherine share how the United Mission to Nepal is reaching out to Nepali citizens in holistic ways to address the roots causes of poverty.

Meeting Katherine would have been enough of a May Day surprise, but in the afternoon, we received word that one of our United Methodist bishops from Africa was in the building! Bishop Daniel Lunge Onashuyaka is the resident Bishop of the Central Congo Area, which includes Central Congo, Kasai, and Western Congo conferences in the Congo Central Conference of The United Methodist Church. Bishop Lunge and his wife Julianne live in Kinshasha and have seven children.

Bishop Lunge was in the U.S. for another denominational meeting, and it wasn’t practical for him and Julianne to return to the Congo for a few days and then fly right back to Chicago for the Council of Bishops meeting, which started yesterday. Therefore, one of our district superintendents, Kiboko Kiboko, and his wife Betty, offered to host the Lunge’s in their home.

It was amazing for our cabinet to hear how similar and very different The United Methodist Church is in Iowa and the Congo. Bishop Lunge has three annual conferences with 29 total district superintendents! To travel from one side of the Congo to the other side is two thousand kilometers. Bishop Lunge meets with his DS’s two times a year to help them accomplish their mission, which includes visits to their pastors, evangelism, and staying connected with United Methodist schools, hospitals, and other social work agencies. The spouses of DS’s are also expected to care for the spouses of the clergy.

One of the greatest challenges in the Congo is transportation because most of the roads are not well maintained. Bishop Lunge’s priorities for his clergy include inspiring and mobilizing lay people, calling others to ministry, forming district leadership programs for young people, and encouraging an outpouring of generosity to all those in need. What an inspiration to hear Bishop Lunge’s passion and know that, far across the globe, The United Methodist Church is also making a huge difference. He said to us, “Every day I ask, ‘What work of God have I done, according to my schedule?’”

What a privilege to be blessed by the presence of Katherine and Bishop Lunge and Julianne. But May Day had more surprises in store. After a lunch meeting, I returned to the cabinet room to discover a row of large red cups lined up on the counter. Inside the cups were all kinds of goodies, including popcorn, nuts, chocolate, jelly beans, and other candy. Later I discovered that Diane Brockmeyer, our beloved episcopal administrative assistant, created this culinary delight for us in honor of May Day.

It’s a curious custom, one that I had never really paid attention to until last week. May Day is a northern hemisphere tradition that usually goes like this. As May 1 approaches, people begin gathering flowers, candy, and other small items to put in baskets and then hang them on the doors of families, friends, and neighbors. In 19th and 20th century America, May baskets were quite popular. On May 1, the basket was hung on the door of a loved one or prospective girlfriend or boyfriend and then the person ran away.

Louisa May Alcott wrote about May Basket Day in New England in her 1880 children’s book, Jack and Jill, “Such a twanging of bells and rapping of knockers; such a scampering of feet in the dark; such droll collisions as boys came racing round corners, or girls ran into one another’s arms as they crept up and down steps on the sly; such laughing, whistling, flying about of flowers and friendly feeling – it was almost a pity that May-day did not come oftener.”

The surprises and blessings of May Day came at just the right time for the appointive cabinet. As we continue to work carefully and prayerfully on the last phase of our appointment-making, we are also caring for our clergy and families and encouraging our congregations to engage in transformative ministry in their local communities in Iowa and around the world.

Des Moines Register

Heavy on our hearts, however, is our continued struggle in Iowa with extensive spring flooding. According to a National Public Radio report, Iowa has received more precipitation in the last year than in any recorded period in 124 years of available information. In March, parts of southwest and northwest Iowa were flooded, primarily from the Missouri River, including several of our United Methodist churches. We are grateful for the help of UMCOR and hundreds of individuals and churches who have contributed to flood relief, knowing that this will be a long-term recovery.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi River on the eastern border of Iowa has been at a dangerously high level. Last Thursday, a tipping point was reached when the river level in the city of Davenport reached an all-time high at 22.64 feet. Instead of a flood wall, Davenport has several hundred feet of a riverfront park in addition to HESCO barriers, which are similar to fencing with a liner filled with dirt or sand. Last Tuesday, the temporary levee broke, inundating the downtown business area with contaminated water. Fortunately, there were no deaths, and, once more, people from all over the state are doing what they can to help.

May Day surprises (and I dare say miracles) happen when the people that God so lovingly created and into whom God breathed life, use the gifts they have been given to make a difference in the far corners of the world, from Nepal to the Congo, to Iowa, to May Day baskets/cups that surprise and bless. Thanks be to God!


