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Bertha Louise Ahrens (B. Feb. 26, 1857), missionary teacher among the Choctaw Freedmen of Indian Territory since 1885, and principal teacher at Oak Hill Academy, 1905-1911, is a native of Berlin, Prussia. Her parents, Otto and Augusta Ahrens, in 1865, when she was 8, and a brother Otto 5, came to America and located on a farm near Sigourney, Iowa, after one year at Bellville, Illinois; and four, at Harper, Iowa. The schools and Churches first attended used the German language. Her first studies in English were in the graded schools at Sigourney and here at seventeen, she became a member of the Presbyterian Church under the pastorate of Rev. S. G. Hair. He loaned her some missionary literature to read and it awakened a desire on her part to become a missionary. This desire was expressed to the Women’s Missionary society of the Church and she was encouraged to attend the Western Female Seminary, now college, at Oxford, Ohio. After a course of study at this institution she enjoyed a year’s training in the Bible school connected with Moody’s Chicago Avenue Church, Chicago.
During the next year, after hearing in her home town an appeal in behalf of a Negro school in the south, she was led to offer her services to the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen. In December 1885, she received a commission with request to locate among the Choctaw Freedmen at Lukfata, in the southeast part of Indian Territory. The route at that early date was quite circuitous. Going south through Kansas City over the M. K. T. Ry., to Denison, Texas, she passed eastward by rail to Bells, through Paris to Clarksville, Texas; and thence northward forty miles to Wheelock and Lukfata. Clarksville, south of Red river continued to be the nearest town and station during the next ten years.
She has now completed twenty-eight years of continuous and faithful service as a missionary teacher among the Freedmen. During these years she has served the following communities and Churches.
Lukfata, Mount Gilead 11 years 1885-1896.
Fowlerville, Forest 3 years 1896-1899.
Goodland, Hebron 1 year 1899-1900.
Grant, Beaver Dam 4 years 1900-1904.
Valliant, Oak Hill Academy 6-½ years 1904-1911.
Beaver Dam 1 year 1911-1912.
Wynnewood, Bethesda Mission 2 years 1912-1914.
She is now serving as principal teacher in the Bethesda Home and School, located three miles northeast of Wynnewood in the Chickasaw Nation. This school was opened Nov. 1, 1899. It was founded by Carrie and Clara Boles and others; and its object is to provide a home and Christian education to the orphan and homeless youth of the colored people.
Miss Ahrens has been a life long and conscientious Christian worker, among the Freedmen of the Choctaw Nation. Her name is a household word to all of them. She found it necessary from the first to locate as a lonely teacher among them in territorial days, and share with them the unusual privations, incident to a life of such seclusion and unselfish devotion. During the first fifteen years, she had to live alone in little, rudely constructed huts in a sparsely settled timber country, where quarrels and murders, among both the Indians and colored people, were events of common and almost annual occurrence; yet she never thought of leaving her work or forsaking her mission on account of personal danger.
The following is an accurate description of the little hut she occupied three years while at Forest Church. It was built of saplings, eight feet square and chinked with mud. It had a fire place, an opening eighteen inches square for light, and another one for entrance, that was about three inches lower than her height. The chimney was built of mud, so small and crooked that only a part of the smoke could be induced to go up it, on a windy day. The blind for closing the window opening was so open, it merely broke the force of the wind, it could not keep it out, nor the lamp from blowing out. The little door left similar openings above and below it. On windy days the smoke found its way out through these and other openings overhead. These conditions after a while were relieved, by the insertion of a window in the opening, and covering the walls of the room with sheets.
The floor space was fully occupied, when it was supplied with a bed, trunk, sewing machine, book case, table and one chair. It lacked room for the organ, which had to be kept in the chapel.
There was no porch, and into this little room the children on Sabbath afternoons would crowd to sing, standing until they grew weary, and then sitting on the floor. This rude and lonely hut was located about one fourth of a mile from the Church. Near it was another and larger one-room cabin, having a porch, that was occupied by a good elder of the Church, his wife and a family of six children.
The school rooms, that she had to occupy, in order to fulfill her mission, though the best the colored people could afford, were also of the rudest sort. It was a difficult task, to make them look within like tidy temples of knowledge.
Her work was also very elementary. As the pupils would advance and their work become interesting, they would drop out of school. Yet it never occurred to her the work was wearisome, because it was monotonous and often disappointing. If experiences were disappointing, or the day, gloomy, there remained to her the Bible, with its precious and unchanging promises; and the organ, responsive as ever to the touch of her hand. These were home comforts that enabled her to forget the trials and burdens of each day, before its close.
Her work as a teacher has been increasingly attractive. The secret of this unflagging and ever increasing interest, is found in the large place, given the Bible in all her teaching work. It has been a daily text book in the school room. On the Sabbath, her opportunity to read and explain it to all the people of the community, as superintendent of the Sunday school, has been even greater than that of some of the ministers in charge, when the latter was only a monthly visitor, while she served faithfully every Sabbath.
The world is needing the light of Bible truth. It is life giving. “Go teach,” is as urgent as the commission, “Go preach.” The opportunity to supply the world’s great need, with the life giving Word of God, is an inspiration to the consecrated Christian teacher.
She has felt this inspiration, and has become a very capable interpreter and practical expositor of the Bible. She has been well equipped to lead the people in song, and has received many evidences of the highest appreciation of her work, as a Bible instructor.
Though not possessing what might be termed a rugged constitution, she has never lost a week, at any one time, from the school room on account of illness. She has been free to express the desire to continue to labor, as a faithful and efficient teacher, among the Freedmen as long as her strength will permit. Ruth expressed her sentiments, when she said to Naomi:
“Entreat me not to leave thee; where thou lodgest I will lodge; Thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.”
She has been a true missionary hero. She has been willing to work in one of the most solitary places, for the lowliest of people, without the ordinary comforts of home and friends. Whilst her Bible work has been continued through the entire years, with but two exceptions, her income-a mere pittance-has been limited to the terms of school. This has made necessary very close economy in personal expenses, but has not prevented liberal offerings to promote the work of the Church. Her seclusion, privations and dangers, during the first fifteen years, were as great as of many of those, who have gone to the remote parts of the earth. The heroic spirit of Martin Luther, translator of the German Bible she learned to read in youth, has always proved a source of great inspiration, to be faithful and courageous. When he was warned of the danger of martyrdom at Worms, where he had been summoned for trial for declaring the plain words of the Bible, he bravely said, “Were they to make a fire that would extend from Worms to Wittemberg, and reach even to the sky, I would walk across it, in the name of the Lord, I would appear before them and confess the Lord Jesus Christ.” And a little later, “Were there as many devils (cardinals) in Worms, as there are tiles upon the roofs, I would enter,” for the Elector had promised him a safe conduct. When he arrived at Worms and stood before his accusers, he finally said: “Here I am, I neither can, nor will retract anything. I cannot do otherwise; God help me.” These noble and courageous words of Luther are well adapted, to prove an inspiration to every one that reads them.
Her courage has led and kept her in the place of privilege and duty. Her faithfulness and devotion have enabled her to win the confidence and esteem of all who have come within the sphere of her acquaintance and friendship. She continues to pursue her chosen and loved employment, of serving as a missionary teacher among the Freedmen of Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, in the spirit of the Psalmist.
“My days of praise shall ne’er be past,
While life, and thought, and being last,
Or immortality endures.”