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Rev. Isaac McCoy
First Baptist Missionary to the Indians
By Carl C. Rister

      Isaac McCoy ranks with Adoniram Judson and William Carey as one of the greatest American
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Baptist missionaries, if he were not one of the greatest missionaries of all time and of all nations. In 1700, James McCoy, a Scottish emigrant orphan lad ten years old, landed at Baltimore. After a few years he migrated to Kentucky and later, according to Dr. E. C. Routh, married a member of the Bruce family of Scotland living in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Among the six children born to this union was William, the father of the noted missionary. William McCoy was a Baptist preacher on the Kentucky frontier. Isaac, also one of a family of six children, was born in Fayette, Pennsylvania, June 13, 1784.

     Isaac was baptized at the age of seventeen by Rev. Joshua Morris. On October 6, 1803, he was married to Miss Christiana Polke and in the next year he and his young wife moved to Clark County, Indiana, and united with the Silver Creek Church, the oldest Baptist church in that territory. From the time he was converted, Isaac had a deep sense of his responsibility as a Christian, and on August 13, 1808, he was licensed to preach by the Silver Creek Church and ordained two years later by the Maria Creek Church, his father and Rev. George Waller serving as a presbytery. Isaac then became the first pastor of the latter church, which had been organized the previous year.

      For several years, Isaac served as pastor of the Maria Creek Church, but during the same period he worked as a wheelwright to support his family.

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It was while he was so engaged that he first be­came acquainted with the Indian country of In­diana. During the summer of 1816 he visited the Indiana outpost settlements and the Northwestern Indian tribes.

      On March 26, 1817, McCoy wrote from the western part of Indiana to the Board of Managers of the Baptist Convention stating that he would accept an appointment as a missionary in the Mississippi Valley. It is probable that his interest in this area was prompted by advice he had re­ceived from Rev, Luther Rice only a short time previously. It will be remembered that Peck and Welch also received their appointments to work in this region. When the Board replied, McCoy was asked to labor among the settlers in a number of the counties of Indiana and Illinois and to extend his efforts to "the Indians as far as prac­ticable," That McCoy was more interested in working among the Indians than the settlers, is seen in his statement that "I could not suppose that the Board had contemplated that I should do any thing of importance for the Indians." To serve the Indians became his passionate resolve. "Notwithstanding I had no assurance of patronage beyond the current year," he wrote, "I would, the Lord willing, make an effort to establish a mission." And a short time later he launched his first mission enterprise.

      On November 24,1817, McCoy applied to General

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Thomas Posey, agent of the Weas, Miamies and Kickapoos in Indiana and Illinois for infor­mation concerning those tribes and for his ap­proval and aid in establishing a mission among them. Posey was greatly impressed with McCoy's earnestness and readily agreed to such a project, but before he could render considerable aid he died, in March, 1818. In June his successor in­troduced the young missionary to the Indian chiefs and told them of McCoy's wishes. The Indians could not be sure. Here was a representative of a race that had been the Indian's nemesis. Pressed by the ever swelling tide of white homeseekers on the east, the red men had been forced to give up one fine hunting ground after another. Traders from among these encroaching whites had sold the red people whiskey, had mercilessly impoverished them in barter, and at last the remnants of the once proud warriors were miserable dependents on the bounty of their agents. The assembled chiefs stared at McCoy uncertainly. Then one replied, "Yes, we are very glad to see you, and to hear your propositions to benefit us. We be­lieve you are sincere; we will think of this matter, and at a future opportunity, we will give you an answer." But the disappointed missionary knew quite well that the odds were against him. Two sympathetic French interpreters present offered McCoy their half-breed children as pupils, but when they learned that this was to be a Baptist
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mission, they would not send them.

