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)

2 thoughts on “The Unlikely Legacy of John Stewart

  1. Thank you for this historical piece on our church. It was certainly new to me and makes me happy to be a Methodist. However, I am afraid I can never be the saint this guy Stewart was, despite his physical maladies. We owe a lot to people like this who overcome so many problems in order to bring the truth of Christ to others. God bless them all, for they have certainly blessed us. Many thanks for sharing this.

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