Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

John Davis and Joseph Islands: Indigenous Missionaries among the Creeks in Indian Territory

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

John Davis and Joseph Islands: Indigenous Missionaries among the Creeks in Indian Territory

Article excerpt

The Muscogee Indians, better known as the Creeks, (1) and recognized as one of the Five Civilized Tribes, (2) lived along the Chattahoochee River in Georgia and Alabama when white settlers began arriving. (3)

Whites in Alabama and Georgia pushed forcefully for the removal of all Native Americans from their borders, while United States government officials communicated to them that they would have to move west to a "happy home" because the government could not protect them from oppression by white intruders. (4) The Creeks were divided into two parties, the Upper Creeks and Lower Creeks. The Lower Creeks, whose leaders consented to the sale of their lands and removal, migrated to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma during the late 1820s and early 1830s after the government ratified treaties authorizing the sale of Creek lands. Although the Upper Creeks largely opposed the sale of their lands and removal, they arrived in Indian Territory not long after the Lower Creeks when they were evicted from their lands by the government and forcibly removed to their new home. (5) By 1836, perhaps as many as 15,000 to 20,000 Creeks had made the trip along the "Trail of Tears" and had settled in a part of Indian Territory known as the Creek Nation. (6)

John Davis (c.1810-c.1842), a full-blood Creek, arrived in Indian Territory with one of the earlier Creek groups of immigrants in 1829 and served as a pastor and missionary. In 1842, not long after Davis's death, Joseph Islands (c.1810-1848), another full-blood Creek who had immigrated to Indian Territory by way of Georgia, became a Christian and immediately began ministering to his people. This article examines the missionary work of Davis and Islands, Oklahoma's first Baptist indigenous missionaries to the Creeks, underscoring their unique contributions as well as the daunting challenges they faced as they labored among their own people.

John Davis: Pastor of the Creek Nation

Born in Alabama of Creek parents, (7) Davis as a boy was taken captive during the War of 1812 and raised by a white man. (8) Davis became a Christian as a youth while attending a mission school operated by Lee Compere, who had been ordained as a Baptist preacher in his native country of England. In 1817, at the age of nineteen, Compere arrived in America after serving for a brief time as a missionary in Jamaica. In 1820, Baptists in Georgia opened Withington Mission among the Creeks on the Chattahoochee River near the line between Alabama and Georgia; and two years later, the American Baptist Board of Foreign Missions appointed Compere to lead the mission school after another missionary resigned. (9) In 1826, Compere reported that of twenty-seven students studying at the mission, twenty were reading the New Testament and twelve were studying subjects such as arithmetic, grammar, and geography. (10)

While a student at the mission in 1827, Davis converted to Christianity. He studied diligently, distinguishing himself as one of Compere's brightest students. Compere described Davis as "intelligent and sober minded." (11) Davis often served as an interpreter for Compere, having developed the ability to speak both Creek and English fluently. (12)

Davis likely attended the mission school every year until it closed in 1829. The mission shut its doors primarily because of the removal of the Creeks and the opposition to Christian preaching on the part of the Creeks. (13) Missions among the Creeks in their original territories proved to be quite a challenge for a variety of reasons. The Creeks had been friendly to Great Britain during the second war between the United States and Great Britain that had only recently ended. The Creeks now found themselves under the authority of a government that wanted to move them beyond the Mississippi River. The tribe members were also bitter about having lost a number of their people in the war, and they were angry that white hunters had intruded into their lands forcing Creek hunters to travel beyond the Mississippi River during the years 1815 to 1830. …

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