The Ordination Sermon of John Huss

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To set the record straight at the beginning, this post is not about the Bohemian Reformer John Huss (1369-1415). Instead, this story is about a 19th century Native American Presbyterian minister who shares the name.

In 2012, a new addition was made to the Cherokee Trail of Tears Historic Trail - the Fort Payne, Alabama Cabin Historic Site was designated as a landmark. This site marks the spot where a log cabin once stood; the cabin (pictured in the historic marker sign) was destroyed in 1946 and all that remains now is the chimney. Both were built, adjacent to the Wills Town Mission, by a Cherokee Presbyterian leader who, facing federal troops who were present to enforce the 1830 Indian Removal Act, voluntarily led 74 members of the Cherokee Nation westward in November 1837. The following spring that cabin was absorbed into the newly constructed Fort Payne, and the forced march known as the Trail of Tears began in earnest.

The man who built that cabin in 1825 was originally known as We-Cha-Lah-Nae-He, or “the Spirit” (or “Captain Spirit”). After his conversion to Christ that same year — a fruit of the labors of the Brainerd Mission, near Chattanooga, Tennessee — he took the name John Huss in honor of the aforementioned Reformer. It was in July 1833 that he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. We have recently added his ordination sermon to the inventory of Log College Press, as well as additional writings by this remarkable man.

After leaving Alabama in 1837, he settled at Honey Creek, Oklahoma, where he helped to establish a Cherokee Bible Society and served as pastor — at the congregation newly-organized by Cephas Washburn and Samuel Austin Worcester in 1838 — until his death in 1858.

There is much that we wish we knew better about this intriguing man. This writer is grateful for the kindness of author James Barnes, who shared extracts from his forthcoming book Annie Spirit’s Cherokee History, 1826-1910, which marshals a great deal of the biographical facts known about Huss. A full-blooded Cherokee, he never learned English. The writings that we have were all translated by others. His portrait was painted 1844 by John Mix Stanley, the famous painter of Native Americans, but apparently the portrait was destroyed in the great fire at the Smithsonian in 1865.

The sermon prepared by John Huss for his ordination trial was based on Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” The translation of this sermon was prepared by Elias Boudinot (who also gave the charge at Huss’ ordination) and by Samuel Austin Worcester (Worcester, Boudinot, Stephen Foreman and Huss all performed a valuable service through their Bible translation labors). It remains today a remarkable example of early 19th century Native American Presbyterian preaching.

In this sermon, Huss exhorts his hearers to avoid the wide path that leads to destruction and to pursue the narrow path which leads to Jesus Christ and salvation. In doing so, he paints a picture of the contrasting works of the devil and those of Christ.

In the first place, I will describe the works of the devil. He teaches men to do only evil continually. He teaches them to sin against God, and to commit all manner of evil in his sight. He is led to teach men thus by his great desire that they may become like him, self-eternally accursed in the fire of hell. Thus he is employed in teaching all manner of wickedness. For wickedness fills the ranks and attends the march of those who do the will of Satan. And on this ac count, perhaps, this way is denominated a broad way —because of the variety of evils committed by those who follow it.

Now I will tell you something of the works of the Lord Jesus Christ. To this also listen attentively.

Great are the benefits he has confer red upon mankind. When he dwelt in his Father's house above, in boundless felicity, he left that felicity, and came to this earth to suffer for the sake of the happiness of sinful men. Of his own accord he endured the sufferings of the cross, to rescue sinful men from suffering. Of his own accord he suffered the nails to be driven through his hands and his feet. Of his own accord he suffered his side to be pierced with the spear. All this he suffered of his own accord; for the shedding of his blood was for the cleansing of mankind from their great transgressions. Of his own accord he died, to deliver sinful men from death, and to give them, in his own kingdom, an everlasting home.

After further description of the two paths that either lead to hell or heaven, Huss concludes his message showing that the question at hand is a matter of life or death.

Thus you have plainly exhibited be fore you the character of the places to which these two ways conduct. The one leads to a place of the greatest misery. The other leads to a place of the greatest glory. And now consider, each one of you, what path you are pursuing. If you are following the broad way, you are now called upon to enter the narrow way leading to eternal life, of which you have this day heard. And the case of every one of you is this; though you are travelling towards the termination of these paths, it is as if you were standing at the entrance of them, and it is now left to your choice into which you will enter. Now then, my friends, I ask you, what will you do? For if you refuse to enter the narrow way, you choose the broad way which leads to death. Will you also, as multitudes do, choose the road to death? Remember that if you die in pursuing this broad way, you will arrive at hell, where you will have no friends; for there all are enemies to each other. If you arrive at that place, you will dwell in great and endless misery. You will suffer extreme torment, and not a friend will be there. While you are yet on earth, whenever, you are in pain, you want friends; and friends come to your aid. But when you suffer pain in hell, not one will come to relieve you — all will be your enemies. Think, therefore, of our Savior, who is your friend indeed. For I have told you that he suffered much to relieve you from the miseries of hell. And I tell you that those who repent of their sins, and submit themselves to him, become his. And consider; if you do not repent of your sins against our God, and submit yourselves to our Savior, can you expect to escape the pains of hell? And who, do you flatter yourselves, is able to deliver you? If you are without this Savior, you are without a Savior indeed.