      While on a preaching tour in Kentucky seeking to arouse support for his proposed mission, Mc­Coy's thirteen year old daughter died of typhus. McCoy's heart was saddened in this great loss. "The stroke was more severe," he later wrote, "on account of it occurring in my absence." But he felt that the hand of God was in it, "We after­wards believed," he said, "that the event was sanctified to our benefit, in inducing us with the less reluctance to let go the hold which our affec­tions had upon the people and things in the regions of civilized society, and in enabling us to trust all — our children, ourselves, and all our interests — to God." It is little wonder that a marvelous faith like this was to surmount every obstacle. McCoy entered in his journal: "I have been young and now am old, yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken nor his seed begging bread."

      Nine months elapsed of his first year's appoint­ment and still the suspicious Indians had not given McCoy permission to establish his mission among them. This was indeed discouraging. How could he be assured that the tolerant Board would con­tinue to support him if he could not show more results from his labors? But again faith prompted him to action. He purchased a small tract of land a little without a white settlement and adjacent to the Wea country and erected two log cabins for his family and his school. Then on October

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27, 1818, he and his family started for their wilderness home. "Our separation from our church was affectionate," he wrote later, "such as might be expected after a happy connection of eight years. On the evening preceding our departure a meeting for prayer was held at our house, which was attended by many." McCoy had employed a Mr. C. Martin to help him with his school, even though he was a disbeliever. Teachers were hard to procure and he could not find Christians available.

     For several months many of the leading chiefs of the Indians among whom he worked were sus­picious of his intentions. He talked with the Weas and Kickapoos and explained how he hoped to be of benefit to their children. An old Kickapoo chief muttered in reply: "Ah! I would rather have a good dram of whiskey than to hear that!"

     This was McCoy's introduction to the liquor problem that threatened to swamp his every effort. Whiskey had been the bane of the Indians. In drunken debauches the miserable wretches, once proud resourceful warriors, impoverished their people by spending their federal annuities for whiskey instead of food. The result was famine, plague, murder, crime, all of which McCoy saw all about him.

      His horror because of these things was expressed again and again in his writings. "Never before

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had I been so sensibly affected with the unhappy conditions of those miserable Indians," he wrote. "The whites furnished them with ardent spirits, under the influence of which the horrible shrieks, lamentable crying, and awful bowlings, which emulated from their encampments, I thought would have been sufficient to have awakened the com­passion of all who could have heard them, except those sinners who profited by their ignorance and sported with their miseries."

      For several days after his arrival, McCoy was busy in clearing his land, building his houses, and getting his mission ready for its opening. On December 1 he left home to journey as far as the Shawnee villages on the Ohio frontier to broaden his acquaintance with the Indians, to obtain pupils for his school, and to decide where a permanent mission could be established within the Indian country. Mrs. McCoy "was left in the woods," the distressed missionary wrote, "in un­finished cabins, with our little children, without any one near her interested in our enterprise." The hazards and hardships which McCoy encoun­tered on this trip were typical of numerous others made. He pushed through the wilderness over dim trails, under trees laden with snow; he slept under a bark shelter at night, or in the open; he passed through villages inhabited by drunken and unfriendly Indians; unceasingly he was handi­capped by gnawing hunger; and he rode through

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snow and rain, weak from a burning fever.

      But let's hear him tell of his hardships: "The weather was extremely cold, and we had found much difficulty in crossing streams of water, on account of the ice. White River we once crossed upon the ice, on a dark night. I had been unwell two days, when at our camp on the 20th I became quite sick. I left camp on the 21st with con­siderable fever, and travelled in pain all day, and still became worse. We lost our way, and I spent another painful night on the frozen ground, with the additional anxiety attendant on the cir­cumstances of not knowing the right way. About ten o'clock the following day we recovered the small path. My fever, attended with delirium, increased until I was scarcely able to sit upon my horse. Had I not reached home on that day, I must have been carried thither in a litter, or have remained in the woods. The Lord knew how far I was from home, and said to my afflictions, 'Hither shalt thou come, but no farther.' I found my wife almost blind from sore eyes; still the Lord had been round about the family, during a time which had been lonely enough."

