Two and a half hours east of Enid on Highway 412, between Tulsa, Oklahoma and Fayetteville, Arkansas, is a little community called Chouteau, Oklahoma. The Neosho River, also called the Grand River, runs north to south just a couple of miles east of Chouteau. Highway 69 runs parallel (north south) to the Neosho River, and I turned off of Highway 412 at Chouteau and headed south on Highway 69. Five miles down the highway I turned back to the east on a dirt road leading to the Neosho River. After a few twists and turns, I eventually arrived at my destination, deep in the woods of Mayes County, about a half mile from the western bank of the Neosho River. It was at this precise spot that one of the greatest missionaries in the history of Christianity, a Connecticut man named Epraphas Chapman, established Union Mission on November 15, 1820. Chapman desired to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Osage Indians. Not many Christians have ever heard of Epaphras Chapman, but his story is extraordinary.
During the Second Great Awakening of the 1790's and early 1800's, a revival swept the eastern coast of the United States resulting in an increase of missionary spirit. In 1817 in New York City, the United Foreign Missionary Society (UFMS), a cooperative missions sending agency representing several evangelical denominations, began sending ministers to preach the gospel to American Indian tribes living beyond the western frontier. At the time, the Mississippi River was considered to be the edge of civlization by the United States, but after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase President Thomas Jefferson led the government to explore the new lands acquired by the United States, including all of present day Oklahoma. Other than a few French traders in what we now call the midwest, and some Spanish traders in the southwest, the lands west of the Mississippi were inhabited by plainsmen Indians, including the large Osage tribe of Missouri.
The Osage Indians
Explorers Lewis and Clarke reported to President Thomas Jefferson in 1805 that the Osage Indians had split into two tribes, the southern tribe leaving the Missouri River area and settling south near what Lewis and Clarke called "the three forks area." This was a reference to the place in Oklahoma where three rivers converged, the Neosho, the Verdigris, and the Arkansas. At three rivers, the mouth of the Neosho and the mouth of Verdigris opened into the Arkansas River. President Thomas Jefferson spoke of these southern Osage Indians at "three forks" in his 1806 speech to Congress. This is believed to be the first time the United States government officially recognized a place in what we now call Oklahoma. The three forks river area, just east of present day Muskogee, Oklahoma would eventually become a major trading post and the United States would build a fort called Fort Gibson (est. 1824) there. But before any U.S. soldiers, any English traders or anyone else ever entered Oklahoma to permanently settle, Epaphras Chapman made the journey to "three forks" to share the gospel with the Osage Indians and established the first white settlement in present day Oklahoma.
The United Foreign Missionary Society had sent Chapman and Job Vinall in 1819 to find a place to build a mission station for the Osage. Although Vinall died on this initial journey, Chapman succeeded in finding a potential location on the west bank of the Neosha River, about 25 miles north of "the three forks." The spot was about half a mile from the river, escaping the spring floods, near both a natural spring and a salt spring. Chapman then returned to the East to assemble a "mission family." Those who joined this "mission family" included Chapman's wife, Rev. William F. Vaill and his wife and four children, Rev. Abraham Redfield, Dr. Marcus Palmer, six men to serve as teachers, farmers, and mechanics, and six single women who would serve as school teachers. A total of 21 people set off from New York on April 20, 1820 to make their way to present day Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma Historical Society narrates what happened next:
They left New York April 20, 1820 and took the accustomed route via Pittsburgh and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and then up the Arkansas.
The mission family stopped for several days here and there in the first part of their journey. These delays were generally profitable in that a great deal of money was collected for the enterprise. This was not solicited but freely contributed by churches, individuals and various cities where sympathy with the missonary movement was in evidence . . .
(The narrative then briefly describes the journey down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, and then down the Mississippi River to the mouth of the Arkansas River in the southeastern portion of modern day Arkansas, where the mission family turned upstream in their canoes, sometimes called rafts, to follow the Arkansas River into Indian Territory).
As the party made its way up the Arkansas River the members began to sicken and by July 25, 1820 two of the women had died. Upon reaching Little Rock they made a temporary camp and lived in tents and log houses while some of the men proceeded to the proposed mission site to prepare lodging for the winter (arriving November 15, 1820). Here on the west bank of the Neosho River about twenty-five miles above its confluence with the Arkansas they began Union Mission.
