The following article is a guest post by Russ Pulliam, who is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a ruling elder of the Second Reformed Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis.
The Cache Creek mission to Indians in Oklahoma is a noble chapter in the history of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.
It’s also part of a larger noble chapter in American history.
Americans usually learn the mainstream story of oppression and mistreatment of Indians in school or from Hollywood. But a few faithful believers lived out another less-publicized side of the story, practicing Matthew 28:18-20 and bringing the gospel to native Americans and seeking justice for them, especially in Puritan Massachusetts in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Cache Creek story follows in that noble tradition, as the RP church sought to reach Indians in what was then the Oklahoma territory from 1889 to the 1960s, in a barren area southwest of Oklahoma City. The church’s 1871 testimony recognized the national sin of oppression of Indians, long before Americans came to a sense of regret for the injustices against them. The Testimony confesses: “The history of the government has been largely one of oppression and injustice towards its aboriginal and colored people, and of iniquitous distinction of caste.”
The Cache Creek mission provided for physical needs while pointing the Indians to the spiritual need to worship the Lord and bow down to Him as Savior and Lord.
RP pastor and psalm singing leader Charles McBurney wrote a 1948 master’s thesis on the mission, providing background for this story along with synod minutes. I write with thanks to Southside Indianapolis RP Church Pastor David Whitla. He has been teaching us RP church history as he prepares to head to Ireland later this year to work on his Ph.D. in church history.
At the mission in the late 1890s, church services were attracting 150-200, about half Indian(mostly Comanche but also some Apache, Kiowa and mixed background). Indian church membership was less, about 30 to 50.
The mission provided education to about 50 students a year. The school seemed to be the heart of the ministry, with students memorizing scripture, learning the shorter catechism and collecting offerings for the mission in Syria, giving the scholars some vision for reaching to the ends of the earth. The memory verse work is quite encouraging – 528 verses in one year for one student in 1898; or 6,994 verses for the whole year through the school. Isaiah 55:11 comes to mind as a promise for such discipline.
The Holy Spirit was at work in some special ways. A communion service in 1898 brought 250 Indians from some distances, as they camped for several days, like the great Cane Ridge revivals in Kentucky in 1800, or the traditional RP society communion seasons.
The mission faced serious spiritual warfare from the Medicine Men, with their appeals to spirits and devils. Other challenges were gambling, drunkenness, drug abuse(peyote) and polygamy.
A Mexican member of the congregation was murdered, with Mission Superintendent William W. Carithers offering this eulogy, suggesting a fruitful impact of the ministry: “He was a quiet, peaceable man in his life, and the universal testimony was that the murder could not have been committed because of a quarrel. The influence of the Spirit in applying the truth made a great change in his life; in the kindliness with which he cared for his wife and family; in the comforts he gathered around his home, and in the readiness with which he would engage in religious exercises.”
The synod reports suggest a well-balanced approach to this work, in the spirit of the book of James – helping the Indians with physical and social needs, such as education and medical care. They learned farming from Kansas farmer John Robb. He reminds me of Travis and Gina Sheets, the Indiana farmers we have sent to Liberia to teach farming skills and offer the gospel in a rural but strategic part of Liberia through the Christian college where they also teach agriculture. Carithers’ sister also served as a field matron, visiting new mothers in their homes, helping them learn household and parenting skills.
Though concentrating on this group of Indians, the mission also sought to reach out to other groups, including some Apaches and the Lime Creek Indians in another area. Indian elder delegates came to synod meetings, according to Charles McBurney’s thesis.
Another hopeful note from this story is the healthy cooperation of church and state. The RP doctrine of Christ’s kingship over church and state can lead to conflict, when one side tries to dominate the other. Usually those episodes make for more drama and better Hollywood scripts. But the doctrine can lead to a less dramatic cooperation, as leaders in both spheres look to Christ and God’s Word to find their complementary responsibilities. In Oklahoma the government agents helped the mission with land for farming and other physical benefits, which the mission could put to good use for kingdom advancement.
Of encouragement is how long this mission lasted – almost a century. Even in the 1960s the school was continuing as a private school option in the midst of public schools, with Navahoe students sometimes sent there from New Mexico and Arizona. Clearly the mission had a good name in the West.
More encouragement: the Puritan Indian missionaries, such as John Eliot or the Mayhew family, had a commendable consistency in their walk with Christ, as demonstrated by how their children and sometimes grandchildren and even great-grandchildren followed in their footsteps. We see the same pattern in the Cache Creek mission. Joining William Carithers in this work were a sister and a daughter and son-in-law. Charles McBurney married a granddaughter of Carithers, giving him access to key correspondence and records that enabled him to write a thorough story of the mission.
Zechariah 4:10 sums up a good response to the Cache Creek story: “Who hath despised the day of small things?” These servants of the Lord were faithful in the little things. In the years the church was seeking a big political thing in attempting to amend the Constitution to honor Christ as king. Perhaps an equally important work was this small but fruitful attempt to honor Christ as King and bring the gospel and love of Christ to the poor and needy in a disappearing frontier of the nation.