      A short time later McCoy conferred with Agent Johnson of the Shawnees and Miamies and agreed to set up a mission on the Wabash. Johnson was to meet him the following May and assist in the building of the houses, but before the new spring

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had come, he had been superseded by a new agent and the mission was not built.

      On January 1, 1819, Rev. and Mrs. McCoy opened their small school, consisting of six pupils from the nearby white settlement and an Indian boy from the Brother-town Indians. Other Indian children were added so that by October 1 eight were in attendance. McCoy's faith was rewarded on January 9, 1819, by the arrival of Johnston Lykens, who was to serve as a teacher in the place of Martin; and also by an encouraging letter from the secretary of the Board of Missions, on Novem­ber 15, stating that continued support would be given his mission. Although Lykens was not a Christian, McCoy was to have the great joy of witnessing his conversion a short time later and of baptizing him—and finally, of having him for a son-in-law.

McCoy's Other Mission Stations

      McCoy's slender salary was hardly sufficient to support his large mission family and donations came in slowly. For a time he borrowed from friends, but later he urged eastern churches to send their collections.

      The government also lent its support. In May, 1820, Agent Turner and the principal Miami chief, Mishewa, persuaded McCoy to move his mission to Fort Wayne, Indiana. On May 3 a large boat containing the mission's movables and

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six Indian children, manned by four white men with poles to push and row the boat, moved up the Wabash toward the fort; while McCoy, his wife and children rode on horseback, driving fifteen head of cattle and forty-three hogs. On their journey, they passed through villages of drunken Indians, one of whom had killed Chief Stone-Eater of the Weas. But friendly and sober Indian guides protected the missionaries. They arrived at Fort Wayne on May 15, and found that Turner and his helpers had already built the necessary houses and had cleared away a nearby field.

      Fort Wayne was in the center of a village, inhabited by traders, government employees, in­terpreters, and others, some of whom were of French-Canadian or of Indian descent. The nearest settlement was in Ohio, one hundred miles distant. But the missionaries were received kindly by the posts' citizens, who each Sunday thereafter crowded into McCoy's home to listen to his preaching.

      McCoy met with much success from the begin­ning of his work here. At the end of his first year he thus summed up his accomplishments:

"May 29, 1821. One year ago, this day, we opened our school at this place; we had then eight Indian scholars; we now have forty-two. These consist of Miamies, Putawatomies, Shawanoes, and Indians from New York. These undisciplined youths have not been managed without difficulty;

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I have hired five different persons, who have, at different times, tried to manage the school; never­theless, I have frequently been obliged to take the sole management of it myself. These changes in teachers have been at our disadvantage; yet the school flourishes, and the scholars make pleasing progress in their studies. Certainly the Lord takes care of us.

"Mrs. McCoy, in addition to domestic labours, in common teaches the larger girls the use of the needle and the spinning wheel. She is more con­fined to the house than I am, and in the daily routine of her labours there is more of sameness than in mine; and, on many accounts, her business is calculated more deeply to depress the spirits and to unnerve the constitution than mine. The apprehension that both her strength and spirits are sinking has become another source of serious disquitude to me. I endeavour to conceal from her as much of that which is discouraging in our affairs as possible, and to place the better side of our prospects towards her; I am oppressed with many an anxious thought which I dare not com­municate to her."

      So limited were their means at Fort Wayne, that the McCoys again moved. According to the stipulation of the treaty of Chicago, McCoy ob­tained a commission as a teacher of the Pottawatomies at a salary of $400 annually. Besides he was provided with five cabins, a certain number
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of tools, and the aid of a blacksmith. During this time forty-three of the mission family were sick of the "bilious typhus fever," of which a daughter of McCoy, and a young missionary just arrived, died. Mrs. McCoy, too, had become dangerously ill and was the last to recover. To make the responsibilities of McCoy all the more heavy, he had to go back and forth 200 miles through the wilderness several times, "now to their new station on the St. Josephs, to hasten the preparation for a removal there, then back to the afflicted family, and again to St. Josephs. At length in the month of November, 1822, the family, thirty in number, still pale and but partially recovered, commenced their journey through the wilderness, where there was not a house in which they could take shelter for a night. The ground was covered with snow, and they had rapid rivers filled with broken ice to cross; but in eleven days they arrived at Carey, their new residence, so called in honor of Rev. William Carey of Serampore." Carey was then 100 miles from the nearest white settlement, and 30 miles from the outlet at St. Joseph's at Lake Michigan. "The early part of this winter was spent in intense efforts, put forth by the weak and even the sick, and amidst privations and suf­ferings," such as the inhabitants of civilized com­munities of today could hardly imagine, the new school was opened, on January 1, 1823.

