Wyandot Mission Church returns to the Wyandotte Nation

PHOTO BY JOANNA LININGER Wyandot Mission Church, site of the first Methodist mission in North America, is being formally returned to the Wyandotte Nation during a ceremony Saturday.

UPPER SANDUSKY — After 176 years, the United Methodist Church is returning Wyandot Mission Church to the Wyandotte Nation during a ceremony Saturday.

Spelled “Wyandot” in northwest Ohio and in the tribe’s Kansas affiliation, the word is officially spelled “Wyandotte” by the nation in Oklahoma.

The ceremony is called “A Remembrance of Our Shared History: The Wyandotte/Wyandot and the People Called Methodists.” It is to begin at John Stewart United Methodist Church, 130 W. Johnson St., Upper Sandusky, and a procession to burial grounds and mission church is to follow.

In 1844, the Wyandot tribe deeded the land to the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church — forerunner of today’s United Methodist Global Ministries — “to protect its sanctity” when the federal government forced the tribe off its last reservation in Ohio.

The two organizations announced “the return of sacred lands and spaces” in a news release outlining plans for the day.

“It will be a historic day for the Wyandotte Nation,” said Chief Billy Friend of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma in the release. “One hundred seventy-six years ago we left the mission church in the Methodists’ hands to take care of it for us until we came back. That time has come.

“We have a deep appreciation for the local community and the Records and History Committee of the John Stewart United Methodist Church that have taken care of this church for so long,” Friend said. “Now we look forward to working together with these people in preserving and maintaining this historic landmark.”

“For over 200 years, the people called Methodists have had a unique bond with members of the Wyandotte tribes,” said Thomas Kemper, general secretary (chief executive) of United Methodist Global Ministries, the worldwide mission agency of the denomination. “John Stewart, our first-ever missionary, launched a historic friendship with them in 1816. Since 1844, we have served as stewards of this sacred land and these historic spaces. Now, it is time to return these lands to the Wyandotte people so they can continue the generations-long tradition of honoring our collective heritage.”

Speakers Saturday include Friend and Kemper as well as Chief Janith English, Wyandot Nation of Kansas; Grand Chief Ted Roll, head of the Wyandotte of Anderdon Nation (Michigan); Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, West Ohio Annual Conference, The United Methodist Church; Bishop Tracy S. Malone, East Ohio Annual Conference, The United Methodist Church; Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, board president, Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church; Fred Day, general secretary, General Commission on Archives and History, The United Methodist Church; and Mayor Scott D. Washburn, Upper Sandusky.

The release noted the day as historic because “the return of lands of Native Americans is a rare occurrence,” and the mission church is one of 49 United Methodist Heritage Landmarks, the most sacred places in global United Methodism.

The return of the land coincides with Methodism’s bicentennial of mission, recognizing in 2019 the 200th anniversary of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, now known as Global Ministries.

John Stewart, the first U.S. Methodist missionary, is credited with launching a historic friendship with members of the Wyandotte peoples in 1819. He established the Wyandot Indian Mission, located in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. Stewart’s work and example inspired the formation of the Methodist Missionary Society in 1820, the forerunner to today’s General Board of Global Ministries.

According to the history website of the United Methodist Church, the Wyandot Indians moved into Ohio in the mid-18th century from Canada and Michigan and settled on the Sandusky Plains.

Their encounter with Methodism came in 1816, in the person of John Stewart (1786-1823). Stewart was a mulatto of African and probably East Indian descent, and was converted at a Methodist camp meeting near Marietta.

In response to a call to preach, the website said Stewart set off into the Ohio wilderness, traveling 200 miles until he came to the Wyandot settlement.

“His preaching, his beautiful singing voice, and his personality eventually brought a number of people into the Methodist fold,” the website said. “Word of his successful work reached the general church, which responded in 1819 by forming a Missionary Society to support Stewart’s work among the Wyandots. The Wyandot Mission thus became the first churchwide mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church.”

Stewart was forced to retire while still a young man, and his friends collected money to a small farm where he lived with his wife until his death in 1823. He was 37 years old.

Stewart was succeeded by James B. Finley (1781-1856), who arrived at the mission in 1821 in response to the Wyandots’ request for a school. The following year, Finley and some of the chiefs traveled to Washington where they asked to use government funds to build a church. They received just over $1,000, and built a limestone meetinghouse that was dedicated in 1824. Finley stayed with the mission until 1827.

“[T]he house was built out of good limestone, thirty by forty feet, and plainly finished. So these people have had a comfortable house to worship God in ever since. It will stand, if not torn down, for a century to come.” (From James B. Finley’s 1840 history of the Wyandot mission.)

The mission continued until 1843 when the tribe was forced to emigrate to Kansas. Two acres of land on which the church and the burial ground stood were deeded to the Methodist church.

The church was abandoned for 40 years and deteriorated badly. In 1889, it was rebuilt on the same site using the original stones. Additional renovations were done in 1983.

Today, the site is designated a national shrine by the United Methodist Church. It displays historical pictures and documents, and in summer, the church hosts services and sometimes weddings.

The property also includes a fenced in area containing the graves of John Stewart and some of the Christian Indians.

For more history and more information, visit www.umcmission.org/learn-about-us/events/upper-sandusky-land-transfer.