If then, you would enter this narrow way, you are to repent of your sins; you are to forsake all those actions which are displeasing to our God. None can pass through the gate of that narrow way, unless he repent of his transgressions, and forsake sin; for it is a very narrow gate. You must therefore forsake every thing which is evil in the sight of our God. Then you will pass the narrow way, arriving at the dwelling place of your true friend, our Savior, and dwell there without end.

And now, I exhort you, turn your course from the kingdom of Satan, and set your face toward the kingdom of our Savior. I hope, my friends, that God will enable you to find that kingdom.

This sermon is a simple presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it provides a window into the beliefs of a remarkable man not entirely forgotten to history, but less well-known than he should be: John Huss - an advocate for the Cherokee Nation in troublous times, but above all, a faithful minister of Christ.

Whatever happened to William Tennent, Jr.?

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Few figures in Reformed and Presbyterian history have had a greater cloud of mystery shrouding them than William Tennent, Jr. His first biographer, Elias Boudinot IV, wrote of him: We have never known a man in modern times concerning whom so many extraordinary things are related.” Frank R. Symmes adds: “His biography is of surpassing interest, a fascinating story of the unusual and extraordinary in spiritual life.” The son of the founder of the original Log College of Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, which was the seed that grew into the College of New Jersey (Princeton), he was trained for the ministry and then sent to New Brunswick, New Jersey for further training and theological exams under his brother Gilbert, who was already serving as a minister of the gospel.

While there, the toll of his intense studies affected his physical and emotional health greatly, so much so that his body wasted away and doubts of his salvation assailed him. In that condition, and he fainted. To all appearances he was in fact dead, and Gilbert with great sadness began the process of arranging for his funeral. A doctor arrived and thought he detected a slight tremor in one arm, but even a day later, no further sign of life was detected. Yet the doctor continued with efforts to revive him, delaying the scheduled funeral, until while Gilbert and the assembly who had gathered had grown impatient thinking the doctor’s efforts were useless, suddenly, William with a groan opened his eyes, and then relapsed into unconsciousness. This happened again and again until after a time he revived fully, though was bedridden for a year following. He experienced almost complete amnesia, which was discovered when his sister Eleanor found that he did not know what the Bible was. He had to be re-taught everything, although after more time, as he regained strength, the memory of his past life eventually returned to him.

Something else was learned of his experience. As he related it to both Elias Boudinot and separately to Dr. John Woodhull, while he was unconscious, he experienced a trance.

This was the substance of his recital: suddenly he found himself in another state of existence, with an innumerable throng of heavenly beings surrounding him, singing hallelujahs with unspeakable rapture. He was unable to define any shapes to these celestial beings, aware only of their adoration and the aura of glory enfolding them. His entire being was so pervaded with their rapture that he longed to join them, comforted by the thought that he had been redeemed and permitted to enter heaven. But at this point the guide who had led him thither told him that he must return to earth. The thought pierced his soul like a sword and at that instant he awoke to hear the doctor and Gilbert arguing above him. The three days had seemed but a few moments in length, but for three years afterward the echoes of that celestial music rang ceaselessly in his ears (Mary A. Tennent, Light in Darkness: The Life of William Tennent, Sr. and The Log College, pp. 104-105).

So William thus narrowly escaped being buried alive, and eventually was ordained to the ministry, and lived a full life until sickness and death overtook him in 1777. The story of his trance was widely discussed, with some understanding it in natural and others in supernatural terms.

Boudinot wrote: “The pious and candid reader is left to his own reflection on the very extraordinary occurrence. The facts have been stated and they are unquestionable. The writer will only ask whether it is contrary to the revealed truth or to reason to believe that in every age of the world, instances like that here recorded have occurred to furnish living testimony to the reality of the invisible world, and the infinite importance of eternal concerns” (Life of the Rev. William Tennent, p. 24).