      Presently McCoy wrote that the school contained

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thirty-seven boys and sixteen girls, natives, all fed and clothed at the expense of the mission. Twenty-one could read well the Bible, seven im­perfectly; eighteen wrote a fair hand, and thirteen were studying arithmetic. The girls were taught to spin, weave, knit, sew, and perform domestic tasks, and the boys to work on the farm; two of them were apprenticed to the blacksmith trade. Five hewn log cabins were erected, in addition to a school house, a blacksmith's shop, a kitchen, a milk-house and a stable. The land provided by the Indians for the mission site consisted of a section, a part of which, in the course of two years, was in a state of good cultivation. Com­parative plenty now succeeded dire need, and ample supplies of com, wheat and vegetables were raised, and horses, cattle, sheep and hogs brought additional income.

      At Carey, McCoy and his associates agreed to commit themselves wholly to their work. They put whatever income they received into a common treasury in order to keep the mission going. Whether this proved burdensome is not known, but in 1823 misisonaries Clyde, Jackson and Sears left Carey. Yet others, Robert Simerwell, William Polke and wife, and a Miss Goodrich, came to take their places.

      McCoy seemed never to grow tired of well doing. Noaquett, a young Indian, taught him the lan­guages of the Indians among whom he worked

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and he was thus able to talk freely with them. Soon, he said, the Indians "began to discover a tender conscience, a sense of sin and a love of religious conversation and secret retirement." On November 6, Ezekial French and E. Clark, mission employees, were converted and baptized in Lake Michigan on a bitterly cold day. But those who engaged in the service declared the place to be like "Jacob's house of God and the gate of heaven."

     The faithful missionary was to have still another signal honor. In the next year, he preached the first Baptist sermon ever delivered on the site of what was to become Chicago. By June of this year, McCoy's family consisted of eighty-six members — seventy-six Indian students, four other Indians, five missionaries, six children, and a millwright.

      Noaquett, who had aided in the translation of hymns into Pottawatomie for use on Sunday, was one of those who accepted Christianity. He was seventeen years of age when he came to the mission and was then wild and hard to control. But pres­ently McCoy found him more and more coming under the influence of his teaching; and, finally, says McCoy, "he became gentle, teachable and obedient; and was led by the Holy Spirit into a deep knowledge of his own sinfulness." Twenty-six persons, some of them Indians, were baptized within the year.

      While thus engaged at Carey, McCoy heard in a real sense a Macedonian call. Already he had

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visited the Ottawas on two different occasions in an effort to establish a mission, but the chiefs were little inclined to admit his strange doctrines. News of the success of the missions at Fort Wayne and Carey, however, brought a change in their attitude. At first they had sent one Gosa with two children to be placed in the Carey mission, seemingly to test out the "Christ way." Then when they found that not only these students but the Indians living about the mission were pleased with McCoy's work, they asked for a mission in their own country. "I am an Indian," said Noon­day, their principal chief, "nevertheless I think of God and religious things; and if we had a preacher, perhaps I should become good." He offered the missionaries a tract of between 600 and 700 acres of land for the mission, saying that if they would do as they had said and not deceive the Ottawas, he and his children after him would never forget their kindness.