Sermons in Stones and Good in Everything

I could hardly take it all in. For one who has spent much of my life reading, visiting the largest library in the world was just like I imagine heaven might be like. It was almost as amazing as huddling with my ipad in my sleeping bag in a stone hut at 17,000 feet in Nepal last summer, reading astronaut Scott Parazinsky’s memoir The Sky Below; A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed. Marveling at Parazinsky’s summit of Mount Everest filled me with pure joy, wonder, and gratitude, even as we were trekking around Mount Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world (26,781 feet) in the same Himalayan range.

I love books! It’s just that there are too many wonderful books to read and too little time. When I was growing up, my mother was our church’s librarian. This was during the years when our church library was the only public library in our small town. I read every children’s book we had, plus all the Hardy Boys books, which were much more exciting than the Nancy Drew series. Beginning in childhood, I kept a list of all the books I read, a practice that I unfortunately let lapse over the years when pastoral ministry became more intense.

I still wonder, however. What would my life be without books? And what would our world be without books? In December, Gary and I had the opportunity to take a tour of the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington D.C. The statistics are mind boggling. The LOC contains more than 167 million items in 470 languages. This includes 40 million books and other print materials, 3.6 million recordings, 14 million photographs, 6 million maps, 8.1 million pieces of sheet music, and 70 million manuscripts.

The Library of Congress, which is the oldest cultural institution in the US, is not a lending library. Rather, it is located on Capitol Hill primarily to serve Congress. The Library of Congress was established in 1800 when President John Adams signed a bill declaring that Washington was the seat of the US government. Included in the legislation was the establishment of a library “of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress.”

The first collection included 740 books and three maps and was housed in the new Capitol building until invading British troops burned the building and destroyed the library in 1814. President Thomas Jefferson, who was then retired, offered his 6,487-book library to replace the original collection and was paid $23,950 by Congress. After another fire in 1851 destroyed much of the collection, Congress approved a new building for the library, which opened in 1897. It was the first public building in Washington to have electricity.

Our tour of the LOC was fascinating. Other than archiving millions of books and precious objects and serving as a global leader in preservation, the Library allows does allow public research in the Main Reading Room. It is also a venue for concerts, performances, and exhibits.

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is there, and the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation has a comprehensive number of motion pictures. Almost the entire LOC collection can be found on their website, and every day, thousands of virtual visitors view the digital collection. In fact, you never know what is around the corner at the Library of Congress, including an Iowa map from 1856 on display.

I love these fun facts! Check out the LOC website for more!

  • The Library spends $100,000 dollars on light bulbs every single year.
  • The Library buys 15,000 books a day and adds 11,000 of them to the permanent collection.
  • Everything is stored on 883 miles of bookshelves.
  • Almost half the books are written in languages other than English.
  • Congress members drafting legislation don’t need to do the nitty-gritty research themselves: There’s a whole team of lawyers, librarians, economists, and scientists employed through the Library of Congress to do it for them.
  • The Congressional Research Service is staffed with 600 analysts and supplies reports briefings, and presentations.
  • The Current Librarian of Congress (they have not always been librarians by profession) is Carla Hayden, the first woman and the first African American to hold this title. She is the 14th Librarian of Congress.
  • In 2010, Twitter agreed to donate every public tweet to the LOC’s archive, which amounts to several hundred million tweets a day!
  • The LOC contains the world’s largest collection of comic books, with more than 100,000 issues within its walls. The oldest comic book is from 1936.
  • The LOC has the largest collection of telephone directories in the entire world. Although few people in the US use an old-fashioned telephone directory anymore, the LOC adds more than 8,000 directories to its collection every year.
  • The Reading Room is highlighted by marble columns and numerous statues of many famous thinkers and cultural icons throughout history.

Even though books are the focus of the LOC, the building itself is an architectural wonder. The Great Hall features numerous themes and images and is one of the most stunning pieces of cultural architecture in Washington, D.C. The Reading Room is highlighted by marble columns and statues of famous thinkers and cultural icons throughout history.

Of course, no library is complete without a Bible collection, and the LOC does not disappoint! I was fascinated by an exhibition that explores the significance of two particular Bibles, the Giant Bible of Mainz and the Gutenberg Bible. Both Bibles were produced in Mainz, Germany at around the same time, but they represent different eras. The Giant Bible of Mainz signifies the end of manuscript writing by hand, whereas the Gutenberg Bible signals the beginning of the printed book and the explosion of knowledge that the development of moveable would allow. Click here for a brief video about Bibles in the LOC.

Despite the proliferation of e-books, my bookshelves are overflowing. I love books! Even when I can only read on planes and trains and in stone huts at high altitudes. God has made you and me with a thirst for knowledge that helps us be more compassionate and informed, better equipped to become who God created us to be, and, most of all, to become sermons in stones, modeling good in everything.

“Give instruction unto those who cannot procure it for themselves.”

“Tongues in Trees, Books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

“Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.”

(As You Like It– Act 2 – William Shakespeare)