The Ordination Sermon of John Huss

(If the author links in this post are broken, please visit our Free PDF Library and click on the author’s page directly.)

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.