      As a result of Noonday's request, McCoy estab­lished a branch mission on Grand River rapids, forty miles from the eastern shore of Lake Michi­gan, a station which he named Thomas in honor of Dr. Thomas of Serampore. No resident mis­sionary was sent to the new station, but McCoy and his associates at Carey visited it from time to time. He did, however, send a blacksmith; and in September, 1825, he sent, via the Grand River, a boatload of tools and other necessaries furnished

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by the government, and went himself by land, driving a small herd of cattle. When he arrived at Thomas, Noonday, Blackskin and other chiefs told him that their previous reluctance to permit the mission was because of slanderous reports of designing white traders who were particularly interested iri a continuous market for whiskey. McCoy found that the whole region was paralyzed by the sale of whiskey, wagon loads of which were seen going from one place to another; and he also found that young converts were sorely tempted from this cause.

     One of those tempted was a young man, the son of a Canadian trader. He was required, after completing his course at school, to sell whiskey to the Indians, his father promising to give him the entire profits (about $1200) of his sales. This was indeed tempting. .Yet this conscientious youth, hoping to find a way out, asked leave to consider, and meantime visited some friends eighty miles distant, where he received a letter from the mis­sionaries, proposing to him to go with other Indian youths to an Eastern institution for the purpose of obtaining an education. He returned and took leave of his father and came again to the station where he remained until the time for departure had come.

      In January, 1826, McCoy, accompanied by Gosa and eight Indian lads, left Carey for Washington, where he expected to enroll the boys in Columbian

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College. But before he completed his journey, the secretary of the Board of Missions asked him to turn southward to Kentucky, where the youths could be enrolled in a mission school not much better than Carey. The boys were disappointed and asked McCoy not to take them to Kentucky. Their devoted teacher hesitated for some time, then decided to continue his journey eastward. Loyal friends in the East rallied to his support and the boys were enrolled in Hamilton Institute, in Philadelphia. Other Indian boys were trained as physicians. In June McCoy selected two: Conauda, whom he named Thomas Baldwin, and Saswa, called Francis Barron. Both had been faithful Carey students, learning the shoe-maker trade. They were ingenious, intelligent, and dis­posed to attend religious instructions. In the course of the year following, Conauda and Saswa were, by the liberality of Christian friends, placed in the medical school at Castleton, Vermont.

      Continuous favorable reports of Indian training at Carey filtered back to the Ottawa country. After McCoy's and Gosa's return to Carey, Gosa visited with the Ottawas and told them of his many wonderful experiences in the East and of the royal treatment accorded the other Indian youths. This greatly pleased the Ottawas who now were eager for a school in their own midst. In August, 1826, Blackskin wrote to the mission­aries through McCoy. His letter in part ran:

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"We here are all of one mind. You say there is a God. We want you to fear Him and fulfill your promises."

      This brought the establishment of a school at the Thomas mission. Mr. and Mrs. Simenvell, Mr. Meeker, and Mr. Slater were left at Carey, the latter in charge of the school; and Mr. and Mrs. McCoy and a Miss Purchase went to Thomas. The Indians welcomed them joyously, keeping them awake the whole of the first night by beating on drums and by other demonstrations.

      On December 25 the new school was started with five Indian pupils, who presently were in­creased to twenty. Gosa made frequent trips from village to village, seeking to offset the influence of the designing traders, and to a large extent he succeeded. "One Indian," states a contem­porary, "was anxious to know if God would show mercy to those who had been a long time sinful. He said that he felt very bad in his mind, and thought he should feel better when he heard the missionary preach and pray, but he felt only sorry continually, continually. His heart was all bad, he could not keep it straight. Afterward, when asked what was the state of his mind, he replied, 'O, I am all the time, all the time, sorry. I do not know what to do. When you was preach­ing today, I tried to pray; but I could only say with myself, 'Great Spirit pity me!'"

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      After a residence of six months at Thomas, for the purpose of completing the work of organiza­tion, McCoy and his wife returned to Carey; and Lykens and Mrs. Slater took their places.

