Reference Entry

Stewart, John

Christopher J. Anderson

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Stewart, John

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licensed minister and Methodist missionary, was born in Powhatan County, Virginia, to parents of African and European ancestry. His mother and father, whose names and occupations are not known, were practicing Baptists of noted reputation. Nor is it known whether Stewart had any siblings. During his childhood Stewart received religious instruction from his parents and attended a winter school for African American boys. He was an excellent singer and worked as a dyer. In adulthood those acquainted with Stewart described his physical appearance as light-skinned, five feet eight inches and one hundred forty pounds (Love, 338).In 1806 or 1807, at age twenty-one, Stewart left Virginia for Marietta, Ohio. During his travels Stewart was robbed of all personal belongings and upon reaching his destination struggled with poverty and with being away from his family. Stewart eventually found work as a sugar maker, which helped him earn money and provided him with opportunities to retire to the woods to read his Bible and to pray. But by 1814 Stewart, still longing for his family in Virginia, was battling with alcoholism, depression, and thoughts of suicide.One evening in 1815 Stewart and a friend decided to spend another night in Marietta immersed in what they understood to be sinful activities. That evening his friend suddenly died, which forced Stewart to reflect on death and the state of his own soul. For many days Stewart wandered aimlessly in Marietta and finally decided to drown himself in the Ohio River. On his way to the river Stewart passed a meetinghouse where a group of Methodists were holding a religious service. Standing outside the front door Stewart listened intently to the singing and exhortation of the Methodist itinerant preacher Marcus Lindsey until he was ushered into the sanctuary to speak to the small assembly. His address impressed the audience, who invited Stewart to a Methodist camp meeting the following week. At the campground Stewart experienced a conversion to Christianity and dedicated his life to service in the Methodist Episcopal Church.During the early nineteenth century, Christian revivals dotted the American landscape as a result of the work of traveling ministers and evangelists. At camp meetings and revivals, participants experienced a variety of physical manifestations, witnessed visions, and on occasion heard what they believed to be the voice of God or of a spiritual entity. Three months after his conversion to Christianity Stewart experienced a vision in which a bright halo appeared in the northern sky and two voices, one that of a woman and the other that of a man, beckoned him to take Christianity to the people of northwest Ohio. Shortly after this vision Stewart became violently ill and in his despair Stewart vowed that if God would heal him of his infirmities, he would commit his life to missionary work. Soon Stewart regained his health and fulfilled his promise to God, leaving Marietta armed with only a Bible and a hymnbook to preach Christianity to the Wyandot.From 1816 to 1823 Stewart resided on a Wyandot Indian reservation established by the U.S. government in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. In December 1818 Stewart married Polly Carter of the nearby Negro Town; they had no children. Stewart is recognized as the first U.S. Methodist home missionary because of his work with the Wyandot nation. In order to provide Stewart with financial assistance and additional personnel, Methodists created The Missionary Society in 1819, the first missionary agency of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States.The Wyandot had been a large and powerful nation from Canada and the Great Lakes Region of Michigan in the Northwest Territory. Negotiations between the U.S. government and the Indian Federation, including the 1795 Greenville Treaty, were often moderated by Wyandot leaders. But the War of 1812 and the continued expansion of white settlers into the region decimated both the Wyandots' numbers and their influence. Eventually many relocated to a U.S. reservation in western Ohio. In 1816 Stewart visited a remnant of the Wyandot in Upper Sandusky. Upon arrival he met Jonathan Pointer, an African American who as a child had been taken from his Virginia home by members of the Wyandot. Pointer and his wife were both fluent in the Wyandot language and worked as translators for Stewart in his task to convert the tribe to Christianity.Stewart held meetings and preached to those in attendance concerning the necessity of avoiding the wrath of God, which might come upon them at any time. A few Wyandot accepted Christianity, but the majority did not trust Stewart, nor did they embrace his religion. Local chiefs initially refused to embrace Christianity and would not permit their people to abandon worship of the Great Spirit or the religious system in place at the village. Wyandot leaders also rebuffed what they considered attempts by Stewart to assail and exploit the rituals and customs of their Native American tradition. Stewart countered the arguments of the chiefs and proclaimed Christianity as an imperative for all nations, including Indian nations. He declared that a curse would fall upon the people if they did not change their ways. Though Stewart faced much initial resistance in his work with the Wyandot, many later converted to Christianity.In 1819 Stewart received his credentials as a licensed minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Later that year, at the request of the Wyandot Tribal Council, the Methodist Episcopal Church established its first mission in North America at Upper Sandusky. In 1821 Stewart was commissioned as a resident missionary and provided with a cabin and land to raise crops. In 1823 Stewart died after suffering a bout with consumption. He was buried on his own property in an unmarked grave. The site became a shrine for the Wyandot, who often placed flowers on his burial plot. In 1834 Stewart's remains were exhumed and reinterred on the site of the Wyandot Indian mission. Stewart's grave in Upper Sandusky is now an official Methodist Heritage marker and the site serves as a religious shrine in memory of the first American Methodist missionary.

Reference Entry.  1079 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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