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Servants of the Choctaws

Every so often, the true makers of history, those who impact the destinies of men, women, and children, find their way into a book that purports to present as representative history the acts of an exclusive company of the most talented, ambitious, strong, and grotesque. Cyrus (1793-1868) and Sophie (1800-1880) Byington, like others after them (OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapters 3, 4, et al) forsook opportunities that might have brought them fortune, fame, and comfort.

Instead, they labored as Christian missionaries in perpetual borderline poverty at rough remote stations serving folk their own society ignored or, literally, removed from their presence. They did so amidst conflict with friends, accusations from friends and enemies alike, and brutal war. And they did not forsake those they served even until death.

A Massachusetts native, Cyrus studied and practiced law as a young man. In his late 20s, he devoted his life to the spreading of the Christian gospel as a missionary to the Choctaws under the auspices of the prestigious American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). That organization served as the primary mission agency for two prominent denominations in the Northern United States, the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians. Byington belonged to the latter.

This sketch of the Byingtons owes much to historian David Baird’s masterful and inspiring essay “Cyrus Byington and the Presbyterian Mission,” in OU Press’s book Churchmen and the Western Indians, 1820-1920. Baird cites Byington’s early recognition of the advantages of reaching an unchurched people in their own vernacular as a key to his and his wife’s enduring success.

Soon after joining the ABCFM’s Choctaw mission in 1821, he set about learning the language. Since no one had committed it to writing, he toiled for years to do so. Soon, though, he could preach to the Natives in their own language. He developed a Choctaw grammar book, dictionary, and spelling book.

Historian Angie Debo mined additional resources that the Byingtons and their colleagues provided their Choctaw friends to establish and sustain them in a new faith, one that claimed to unlock the door to fulfilling earthly life and a secure, blissful eternal one:

“These publications consisted of hymn books, moral lectures, biographical sketches of pious Indians, the Westminster Catechism, and numerous doctrinal tracts on such formidable subjects as ‘Regeneration, Repentance, and Judgment,’ ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,’ ‘Salvation by Faith, and Other Pieces,’ and ‘Fraud Detected and Exposed.’”

All of these aimed to help facilitate the Christianization of the tribe.

Tunnapinchuffa the Valiant

Indeed, when Tunnapinchuffa, a 50ish Choctaw, trusted in Jesus Christ in the late 1820s for salvation, thus embracing the Christian faith that had embraced him, he became the first known Choctaw, with thousands soon to join him, to follow a way few had even directly known of prior to their contact with the Byingtons and their fellow Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries. Tunnapinchuffa helped vindicate a then-controversial theory of Cyrus Byington’s: forcing Christian converts to forsake those cultural practices and traditions of their people not antithetical to Christianity, while adopting those of New England whites, not only fell outside the requirements of the Gospel for salvation, it could hinder them. Baird well chronicled how the stalwart Choctaw persevered in both his faith and his Choctaw heritage:

“He spent much time in fervent and expressive prayer, describing himself and his people in deprecating terms and asking God to take pity upon them. On frequent occasions he exhorted his family and friends to throw away their ‘black and dirty garments,’ and he worked diligently at transforming his own ‘bad thoughts’ and overcoming the temptation of strong drink. His new life-style brought ridicule and even pity from some quarters, but he persevered in his conversion despite the costs…Tunnapinchuffa ‘adorns his profession,’ wrote one (Presbyterian missionary), being a ‘man of prayer; very industrious, meek and humble; a good but not a great man.’ The old gentleman retained his Christian commitment until his death in June, 1834, becoming an elder in the church and composing original hymns that were later published.

“At the same time Tunnapinchuffa never lost his unique Choctaw identity…He also utilized the services of native doctors until late in life, despite the disapproval of the missionaries…like all other full-blood Choctaws, Tunapinchuffa was vigorously opposed to removal of the tribe from its homeland. Moreover, he accepted Divine Grace without abandoning his native tongue; indeed, he never learned English.”

West with Choctaws

A vigorous, progressive people, many Choctaws intermarried with whites, and the tribe as a whole embraced the religion, education, commercial practices, and culture of white Christian American civilization. This compounded their frustration with President Andrew Jackson’s dogged determination to remove them and other southeastern tribes to west of the Mississippi River through the government’s notorious Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Taking account of the Choctaws’ dramatic spiritual progress, their Presbyterian missionaries stood up against fellow whites in the U.S. government, military officials, settlers near the Choctaw lands, and elsewhere, and urged that the Natives not be forced to emigrate west.The Byingtons suffered no confusion as to the morality of removal. Cyrus declared it “cruel and unjust.” Saintly, courageous wife Sophie wrote of Andrew Jackson as “that wicked man.”

Sadly, Jackson and his thousands of bayonets represented but the tip of the spear that was the American public’s westward surge. That public’s will forced the Choctaws west in several disease, starvation, and exposure-ravaged migrations during the early 1830s. The transformative nature of the Christian gospel permeated even this pitiable event, however, as converted tribal chiefs David Folsom and Greenwood LeFlore encouraged their folk to accept God’s Providential hand in the ordeal.

“For myself, I do not feel distressed now as I have been,” Folsom wrote. “If it is the will of our Heavenly Father that we should go, we shall go. But if it is not, we shall stay.” By the time of removal, Tunnapinchuffa and thousands of other Choctaws had followed in the pilgrim way, cooperated with what many, even if painfully, saw as God’s hand in moving them west, and showed the world valor and determination in rebuilding their country in a new land.

