The Methodist Missions in Kansas

By the end of 1830, the MEC had already sent the Reverend Thomas Johnson to Kansas to establish a mission for the Shawnee Indians in that territory. The following year, the Baptist Mission was founded and so was the Quaker Mission but in 1837. In theory, the three denominations had the same objective; nevertheless, they soon started competing for the conversion of the souls. Thomas Johnson had excellent administrative skills, a great sense of business, and a remarkable ambition. He founded and ran a school with attached handicraft workshops, the Shawnee Manual Labor School, gaining the approval of the Methodist commission in 1838. He then secured the support of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and convinced the Shawnee chiefs of the need for such institute. The school occupied about two thousand acres, located half a mile west of the Missouri border along the Santa Fe railway. With its three large brick buildings that served as schools/dormitories and numerous other facilities and laboratories, the Shawnee Manual Labor School reached hundreds of students, surpassing by far all other missions.

Johnson gathered some slaves and introduced them to Kansas, probably already from 1832. The local Indian agent did the same between 1832 and 1837. Because of the acculturation process, it turned out that some of the wealthiest Shawnees – often half-blood – followed their example acquiring the possession of slaves. The presence of slaves, which around 1840 was defined by the mission, as a “temporary solution justified by peculiar circumstances,” became a source of controversy among the Methodists. After the 1844 schism and the implementation of an initial separation plan, the Northern Methodists lost jurisdiction of all missions within Kansas (Abing 2001).

From a political point of view, Johnson’s mission seemed well protected, so much so that a report made by the Quakers in 1847 to expose the presence of slaves in Kansas territory, in contrast to the Missouri Compromise, remained a dead letter. This did not prevent the debate from spreading even within the Shawnee, where two factions formed: a progressive group that wanted to integrate with whites and stood by the side of Johnson’s mission in opposition to the more traditionalist faction which maintained anti-slavery ideas. The tension reached a breaking point, so much so that part of the Shawnees decided to rejoin the gangs that had settled in Oklahoma, and others withdrew their children from the mission school.

Until then, the Native Americans had been abiding by the laws that required them to return any fugitive slaves coming into Kansas and Nebraska to their rightful owners, but in 1849, the Indian agent expressed concern, because some Indian abolitionists had instead begun to help them to gain freedom (Abing 2001). In 1849, the MEC of the North, after repudiating the plan for the division of territories between the Northern and Southern Methodists the year before, decided to also extend its present over to Kansas and sent Thomas Markham as a missionary to the Shawnee. His arrival was not well received by the Southern Methodists, who, in March 1850 persuaded the Indian agent to forbid him to preach. When the Church of the North met in St. Louis in 1851, a letter signed by several Shawnee Indians, including Pascal Fish, leader of the gang of the same name, was discussed. The letter asked for a missionary for the anti-slavery Native Americans. Dr. Abram Still came out in favor of the project and was appointed superintendent of the Indian missions. He set off in 1851 to build the Wakarusa mission with the help of Pascal Fish and moved there with his family in March 1852, and founded a small school (Lewis 2012).

Nevertheless, the mission only lasted for a short time: even though for many years many Indian tribes had lived peacefully together with the whites along the Missouri borders, now they found themselves under the pressure of the expansionism of the settlers and involved in the debate on slavery. The Shawnee were divided: on one side there was a majority still abiding by the traditional values and on the other side a minority divided between Christian Quakers, Baptists, Northern and Southern Methodists. On May 10, 1854, the Shawnee signed a treaty in Washington, D.C., giving up 1.4 million acres of their land and keeping two hundred thousand acres. The mission of the Southern Methodists obtained ten thousand dollars for the school, spread over ten years together with a part of the lands (Trowbridge 1991), but nothing was given to the Northern Methodists and very little to the other confessions. Protests and pleas for a fairer distribution did not sort any effect (Abing 2001). The Wakarusa mission was located on a piece of land owned by Pascal Fish, who allowed Dr. Abram Still to remain in the building for the following winter and was probably the one who paid him $800 (not due) for the property (Trowbridge 1991).

The approval of the Kansas-Nebraska Act on May 30, 1854, caused an invasion of white people, who, on the one hand shared the same goal of gaining land and on the other were divided into two factions, each of which eager to achieve a majority in the elections that would decide whether Kansas would be a slave or a free state. In the North the Southern Methodist mission was hailed as a pro-slavery outpost, and Thomas Johnson’s political ambitions were confirmed when he was elected to the first controversial legislature and passed a number of strict laws in order to protect slavery (Abing 2001).

 

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