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It has been said, “some men are born great, some have greatness thrust upon them, while others achieve greatness.” Many, however, who have inherited a great name, wealth or power have failed to meet the expectation of their parents and friends. When, therefore, any one, reared in the home of poverty and educated in the school of “hard knocks,” rises above the unfavorable limitations of his surroundings and achieves a noble career of eminent usefulness in Church or state, he merits commendation.
The subject of this sketch is a good illustration of the self-made man. He inherited good lungs, a strong voice and a splendid physique. He is really a physical giant, his stalwart frame towering upward six feet, and tipping the beam at 265 pounds. His erect and dignified movements have made him a commanding figure among his people. His constant endeavor to promote their best interests has made him a popular leader among them. A slave by birth and denied the privilege of books and papers, lest he should learn to read, his eager desire for knowledge led him to devise ways and means of self-education, to enable him to rise above the fetters that bound him in youth. His successful career as a minister of the gospel, serving the same people amongst whom he was born and raised during the entire period of his active ministerial life, was as unusual and worthy of special commendation, as it was long and useful.
Wiley Homer was born March 1, 1851, in the south part of the Choctaw Nation, known as the Red river valley. His parents were Isam McCoy and Adaline Shoals, who lived about three miles northeast of the present town of Grant. As his parents were called after the family name of their masters, in accordance with the usual custom in slavery times, he was called “Homer” after the name of his master, John Homer, a full-blood Choctaw.
Learning The Alphabet
His self-education began, when at fourteen, he was employed as a cowboy, to herd cattle on the little prairies and hunt them, when scattered through the timber. The timber was a general pasture for the cattle of everybody, and their ownership was told by the brand which consisted of the initial letters of the owner’s names, burned on the hip, or back of each. It became necessary for him, to learn how to distinguish these brands, one from another, for he was sometimes asked to hunt the cattle of other people. To do this he began by drawing the outline of familiar brands in the dust or sand, where the ground was smooth, and then on slips of paper. In a short time, the list on the paper slips included the brand of every owner in the settlement, and nearly all the letters of the alphabet.
A man once called on his employer, Samson Loring, to see if he could hunt his cattle. When asked if he could identify the new brand, “A. B.”, he took a stick and, stooping down before them, drew the outline of these letters, in the loose sand of the road. On seeing this performance one remarked to the other, “That boy will make a smart nigger.” That remark was a source of considerable encouragement to him, and awakened the desire, to take advantage of every opportunity to gain knowledge.
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Learning To Read
When, at 16 in 1867, he was accorded his freedom he obtained a primer and first reader, and undertook to master these by private study. About four years later, a testament and shorter Catechism were given him. He now had what was regarded as a good library for a young man and he applied himself to the reading and study of these books, in the evenings and other periods of spare time. The testament was frequently taken to the field when plowing, in order that he might learn to read a verse or two, while the team was resting, or get a neighbor, passing on the road, to read it for him. The reading of the testament soon awakened a desire to be a teacher and preacher, and this greatly increased his interest in the study of that book.
He learned to sing from his mother, who greatly enjoyed whiling away spare hours on the Sabbath, singing the songs they used to sing in slavery times. The only help of a teacher that he enjoyed was a period of three months, to enable him to read the Bible aloud correctly. This instruction was given only on Sabbath afternoons, and for it he had to cut and split for the teacher 250 oak rails.
The Man Who Built The Arbor
The story of the incidents, that prepared the way and providentially led him into the ministry, is as novel and interesting as the one relating to his method of learning the alphabet.
When he had learned to read portions of the Testament and Catechism there were no meetings held in his neighborhood on the Sabbath, for the religious instruction of the colored people. He had a good voice and loved to sing. He had experienced as much joy and delight in learning to read the Bible, as many do, when they learn to play a musical instrument. He longed for an opportunity to read the Bible for others.
This yearning first took the form of a prayer that God would provide for them a Church or place for meeting. When this prayer had been offered a few times, at the foot of an oak tree in the timber he told others of his earnest desire for a Church; and proposed to some friends, that they unite with him in building an arbor in the timber for a meeting place. This proposal was not taken very seriously, and yet none of his friends cared to oppose it. A day was finally appointed and all, who were interested, were requested to meet at the place selected for the arbor, and help to build it.
