Tracing our Oklahoma Methodist heritage



Long before the Land Runs, almost a century before statehood, the Methodist movement established roots in what is now Oklahoma.

Native Americans were the first sowers of the seed of Methodism here.

By 1815, according to historical accounts, Methodist ministries stretched from the Pecan Point area, at the Red River, all the way to northeastern Oklahoma.

The site of the first Protestant church service by a Methodist preacher was in McCurtain County in 1818.

And by 1833, the first house of worship was built on Oklahoma soil for the people called Methodists. Riley’s Chapel was built by Rev. Thomas Bertholf in honor of his mother-in-law’s family. In 1843, he built a second structure bearing the same name, about a mile from Tahlequah, Okla.

A major moment occurred one year later. In 1844, the Indian Mission Conference was formed — the predecessor conference to the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC) and later the Oklahoma Conference.

In that historic year, the Indian Mission Conference membership was reported to be 2,992 Native Americans, 133 African-Americans, and 85 whites. At that milestone meeting in 1844, four Deacons were ordained: two Indians and two whites.* Some of the African-Americans were considered slaves but, nonetheless, they were participants in this new movement that eventually swept across what then was designated as Indian Territory.

As we celebrate 170 years of an official Methodist presence in Oklahoma at our upcoming Annual Conference, I share this page from history with you because one area of focus for our meeting will be the Native American influence that brought Methodism here.

The people who survived removal then molded and shaped Oklahoma with their beliefs. They have persevered in spite of terrific challenges.

When the gavel sounds at Annual Conference, less than two weeks from now, we will remember and honor them, continuing a heritage that has endured the test of time.

On Tuesday, May 27, during the Annual Conference teaching time (10 a.m.-noon), delegates and guests will engage in an "Act of Repentance Toward Healing Relationships With Native American and Indigenous People."

History records that Methodists have been complicit in many of the atrocities heaped upon our First American brothers and sisters, and the May 27 service is an opportunity to acknowledge and make amends for those acts.

At the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla., the entire denomination began the healing process as those delegates participated in an Act of Repentance service. Each annual conference has been directed to do the same prior to 2016.

Our speaker will be Dr. Tash Smith of Shawnee, an authority on the Native American Methodist movement in Oklahoma. The service also will feature a choir from the D.D. Etchieson Memorial United Methodist Church, an OIMC congregation near Tahlequah. Our service will end with a Litany of Repentance.

I believe our yearly gathering will be a time of healing and hope as we reflect on the past, celebrate the present, and cast our vision toward the future. Our meeting will be a time when we acknowledge that "hither by Thine help we come, and we hope by Thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home." (lyrics from "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," by Charles Wesley)

Our Annual Conference theme is "All Things New," from the 21st chapter of Revelations. We will emphasize living into the new creation that God is shaping us to become. New ideas and proposals will be presented to delegates for consideration; we pray for fresh wind of the Spirit to sweep across our conference.

For the Memorial/Communion Service on Monday, May 26, and for the Commissioning/Retirement Service on Tuesday, May 27, our preacher will be Jasmine Smothers, a gifted young clergywomen from the North Georgia Conference. She is the daughter of United Methodist pastors and a sterling example of God’s "new creation."

On Wednesday, May 28, we will celebrate in the Ordination Service as I lay hands upon those who will be sent forth to serve with sacred authority in our local churches.

I truly look forward to Annual Conference because through it we carry on the heritage of the generations on whose shoulders we stand. Because of our historical connectedness, we stood with our predecessors who started this journey at that first conference in 1844, and we commit in going forward to keep alive the gift given to us by them.

*Sources: Doug Scott, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference."Oklahoma Methodism in the 20th Century," by Leland Clegg and Bill Oden, 1968. "Mark of Heritage," Oklahoma Historical Society.

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