Three Indian Catechisms by American Presbyterian Ministers

The Reformed Faith has long been a missional faith, and America’s early Presbyterians had an interest in propagating the Gospel among the Native Americans. The first Presbyterian minister America sent as a missionary to Indians on Long Island was Rev. Azariah Horton (1715-1777).

Another early Presbyterian minister, Rev. Abraham Pierson (c. 1611-1678), composed a catechism for Algonquian Native Americans, in the Quiripi language of Connecticut and Long Island, under the title Some Helps For the Indians. The catechism was designed to show them that there was one God, and then to teach them about Gospel of Christ. It is an interesting piece, and a helpful one in understanding how Catechisms have been used to help people of every tribe and tongue to understand the Gospel of Christ. Like John Eliot’s A Primer or Catechism in the Massachusetts Indian Language (1654), Pierson’s catechism borrows much material from William Perkins’ The Foundation of Christian Religion Gathered Into Six Principles (1558).

In the 19th century, Stephen Return Riggs (1812-1883) served as a missionary to the Sioux or Dakota Indians of the Great Plains. He did much to translate the Scriptures into their language, and published a Dakota Catechism as well. His autobiography — Mary and I, or Forty Years with the Sioux — is a fascinating account of his missionary endeavors.

Additionally, Amory Nelson Chamberlin (1824-1894) is worthy of mention. In the War Between the States, Chamberlin served as a scout and quartermaster for Brigadier General Stand Watie, a Cherokee leader who fought for the Confederacy (together with his brother Buck Watie, later known as Elias Boudinot, Stand Watie had earlier written articles for The Cherokee Phoenix, the first Native American newspaper). After the War, Chamberlin followed in his father’s and grandfather’s steps to become a Presbyterian missionary to the Cherokee Indians, who typically preached his sermons bilingually. After persistent requests, he received a press which used the Cherokee font (the written alphabet was developed by Sequoyah only in 1821) and he used that to publish such valuable works as The Shorter Catechism With Proofs in Cherokee (1892), and the Cherokee Pictorial Book: With Catechism and Hymns (1888), a partial PDF of which may be found at Log College Press.

Catechisms have long been a useful tool to inculcate knowledge, and these Quiripi, Dakota and Cherokee catechisms provide a window into the lengths to which American Presbyterian missionaries have gone historically to help Native Americans to better understand Scriptural truths in their own languages. For further study on 19th century American Presbyterian missionary labors on behalf of the Indians, see Michael C. Coleman, Presbyterian Missionary Attitudes toward American Indians, 1837-1893.

The Story of a Dedicated Life

The story of American Presbyterian missionary to India Joseph Owen (1814-1870) is a fascinating and inspiring tale. It is told in a biographical sketch by William Rankin, Jr. in Memorials of Foreign Missionaries of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. and in a full-length biography by James Clement Moffat ("his earliest and dearest friend"), The Story of a Dedicated Life.

Born in Bedford, New York, Joseph Owen completed his undergraduate studies and theological training at Princeton. In 1840, after being appointed a missionary in the service of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, he sailed to India by way of Boston, Massachusetts, and around the Cape of Good Hope. He would spend the next 28 years of his life serving the Presbyterian Church in Northern India, in Allahabad. His commitment to the missionary cause of Jesus Christ was rock solid, but the pains of separation from family and friends were deep. 

"Dedication to missionary work had become a part of himself. It had ceased to be a question before his mind. As such it had been closed up long ago, never more to be opened. It was the decree of God for him. He knew that it would cost self-denial. But his mind was made up for self-denial. What it would cost was no longer to be considered. He had summed up all that when he gave himself to the Lord. Nor was this separation from all he loved most dearly upon earth designed to be temporary. In his view it was final. The devotion of himself was without reserve. It was to live and die in his work" (Moffat, p. 8).

While in India, besides his preaching endeavors, he also completed an edition of the Old Testament in Hindi, and commentaries on Isaiah and the Psalms in the Urdu language (as a student at Princeton in Biblical literature and Oriental languages "he earned the highest commendations of Dr. Joseph Addison Alexander"). He married twice during his time in India, and when his course was finished, he left behind two children as well. In 1869, he determined to leave India for a short time in order to visit Europe and America with a plan to return to India to spend the remainder of his days. It was in Edinburgh, Scotland, however, before ever returning to America, that he became sick with dysentery and ultimately passed away on December 4, 1870, in the presence of Dr. Robert S. Candlish. He conveyed his final warmest regards to the flock he left behind in Allahabad: "Tell them to be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, not seeking merely after worldly advancement, but seeking first the service of Christ." "Tell them that I have never for a moment regretted that I went as a missionary. I only regret that I was not more faithful."

So closed the chapter on a dedicated missionary servant of the Lord Jesus Christ whose name is barely known today, although it is written in the precious Book of Life. Get to know his story in the writings of Moffat and Rankin because it is the story of an ordinary man who performed extraordinary service for the kingdom of God in the land of India. 

A 19th Century American Presbyterian Commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism

If I asked you for a list of commentaries on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, chances are this two volume set by Ashbel Green wouldn't be on it. But you can find it here, written for the youth of his day. He also published a history of Presbyterian mission work during the 19th century. There's more Ashbel Green material out there to be found, so check back again soon.