On the morning of that day, he went alone to the appointed place, which was near the oak tree at the foot of which he had before knelt in prayer, and by noon he had cut and erected the frame. Another friend arrived in the afternoon and assisted to cover it with branches of trees and supply it with seats.
On the day following, which was the Sabbath, the colored people of the neighborhood assembled to see the new arbor and enjoy a meeting. Now it happened that no one present had ever led a meeting, and the first question to be settled was, “who should lead the meeting?” Every one, that was asked to lead it, insisted, “the man who built the arbor” must serve as leader of the meeting.
Young Homer accepted the situation and led the meeting in the best manner possible. The exercises consisted of a prayer, the reading of a familiar passage from the Bible, some remarks by the leader and others, and the singing from memory of a few plantation melodies, such as “Kentucky Home,” “Swanee River”, and “The Angels Are Coming to Carry Me Home.”
At the second meeting, which was held on the following Sabbath, the people were formed into a class for instruction in the Bible and catechism, and Homer was chosen to be the leader. This was the organization of the Sunday school for that neighborhood.
At this meeting Homer offered prayer the first time in the presence of others; and it happened in this way. When he called on the friend, who led in prayer at the first meeting to do so again, he politely declined, saying: “Homer you lead in prayer, yourself.”
A Teacher, Elder And Preacher
This arbor, which was the tiny beginning of the Beaver Dam Church, was built in 1873, the year after he became of age. The next year this place was visited by Rev. Charles W. Stewart, and it then became one of his regular monthly appointments. Homer was again appointed Bible teacher and leader of the meetings, on the other Sabbaths.
In 1875 a Church house or meeting place was built of saplings, near the old arbor, that continued to be used for many years.
In 1881 he was elected as the first elder of the Church, and in 1887 was appointed a Catechist. Encouraged by these recognitions and duties he secured a good library of religious books including a Bible dictionary and a Webster. He read many of them with great profit, and was soon recognized as an intelligent and valuable instructor of the people. The Bible and the shorter Catechism, the one containing all of Bible truth and the other, a brief compend of Bible doctrine, were the two books that were studied most and proved most helpful.
In 1893 he was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Choctaw and assigned the pastoral care of Beaver Dam and Hebron Churches. On Sept. 28, 1895, by the same Presbytery, meeting at Oak Hill Academy, now known as the Alice Lee Memorial, he was ordained to the full work of the gospel ministry. He continued to serve Beaver Dam, his old home Church, until Oct. 1, 1912, when, after a pastorate of twenty years, he was honorably retired from the active work of the gospel ministry. In 1904 he secured the erection of a commodious chapel at Grant that, during the next five years, served also as the most convenient place for holding the neighborhood school. After serving Hebron about ten years on alternate Sabbaths, in connection with Beaver Dam, he relinquished that field and served Sandy Branch and Horse Prairie, each a short period.
When the Presbytery of Kiamichi met in the new chapel at Grant, in April 1905, he conducted the Bible lesson for the entire Sunday school, as had been his custom ever since the early days. The writer was pleasantly surprised and profoundly impressed, by his scholarly and highly instructive management of it, and the many useful, practical lessons he endeavored to impress.
The Power Of The Bible
Wiley Homer is a good practical illustration of what the Bible is intended to do for all men. If he were asked, what book, in the process of his self-education, had proved most valuable to him, he would unhesitatingly reply, “the Bible.” His prayer in regard to it has been that of David in the 119th Psalm, “Let my heart be sound in thy statutes,” and his testimony, that of David in the 19th Psalm, “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart, the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.”
If he were to name the next most helpful book, it would be, The Shorter Catechism, with the statement on its first page, that, “The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
The private study of the Bible and Catechism prepared him for life-long usefulness as a teacher, discovered to him and his people his divine call to the ministry and enabled him to do the most important work of his life. He has been a faithful and efficient teacher of these two books, but of these only, to all the people and, as a result, he has become recognized as their spiritual leader.
The habit of private study, formed while learning to read the Bible, fitted him to search for knowledge in other fields of literature, and he has thus become one of the most intelligent, highly respected and successful citizens of the community in which he lives.