Archibald Alexander did not view the trance as anything more than what could be “accounted for on natural principles.” Although there was other event in William’s life that led Alexander to conclude that God does still interpose in human affairs by means of dreams - a man and his wife who came from Maryland to Trenton, New Jersey after having both experienced the same dream whereby they were called to come to the aid of a Mr. Tennent who was in great distress. In fact, at the time they found him in Trenton he was facing a false charge of perjury for having served as a witness for the defense of a fellow minister accused of robbery under a case of mistaken identity. The arrival of the man and his wife from Maryland, who had previous contact with him, was helpful in establishing an alibi for William during his trial, and led to a verdict on “not guilty” on William’s behalf. It was a remarkable end to a troublesome situation (Biographical Sketches of the Founder, and Principal Alumni of the Log College, pp. 192-200, 222-231).

Back to William’s trace, Mary Tennent, writing in 1971, says: “Of course the simple explanation is that after a long and devastating illness, in a state of exhaustion and weakness, he sank into a coma from which he was at length aroused by the continuous efforts of his friend, the doctor. The vivid dream occurring during the few moments of returning consciousness was the natural result of his last conscious anxiety concerning his soul, while the tremendous surge of happiness at seeing and hearing the angelic choir was but a subconscious wish fulfillment” (Light in the Darkness: The Story of William Tennent, Sr. and The Log College, p. 105).

Many other fascinating anecdotes are recorded about William by Boudinot and Alexander. One that is mentioned by the latter, but not the former. One night he awoke from his sleep with intense pain in one foot. It seems that several of his toes had been cleanly amputated, although the toes were not to be found, nor was there any bloody trail or blade was found. There was simply no explanation for the event, which left him minus several toes. Whether he was a sleepwalker who had an accident or whether something else natural or supernatural occurred, we have no way of knowing.

This is just one of many extraordinary events in the life of an extraordinary man. The biographies consulted above are worth perusing to learn more about this remarkable figure and his place in church history.

Tennent, Jr., William, The Remarkable Trance of Rev. William Tennent.jpg

That a New Generation May Read the Old Stories

Mary A. Tennent (1890-1971) was a descendant of William Tennent, Sr., founder of the original Log College in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania. In the introduction to her valuable work Light in Darkness: The Story of William Tennent, Sr. and the Log College (1971), she speaks of reading Elias Boudinot IV’s biography of William Tennent, Jr., and how his words impacted her.

Boudinot began his memoir with these words: “Among the duties every generation owes to those whose example deserves and may invite imitation…and when such men have been remarkably favored of God with an unusual degree of light and knowledge…it becomes the duty of more than ordinary obligation to hand down to posterity the principal events of their lives which if known might edify and benefit the world.” While his words referred to William Tennent, Jr., they were even more applicable to his father William Tennent, Sr., for he not only possessed an unusual degree of light and knowledge but faithfully handed it on to his sons and students in the small but significant school he founded and presided over for nineteen years.

On re-reading Boudinot’s memoir of William Tennent, Jr., I was struck with these words: “A neglect of this duty (that of handing down to posterity the events of the lives of those deserving commemoration) even by persons who may be conscious of the want of abilities necessary for the complete biographer, is greatly culpable and no excuse for burying in oblivion that conduct which if known might edify and benefit the world.” Thus encouraged, this work was begun not with any idea of edifying the world, but with the small hope that one or more of his descendants may be inspired to emulate him.

The story of America’s first Log College involves remarkable people who did remarkable things. Many writers at our site and elsewhere have undertaken to tell that story. One such writer was Archibald Alexander, who authored Biographical Sketches of the Founder, and Principal Alumni of the Log College (1845), in which he stated:

If I were fond of projects, I would propose that a monument be erected to the founder of the Log College on the very site where the building stood, if the land could be purchased; but at any rate a stone with an inscription might be permanently fixed on or near the ground. The tradition respecting this humble institution of learning exists, not only in the neighbourhood, but has been extended far to the south and west.

A bicentennial stone monument was indeed established at the appropriate site in Warminster, Pennsylvania in 1927, which tells of the legacy of the Log College. The Log College story is not just about the Tennent family, or even the College of New Jersey (Princeton) - the original Log College is the birthplace of something and represents, in the words of Thomas Murphy, “the cradle of the Presbyterian Church in America.” Now here in 2019, by republishing early American Presbyterian literature, and by making known the stories of early America’s Presbyterian leaders in the digital age, Log College Press is working to ensure that a new generation can learn about the hand of God at work in the history of his church. The Log College story has extended far and wide, beyond boundaries imagined by Archibald Alexander, and we are pleased to be a part of those who make it known today.

Read our authors and our biographies and autobigraphies, study church history, and peruse our other topical pages, as well as the new Log College Review. And be sure to explore our bookstore and secondary sources page for many more resources. The story of the cradle of the American Presbyterian Church is a story for the ages, including our own.