The Fort Coffee Mission
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At the preceding session of the Arkansas conference, which had been held at Helena, Rev. John M. Steele had been appointed to labor in the Choctaw nation, within the limits of the Moshulatubbee district. There were no societies or Churches at the time, and probably not one in the district who enjoyed the comforts of religion or that had ever been a member of There had been occasional preaching years before by Baptist ministers, but with so little encouragement that the efforts had been discontinued and the district abandoned.
In all that region of country, it is believed, there was not one living Christian, not one who knew and loved the Savior. At the period of our arrival Mr. Steele had been in the country several months, traveling extensively and laboring faithfully. He preached at different points, but usually to very small congregations. His principal preaching places Were the Choctaw Agency, Pheasant Bluff’s, Ayakniachukma, Sugarloaf Mountain, and James’s Fork. He had organized no classes, and, up to that date, had witnessed no conversions. After our arrival he preached occasionally at Fort Coffee. He was an earnest, plain, and faithful minister of Christ, who felt his responsibility and labored zealously to do the work of an evangelist. He is probably still laboring in the vineyard of the Lord. Since we last met he has been somewhat prominent as the presiding elder of a district and a member of the General conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South.
On the second day of July we held our first class meeting at Fort Coffee. We were six in number; the little log office was our classroom, and H. C. Benson was the leader. That was a precious season unto us as we waited upon the Lord. Henceforth our religious services were uniform and regular; on Sunday morning at Fort Coffee, and in the afternoon at the New Hope schoolroom, one mile east of the Choctaw Agency. The appointments were five miles distant from each other.
The first Sunday we spent in the Indian nation is a day to be remembered; it is an epoch in the history of our pilgrimage. We assembled in one of the unfinished rooms for public worship. How changed our circumstances! how novel the surroundings! We numbered about twenty-five souls-whites, Choctaws, Cherokees, and a few colored servants. They had not all met to worship God, or even to hear the word preached; a number had been prompted solely by curiosity; they wished to look on and witness our ceremonies.
It was, however, an occasion of interest and solemnity to us who desired to worship in spirit and in truth. The Lord was present to bless and to cheer our hearts; and, like Jacob in the wilderness, we were constrained to exclaim, “The Lord is in this place, and I knew it not.” It was, indeed, a bethel to our souls. We held our class at the close of the service, and in the afternoon preached at New Hope to a larger congregation, composed mostly of Indians and their colored servants.
The day afforded matter for serious reflection. We realized most vividly the contrast between the present and the past. We had been accustomed to large congregations of devout, intelligent Christian worshipers; we had been wont to see multitudes thronging the courts of the Lord’s house; but here we had a little company, mixed and mongrel, many of whom had scarcely one clear and correct conception of the Gospel, of duty, and of God, and perhaps not one knew any thing of Christian experience! All was darkness, ignorance, gloom, and moral death! We felt that we stood alone; and yet not alone, for we remembered the precious words of the Savior, when he said to the heralds of mercy, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature; and to I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
We were treated with much kindness and respect by the natives generally; they seldom failed to give us a cordial shake of the hand, the ceremony of a formal introduction being wholly dispensed with.
The colored boys were prompt to take our horses and to bring them up again for our use at the proper time. If the parson should be left to lead away his own beast and fasten him, every boy present would consider himself scandalized; but if the parson should neglect to speak to cuffee, and give him a friendly grip of the hand, he would lose caste with the servants, and henceforth his preaching would profit them but little.
Mr. H., an intelligent merchant, resided at the Agency, having an interesting family. He was a man of irreproachable character, and, before leaving New England, had been a member of a Unitarian Congregational Church. He was an honest business man, an educated gentleman, a warm-hearted and fast friend, and somewhat facetious in conversation. He gave us the first word of encouragement we received in connection with our missionary labors.
” Mr. B.,” said he, ” you are doing a good work; I already see that your labors are greatly blessed.”
“Do you think so, Mr. H.? How do you judge? Where is the fruit of our labors?”
“Why,” said he, “these Indians have learned what Sunday means; they now wash and comb themselves, and put on clean clothes once a week, in order to he decent and tidy at church, and they will certainly enjoy better health.”
He was a man of humor, but intended much more than his language and manner seemed to express. He felt all interest in the schools and in the advancement of the natives in civilization and Christianity. It should not be overlooked or lightly esteemed that Christianity blesses man physically, intellectually, and morally. There is but little decency or purity where vital piety does not dwell in the heart to mold and renovate character; it is the only fountain of purity in the universe.