When the remainder of the party at Little Rock was able to go on, the river having risen making it possible to use boats, men were employed to help move to the station. Through the late winter and early spring months the long journey was finally completed. A happy entry is found in the journal which to the missionaries meant both an end and a beginning. The following was written: "Union Lord's day February 18th. about ten oclock this morning reached the long look(ed) for Station after a journey of nearly ten months attended with many delays, and disappointments. It has been a day of joy and gladness to us all."
It is almost impossible for the modern American to fathom the ten month journey of Epaphras Chapman's mission family from New York to present day Oklahoma. These men, women and children drifted downstream on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to where the Arkansas River enters the Mississippi in southern Arkansas. Then they had to paddle upstream on the Arkansas for several hundred miles to the "three forks area." Then they paddled 25 miles further upstream on the Neosha River to the place Epaphras had chosen to establish a mission a year earlier. During the journey the mission team slept on the banks of the river under the open skies. They faced the fierce heat of a southern summer, the frigid cold of an Arkansas winter, the constant threat of Indian attack, flies, mosquitos, and other pests, not to mention the danger of wild game that included bears and mountain lions. The men, women and children were entering a land with no roads, no conveniences, no towns or settlements, no people other than Indians and a handful of French traders like Chouteau and Pryor. Often stricken with fever and other illnesses, the entire team, less the two women who died en route, would eventually arrive at their intended destination.
The Union Mission, the first Protestant mission west of the Mississippi, would eventually establish the first school and church in what we now call Oklahoma. Epaphras Chapman and other men (and women) at the mission would learn the Osage language and preach the gospel to the Indians. The accomplishments of these first settlers in Oklahoma are too numerous to mention, but their reputation would spread throughout the land due to the Union Mission's location on what would eventually become known as the Texas Road. People who stayed at the Union Mission for weeks, sometimes months, included Washington Irving, Isaac McCoy, Sam Houston, Samuel Worcester, and other important American politicians and missionaries.
The story of Epaphras Chapman is as powerful and colorful as David Brainard's. The only difference is there has not been a Jonathan Edwards who has written about the life of Chapman as their has been in the case of Brainard. What little we know of Epaphras Chapman comes from "The Journal of the Union Mission," Chapman's hand written journal sold to the Oklahoma Historical Society by the grandaughter of one of the original Union Mission family members in 1920. Epaphras Chapman is ripe for a modern scholar to write a biography of his life. Chapman died of typhoid fever just five years after arriving in Oklahoma. His wife placed a tombstone at his grave, located on a hill just to the west of the Mission, with these words at the base.
Say among the heathen that the Lord reigneth
This quotation from Psalm 96:10 is one of my favorites. As I sat beside the Union Mission grave of Epaphras Chapman, a missionary who died almost 200 years ago, I couldn't help but consider how his life should put all our lives in perspective. We live in an age when people are fearful about the future. There are unknowns out there for all of us. We don't know if we are secure in our jobs. We don't know if we have enough for retirement. We don't know if the world will be at peace or at war. There are a great deal of dark places around the next bend for all of us. But nothing we face could be as difficult as what Epaphras Chapman confronted as he fulfilled his calling of taking the gospel to the Osage Indians.
As I stood near the western bank of the Neosha River last Saturday, reflecting on the life and ministry of Epaphras Chapman, I picked up a small rock near his tombstone which was in the shape of a mountain. I cleaned it of its dirt and took a permanent marker and wrote Psalm 96:10 on the rock. I then drove back west to Oklahoma City and went to visit our eleven year old church member who is fighting the neurological disease that has the potential to paralyze his limbs and shut down his vital organs if not arrested. I told the young man about Epaphras Chapman and then gave him the stone from the Union Mission site and told him the following:
The next time you find yourself afraid of what may be around the bend; the next time you feel a twinge of anxiety over the unknown that is just ahead; I want you to remember Epaphras Chapman. He, like you, had a great deal of obstacles to overcome. He, like you, faced a number of unknowns. He, like you, found himself needing to completely trust in His God. In the end, the life of Epaphras Chapman influenced an untold number of people in the state we now call Oklahoma for Christ. His sole purpose in life, as well as in death, was to say among the nations that the Lord reigns. My prayer for you is that your life may reflect the same truth - our God reigns.
I don't know how much of an impact my words may have had on an eleven year old boy, but as I left, I turned back to see a few tears and the young boy's hand clutching the Union Mission rock. I left the hospital thanking my God for men like Epaphras Chapman who can inspire Christian people nearly 200 years after his death.
In His Grace,