4. A Proposed Indian Canaan

      The more McCoy encountered the destructive influence of whiskey and those who peddled it, the more he was convinced of the futility of missionary enterprises among these Northwestern tribes. General and habitual drunkenness pre­vailed to such an extent that rapine, murder and crime were of daily occurrence. At times he was even afraid of leaving his wife and children unprotected, for several murders were committed near the mission. On one occasion a drunken Indian almost murdered his little daughter but fortunately an Indian student came to her rescue. The faithful missionary finally concluded that the Indians' only hope was in removal to new homes in the West, beyond the reach of the traders. He made more than one trip to Detroit to confer with the territorial governor, Lewis Cass, and then to Washington to advocate removal to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, and to members of Con­gress. To each of these he told of Indian wrongs, poverty and plight. Unless the Federal Govern­ment came to their relief immediately and removed them to the West, the tribes would soon be extinguished.
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All gave him an attentive and sympathetic hearing, although some members of Congress argued that the cost of removal was prohibitive.

      McCoy's plan was not new. In organizing the Louisiana Territory, Congress had enacted that "The President of the United States is hereby authorized to stipulate with any Indian tribes own­ing land on the east side of the Mississippi and residing thereon, for an exchange of lands the property of the United States on the west and settle thereon." Then after the explorers, Zebulon Pike (1806-7) and Stephen H. Long (1820), had said that the Great Plains was a desert and only suitable for Indian occupancy, the Federal Gov­ernment had immediately launched the removal of all Eastern tribes and bands thereto.

      Indeed, as early as 1808, federal commissioners had persuaded the Osages to cede practically all of the territory now embraced in Missouri, and that of Arkansas north of the Arkansas River. And in 1818 and 1824 other treaties with the same tribe, and with the Quapaws, made available what is now Oklahoma and much of western Arkansas for reservations upon which eastern In­dians could be settled.

      When once the way was cleared in the West, the actual removal of the eastern tribes came quickly. The Shawnees, Weas, and Pienkeshaws were assigned a reservation in northeastern Kansas;

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the Delawares were placed at the forks of the Missouri and Kansas rivers, their reservation extending twenty-three miles along the Missouri; the Ottawas were assigned a seven-mile square site south of the Shawnees; and the Pottawatomies were located temporarily near Fort Leavenworth. (Most of these tribes were later removed to Indian Territory.) Missionaries Lykens, Ira D. Blanchard, Meeker and Simerwell accompanied the North­western Indians to their new homes and worked faithfully among them. Lykens and Meeker were particularly helpful in teaching them to walk in the "new road." They translated into the Indian languages, by the "new method," religious tracts, parts of the Scriptures and schoolbooks; and the Indians responded by studying them zealously. Lykens also edited the Shawanoe Sun, said to have been the first newspaper ever published entirely in an Indian language.

      The lives of the McCoys were to become in­spiring examples for the many Indian missionaries who followed them. After their removal to the West, McCoy became the secretary to the American Indian Mission Association (Baptist supported), for which he labored as zealously as in the mis­sionary field. He died on June 21, 1846, from an illness brought on by exposure in severe weather, and his devoted wife followed him to the grave five years later. They had literally forgotten those things that were behind and had

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ever pressed on toward the mark of the high call­ing. No two souls could better qualify for the honor of America's foremost missionaries.

      The most conspicuous monument to the memory of the McCoys was the marked advance in civiliza­tion and religion of those tribes whom they served. They had found the Indiana and Illinois Indians hedged in on every side by land-hungry whites and designing whiskey peddlers. Indian villages reeked in filth and squalor, and their inhabitants were despondent, debauched, and starving without hope "of a better day. McCoy and his wife first taught them that Christ was the light of the world; then they showed them how to spin, weave, sew, clear away fields and plant corn, and the many other things necessary to advance them on the road to civilization. Obviously, there was much back-sliding, much uncertainty, as the Indians moved forward. Sometimes the missionaries were so discouraged as to feel the utter hopelessness of success, but their Christian zeal, born of hope and faith, revived them and drove them on to final success.


[From Carl Coke Rister, Baptist Missions Among the American Indians, 1944, pp. 38-59. - jrd]

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