Parson Charles W. Stewart, pioneer circuit rider of the Choctaw Freedmen came forth from a period of slavery, to the Choctaw Indians in the wilds of Indian Territory that covered the first 42 years of his life. His home was afterwards located near the Kiamichi River, seven miles west of Doaksville. He grew to manhood and always lived in an unimproved, sparsely settled timber country in an obscure and inaccessible corner of the world.
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Taking John the Baptist, as his ideal of a good Christian worker, he became the leading herald of the gospel message to his people, first in the valley of the Kiamichi, and then going forth in every direction in the larger valley of Red river, he established a monthly circuit of preaching stations, that included the most thickly settled neighborhoods of the colored people in the territory, now included in Choctaw and McCurtain counties. Like John, he seems never to have sat before a camera long enough to leave the world his portrait, and, though serving faithfully as a minister more than 25 years he never enjoyed the privilege and pleasure of attending a meeting of the General Assembly.
Judging him, however, by the results of his work, the circle of Churches established and acceptably served for an unusually long period of years, and the number of talented young men, whom he discovered, in the communities visited, and enthused with the longing desire and ambition to become leaders of their race especially useful and efficient teachers and preachers of the gospel, he proved himself worthy to be rated as one of the most aggressive and successful of the early leaders of his race.
“A man he was to all the country dear,
Remote from towns he ran his godly race,
Nor ever changed, nor wished to change his place.”
Period Of Slavery, 1823-1866
Charles W. Stewart was a native of Alabama, and, at the age of ten in 1833, was transported with the Choctaws, to whom as a slave he belonged, to the southeastern part of Indian Territory. John Homer was then his master, and he located about three miles northeast of the present town of Grant, His first marriage occurred, while he was serving Homer. The wedding of one of Homer’s daughters occurred a few years later, and his wife was assigned to serve in the home of the newly married daughter. She located in a distant part of the reservation, and he was thus deprived of his first wife, Charlotte Homer.
Charles Stewart, a white man, keeping store at Doaksville, soon afterwards became his owner, and his previous name, “Homer” was then changed to “Stewart”, after the name of his new master. About the year 1860, Samson Folsom, a Choctaw who lived eight miles southeast of old Goodland, became his new and last owner.
Period Of Freedom, 1866-1896
He began to hold religious meetings as early as 1856, when he belonged to Stewart, and lived at Doaksville. Mrs. Stewart, who had been a missionary teacher, encouraged him to learn to read and furnished him with books for that purpose. Rev. Cyrus Kingsbury, pastor of the Choctaw Church, gave him the instruction in the Bible that fitted him for the work of the ministry, and accorded to him the privilege of holding meetings in the Church, for his people, on occasional Sabbath afternoons.
He was accorded ordination by the Presbytery of Indian (southern) in the fall of 1870, and was then officially assigned the pastoral care of the congregations he had previously developed at Doaksville and its vicinity, and at Wheelock, or Oak Hill. He greatly appreciated the recognitions accorded to him by the Presbytery, which had previously given him a license to preach; and he endeavored to magnify his office, as an evangelist, by going to the “regions beyond,” as fast as the door of opportunity opened for him. During the early sixties he gathered new congregations for worship at his home on the Folsom farm and in the Horse Prairie neighborhood. The Oak Hill appointment was established soon after he was accorded his freedom.
During the year 1883, the evangelistic work among the Freedmen in Indian Territory, was voluntarily transferred by the Southern to the Northern Presbyterian Church, with the conviction the latter was better prepared to successfully prosecute it. At the time of this transfer Charles W. Stewart was enrolled as an ordained minister and designated as the Stated Supply of the following organized Churches: Beaver Dam, Hebron, New Hope, Oak Hill and St. Paul. During the next two years three more of his appointments, Mt. Gilead, Forest and Horse Prairie were enrolled, as the fruit of his labors, and added to his circuit. At this early date he had also a preaching station at Caddo near Durant, and the distance across his circuit of appointments, from Caddo eastward to St. Paul at Eagletown, was 118 miles.
In 1886 when the Synod of Indian Territory was formed by the union of three Presbyteries having 24 ministers, his circuit included 8 of the 43 Churches that were then enrolled. He continued to serve all of these Churches four more years.
Previous to this latter date, 1890, he was the first and only Presbyterian minister that preached the gospel to the colored people of Indian Territory. During that period, he laid the foundation for most of the Churches that are now enrolled in the Presbytery of Kiamichi and give employment to a half dozen ministers. He was now advanced in years and beginning to feel the infirmities of age. He relinquished, in favor of two new men from a distance, all of his circuit of Churches, except Oak Hill and Forest, which he continued to serve three more years, or until 1893. He was then at the age of 70 honorably retired by the Presbytery, after a long and remarkably successful career in the gospel ministry.
Circuit of Churches
The following exhibit of the Churches he established and served is as nearly correct as it is possible at this date to make it.
|Post office||Church||Services began||Church organized||Work dropped by Stewart||Members||Years of service|
About 1890, he moved to a home near Forest Church, and died there at 73, April 8, 1896; after an aggressive ministry of more than twenty-five years after his licensure, which had been preceded by nearly ten years of earnest volunteer service for the betterment of his people. He was buried in the Crittenden grave yard.
He left three children, the offspring of his marriage to Catherine Perry, namely, Thomas, Betty married to Benjamin Roebuck, and Harriet, married to Rev. Pugh A. Edwards.