He has been an ardent friend and promoter of education among his people. When in 1889, it was decided to make the school at Oak Hill an industrial institution; he donated two head of cattle to start the herd. He has ever since taken a personal interest in the welfare of that institution. During recent years, he has made one or two visits each year, for the purpose of delivering special lectures and sermons to the young people gathered there. He thus brought to them the encouragement of his own word and example, in solving the problems of their education and life-work.
A Commissioner To The General Assembly, Six Times
He has enjoyed the unusual distinction of having been chosen a commissioner and to have represented his Presbytery in the General Assembly, five times during the last fourteen years as a minister, and once before as a ruling elder, making six times in 24 years. The times and places of these meetings were as follows: In 1889, New York; in 1899, Minneapolis; in 1901, Philadelphia; in 1903, Los Angeles; in 1905, Winona Lake, Ind.; in 1913, Atlanta, Georgia. In attending these great meetings he has passed over the entire length and breadth of this land. To appreciate the unusual character of this privilege and honor it is merely necessary to state the fact, that the eminent man, who was chosen Moderator of the Assembly at Atlanta in 1913, Rev. John Timothy Stone, D. D. of Chicago, was attending the Assembly on that occasion, the first time as a commissioner; and Rev. Charles W. Stewart, the worthy founder of Presbyterianism among the Choctaw Freedmen, never so much as got there once.
These frequent voluntary recognitions, on the part of his brethren in the Presbytery, suggest the power of leadership he has modestly, but always exercised among them. His brethren have found him a wise and prudent counselor, and an unselfish helper; and he has always been held in the highest esteem by them.
A Life-Long Leader Of The Church He Founded
He has been a man of strong and positive convictions and a persevering worker for the moral and spiritual uplift of his people. He learned from his own early experience as a slave, the trials and urgent needs of his people and, as the way became clear before him, he consecrated himself unreservedly to the promotion of their welfare.
As a preacher he has emphasized the necessity of repentance and forgiveness of sins, willing obedience to all the commands of Christ, and the joyous rewards of faithful service. As he surveys the progress of recent years, he sees the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prediction, “The people, that walked in darkness, have seen a great light, they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”
Thirty years have now passed, since he began to hold the ever memorable meetings, in the little arbor in the timber. Ever since that date he has been the faithful Bible instructor of all the people, during the lesson hour of the Sunday school, and the resident pastor of the Presbyterian Church for twenty years. The cozy chapel, and the good congregation of happy Christian people, that regularly meet there for worship and Bible study, are visible reminders of his consecrated genius and unselfish devotion to the best interests of his people.
“Dare to do right, dare to be true,
You have a work that no other can do.”
“Since God is God and right is right,
Right the day shall win;
To doubt would be disloyalty,
To falter would be sin.”
Wiley Homer and Laney Colbert were married in 1867 and their family consisted of ten children, of whom five died in childhood and youth. Those that are living are Susan, Mary Shoals, Hattie Lewis, Sarah Williams and Lincoln.
In 1890, after the death of Laney, he married Rhody Tutt; and in 1906, after her decease, Lizzie Homer.
In October 1912, he was granted by the Presbytery, an honorable retirement from the performance of the public duties required of the active ministry. As the sunset of life approaches, and the shadows lengthen toward the closing day, he enjoys the consciousness of a well spent life, as a source of comfort and consolation to sustain and strengthen, until the recording angel shall proclaim, the gracious benediction, “Well done good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
The use of the shadow of the oak tree, and later of the arbor near it, as a place for prayer and worship, reminds one of the historic prayer meeting that was held near Williamstown, in 1806, when Samuel J. Mills, and four other students of Williams College, Newell, Nott, Hall and Judson, met in the shadow of a haystack and united in prayer, that God would fit them and prepare the way for them to carry the gospel into heathen lands.
After making two tours to the southwest as far as New Orleans, distributing and selling Bibles and organizing Bible societies, Mills made the suggestion, that led to the organization of the American Bible society in New York, May 11, 1816; and to the Synod of New York, the plan of educating Negroes to carry the gospel to Africa. In 1817 he was sent as a missionary to Western Africa, including Sierra Leone. He died on the homeward voyage and like his friend Adoniram Judson, who went to farther India and translated the Bible for the Burmese, was buried in the sea.