Project Canterbury

Missions to the Oneidas

By Susan Fenimore Cooper

Serialized in The Living Church

Number V. February 27, 1886, pages 720-721.

The promise which Bishop Hobart gave to his Oneida "Children" was faithfully fulfilled. On Tuesday, September 13, 1818, he visited their village. At that day the journey into the Oneida country was not without its difficulties. There was neither canal nor railroad, to speed the traveller on his way, and the roads were of the rudest description. It was but a frontier civilization, where the traveller went jolting over "corduroy" tracks, or sank deep in ruts or mud, half the days in the year. Bishop Hobart, however, reached his destination in due time, and became deeply interested in what he saw of the people, and their country. It was a condition of society, though no longer savage, yet very peculiar and foreign to all his own previous experience. The population of the Oneida reservation was at that time said to be about one thousand, it was probably, however, rather less. The Reservation was owned in common by the whole tribe. Only a small portion was under cultivation for potatoes, and the old Indian staples of maize, beans and pumpkins; the rude pasture lands where their cows and sheep fed together were more extensive; but much the greater portion of the land was a forest wilderness. Through these woods there were no roads whatever, but many Indian paths or trails. The dwellings of the people lay scattered about in wild irregularity, according to the fancy of the builders; there were a few frame houses, others of logs, and others were wigwams of bark; some stood on the shady hillsides, others in the fertile valleys near their fields of maize and pumpkins. The Oneidas at this period busied themselves in gathering gin-seng in the forest. This they sold to the traders, by whom it was carried to New York and Philadelphia, and sold to merchants, who sent it to China, where it was burned as incense in the temples. The Oneidas gathered about 1,000 bushels annually, and sold it for $2,000.

The Chiefs gathered about the Bishop with the usual calm dignity of their race when doing honor to a favored guest. One aged Sachem, probably Hendrick Schuyler, made a speech which was translated by Mr. Williams. He told his "Father," the Bishop, that in his youth he had been instructed in the holy Christian Faith by a missionary from beyond the sea, when this State was and English Colony; that, he had been baptized, and had held fast the faith while the snows of fifty winters had fallen about him, and while many of his brethren were still heathens. He pointed out the spot where the missionary had preached the Gospel to his tribe; it was an open glade in the forest, with a few oaks of noble growth throwing a grateful shade here and there. Within sight of this spot rose the little church, which the Oneidas had recently built, under the direction of their catechist, Eleazar Williams; it was a neat rustic chapel, still unfinished, but in every way creditable to the tribe, who had raised more than $3,000 for the expenses. In this unfinished chapel Bishop Hobart confirmed eighty-nine persons. In his address to the convention of the diocese, the Bishop spoke of his visit to the Oneidas:

It is a subject of congratulation that our Church has resumed the labors which for a long period before the Revolutionary War, the Society in England for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts directed to the religious instruction of the Indian tribes. * * The religious instructor of the Oneidas, employed by our Church, being of Indian extraction, and acquainted with their language, dispositions, and customs, and devoting himself unremittingly to their spiritual and temporal welfare, enjoys their full confidence, while the education he has received has increased his qualifications as their guide in the faith and precepts of the Gospel. Mr. Eleazar Williams, at the earnest request of the Oneida chiefs, was licensed by me about two years since, as their lay reader, catechist and school-master. Educated in a different communion, he connected himself with our Church from conviction, and appears warmly attached to her doctrines, her Apostolic ministry, and her worship. Soon after he commenced his labors among the Oneidas, the Pagan party solemnly professed the Christian faith. Soon after their conversion, they appropriated in connection with the old Christian party the proceeds of the sale of some of their lands to the erection of a handsome edifice for divine worship, which will be shortly completed. In the work of their spiritual instruction the Book of Common Prayer, a principal part of which has been translated for their use, proves a powerful auxiliary. Its simple and affecting exhibition of the truths of redemption, is calculated to interest their hearts, while it informs their understanding, and its decent and significant rites contribute to fix their attention in the exercises of worship. They are particularly gratified with having parts assigned them in the service, and repeat the responses with great propriety and devotion. On my visit several hundreds assembled for worship; those who could read were furnished with books; and they uttered the confessions of the Liturgy, responded to its supplications, and chanted its hymns of praise with a reverence and fervor which powerfully interested the feelings of those who witnessed the solemnity. They listened to my address to them, interpreted by Mr. Williams, with so much solicitous attention; they received the laying on of hands with such grateful humility, and participated of the symbols of their Saviour's love with such tears of penetential devotion; that the impression which the scene made on my mind will never be effaced. Nor was this the excitement of the moment, or the exhibition of enthusiasm. The eighty-nine who had been confirmed had been well instructed by Mr. Williams, and none were permitted to approach the Communion whose lives did not correspond with their Christian professions. * * I have admitted Mr. Williams as a candidate for Orders, on the recommendations of the Standing Committee.

This was the first occasion on which the Oneidas had ever been visited by a bishop of regular consecration. It was the first time that the rite of Confirmation had ever been performed among them. The services are described by those who were present as deeply impressive. The unfinished chapel was filled to overflowing. The touching reverence and devotion of the people, both young and old, were very affecting. Some of the clergy present were moved to tears, and withdrew to weep for joy, and offer prayers of thankful praise, before the services were completed.

The following year the little chapel was finished. On the 21st of September 1819, it was consecrated under the name of St. Peter's church. On this occasion the Bishop confirmed fifty-six persons, and baptized two adults, and forty-six infants, all Oneidas.

Mr. Williams continued faithful in his services. As he was not ordained, other Church clergymen occasionally visited the mission for the purpose of administering the Sacraments. The faithful Father Nash, the pioneer missionary of Otsego County, performed service there, in company with the Rev. Mr. Orderson, of the Island of Barbadoes, in the spring of 1821. On this occasion five adults and fifty children were baptized. In speaking of this visit Father Nash writes: "In the month of May last, I visited the church at Oneida and with pleasure can testify to the excellent order observed. In no congregation, although I have seen many solemn assemblies, have I beheld such deep attention, and such humble devotion."

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