In 1886, after the death of Catherine, he married the widow of Jeffers Perkins, and she died at 65 in 1905, survived by seven of twelve children by her first marriage, namely, Charles and Louis Perkins, Mrs. R. D. Arnold, Fredonia Allen, Virginia Williams (d. 1913), Fidelia Murchison and Jane Parrish.
Characteristics As A Preacher
Charles W. Stewart was a man of medium height and rather stout build. The rugged features of his face suggested a man, possessing strong and sturdy elements of character. He grew to manhood under circumstances and changes that made an early education impossible. His education, which was very limited was acquired by the private study of a primer, catechism, Bible and other books, furnished him by Mrs. Stewart, his real owner, and, Rev. Cyrus Kingsbury (d. 1870).
Parson Stewart was a faithful Christian worker, who did not become weary in well doing. He made his long journeys on horseback. He endeavored to arrive at his monthly appointments the previous day so as to have time for the discipline or reinstatement of wayward members, or hold an evangelistic meeting. He manifested so much of hopeful enthusiasm in his work that he seemed unmindful of the loneliness and wearisomeness of the long journeys in the wilderness and regarded it merely as a passing incident, when he had to spend a day or even a night in the timber, waiting for the overflow of flooded streams to subside, so he could safely ford them.
He was an aggressive Christian worker. He strived to preach the gospel, “not where Christ was named, lest he should build upon another man’s foundation,” but, as it is written, “To whom he was not spoken of they shall see, and they that have not heard shall understand.” He was on the alert to hear the cry of Macedonia, “Come over and help us,” and he was always ready to enter and hold a new field while his strength lasted. When he was licensed, all the land of the Choctaw Nation seemed to be spread out before him, as his field of effort, as the land of Canaan was before Joshua, when the Lord encouraged him to be “strong, very courageous and possess it,” for his people. He knew he had the “book of the law,” that his people needed and his whole nature seemed to be enthused with the promise, “Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you.” His ambition, to carry the message of gospel light and liberty into new settlements of his people, was limited by the necessity laid upon him, to continue to serve those he had already acquired.
He was an enthusiastic Presbyterian. He frequently delighted, as well as instructed the people, by explaining to them the Bible, by repeating familiar portions of the shorter Catechism and Confession of Faith. These were his most familiar and best commentaries on the Bible. He encouraged the elders, to become leaders of meetings, and teachers of the people, by maintaining regular Sabbath services, for the study of the Bible and Catechism, to promote their spiritual welfare.
He was a forceful and acceptable preacher. In his later years he was sometimes slow in finding the hymn, Scripture lesson and text. But when he found the hymn, it was always one the people could sing, and in leading them with his own powerful voice, he needed neither tuning fork or organ accompaniment. He read the Scripture with such a variety of emphasis, as to awaken the desire to catch every word. In the delivery of his message he manifested so much sincerity and earnestness, that every one felt he was speaking to them “direct from the shoulder.”
He grew in favor with the people. He held, to the end of his life-long ministry, the love and affection of the people, whom he served. He saw their need of teachers and preachers, and encouraged the young people in every neighborhood, to prepare themselves to supply that need. As a direct result of his personal influence and encouragement, Wiley Homer, Richard D. Colbert, William Butler, Elisha Butler, Simon Folsom and others came to be recognized, as efficient Bible teachers and religious leaders, in their respective settlements. Acceptable and permanent preachers could not be found, for the group of Churches from which Stewart retired in 1890, until Homer, Colbert and Butler were licensed, and two Churches assigned to each of them.
The worthy veteran lived long enough to see Wiley Homer licensed in 1893 and become his successor at Beaver Dam and Hebron, The other two were licensed in 1897, the year after he “entered into the joy of his Lord.” It was not until this year, when, John H. Sleeper continuing to serve Mt. Gilead, William Butler became his successor at St. Paul and Forest, and R. D. Colbert was assigned New Hope and Sandy Branch, that all of the Churches in the circuit of Stewart had regular supplies.
He was a real pioneer “circuit rider,” who has left the good impression of his personal work, upon the colored people of a large section of country and of him it may well be said:
“This man never preached for money,
If he did he never got it;
He had some faults, but more virtues:
He was conscientious and devoted,
Persevering and determined;
Long his name will be remembered.”
“He was a faithful circuit rider-though a slave in his youth; His artless earnest sermons were the simple tale of truth, How the Son of God who loved us, left a scepter, crown and throne, All the joys of highest heaven, to go, seek and save his own.”
“Soldier of Christ, well done!
Praise be your new employ,
And while eternal ages run
Rest in the Savior’s joy.”
The opportunity to prepare the foregoing tribute to the memory of Charles W. Stewart, and give it an historic setting in this volume, has been greatly appreciated by the author. Rising above the limitations of his condition as a slave, during the first half of his natural life, he consecrated himself to the betterment of his race and thus, under the most unfavorable circumstances, prepared himself for the wider field and greater opportunities that came to him with the dawn of freedom.
This story of noble achievement by one of their own number, is well worthy of long and careful preservation; that it may thrill to noble endeavor, the present and future generations of the Choctaw Freedmen.
“Let us labor for the Master,
From the dawn till setting sun;
Let us talk of all his wondrous love and care,
Then, when all of life is over,
And our work on earth is done,
And the roll is called up yonder, we’ll be there.”