In light of the Trails of Tears and other Native suffering related to Christian-influenced early American society, many moderns condemn the imperfect enterprises of missionaries toward North American Indian tribes. Little remembered in modern times, though, are the dark but accepted practices that Christian civilization confronted among the tribes, including the Choctaws, and sought to correct. These included conjuring (witchcraft or sorcery), murdering accused witches, polygamy, adultery, and even infanticide.

Repeatedly through the 19th century, missionaries and some of their supporters in various denominations sounded lonely voices among white America for the rights and sometimes physical safety of the Natives. The Choctaws thought enough of the Byingtons and their fellow missionaries’ efforts that they urged them to accompany them west.

Slavery and War

Like all people who undertake daunting tasks that others won’t, Cyrus and Sophie Byington experienced many and deep frustrations and disappointments. Critics harped from every direction. One of the most hurtful issues concerned the practice of slavery, introduced to the tribe back in the southeast by whites who married in, well before the Presbyterians began their mission efforts there. Some whites—many of them erstwhile supporters and friends—accused the Byingtons of accommodating, even supporting slavery, while others criticized them as abolitionists.

Most ABCFM board members fell into the first category. Many of their New England ancestors had owned their own slaves until a couple of generations before. They no longer did because, unlike farther south, the practice had not proven economically feasible in the northeast. Realizing this, many of these Yankee predecessors, however, did not free their slaves—they sold them to Southerners.

The hard truth is, slavery was a practice with weighty Scriptural arguments both for and against its abolition. The Constitution leaned even stronger against abolition. Plus, as described by historian Baird, the Byingtons and their colleagues swallowed much abolitionist censure from people living in a section where, instead of wearing the same garments for years as in the Choctaw country, they wear only “new clothes.” Rather than toiling themselves to build roughhewn frame church houses, as did the Presbyterian missionaries in Indian Territory, at least one New England church paid $1,000 (tens of thousands of dollars in 21st-century currency) for one window.

No proponent of slavery, Cyrus Byington frequently and publicly spoke of its “evils and horrors.” Still, contrasted with the crowded masses of white Irish exiles forced from home by plague, famine, and English tyranny, then welcomed with squalor and hatred in New England Boston, where many of his accusers lived, Byington declared, “the negroes on Mountain Fork are princes,” and “no laboring population on the globe” received both the material and spiritual sustenance that they did.

A little more than a year before the outbreak of the War Between the States, the ACBFM terminated its support of the Choctaw mission effort, though it authorized lifetime pensions for Byington and Kingsbury in recognition of their long and faithful service. The missionaries declined the pensions and affiliated with their own Presbyterian denomination’s mission effort, then with that portion which became the Southern Presbyterian Church upon the outbreak of war and the Choctaw Presbyterians’ affiliation with it.

The war for Southern independence, however, grew horrific for the Confederate States, not least with missionaries like the Byingtons receiving virtually no financial support from their new denomination. They could shoulder that ordeal better than most, however, since the ABCFM had never paid them more than a bare livelihood.

The Civil War years proved the crucible upon which the Byingtons’ enduring legacy was forged. Scant income, vicious fighting and disease ravaging his parishioners, the constant threat of danger from regular and irregular Federal troops (pro-Federal Indians burned down the Methodist-Episcopal Church’s Fort Coffee Academy in the Choctaw country), and the sorrow of seeing decades of toil seemingly melt away in the face of brutal war all conspired to leave Cyrus rent with sickness by the end of the fighting. Frail, sickly, and worn, he would live only three more years. Yet he stood in the gap for the Choctaws throughout the nightmarish ordeal, preaching, marrying, burying, and sacrificially continuing to minister without complaint.

Loss and Legacy

The Byingtons faced innumerable other pains, including separations from one another and other family members, delays in various hopes and plans, and even failures to get major, heartfelt projects published in Cyrus’s lifetime, such as the grammar book he labored over for a quarter-century and a large Choctaw-English dictionary. Cyrus’s response regarding the ABCFM’s rejection of his grammar book typified this spirited yet humble Christian servant: “The Lord will take care of this book and me too. I needed something to bring me down.”

The Byingtons’ greatest challenges, however, came in bearing the deaths of all three of their sons. Their relationship with one another and their children by all accounts exemplified the model of Christian family love and unity, despite many geographical separations. When Horatio, their youngest, died in Cyrus’s arms when only 2 ½ years old, Sophie declared it “dissolved earth’s charms for me” and Cyrus wrote, “It was best for me that I should be humbled by his death and be more weaned from this world and be better prepared for death.”

By 1848, Cyrus, Cyrus Kingsbury, Alfred Wright, Loring Williams, and Choctaws Jonathan Dwight and Pliny Fisk had already ramrodded the writing of 57 publications, with nearly 100,000 copies in print. In addition to the earlier-mentioned projects, this included a “definer” for Choctaw schools, hymnbooks, biographies of biblical heroes, several Old Testament books, and the entire New Testament. By the outbreak of the war, more than 10 percent of all Choctaws had joined the Presbyterian Church, which required a profession of Christian faith and apparent adherence to it. Another 10 percent had joined other churches, such as Baptist and Methodist.

On the final day of 1868, Cyrus Byington, age 75 and full of years, he and Sophie deeply and devotedly in love for 41 years of marriage, died, blessedly while visiting daughter Lucy in Ohio, with Sophie. She lived another 12 years.

“His life shows conclusively to me,” said the great Choctaw chief Folsom, “and ought to those who were the objects of his Christian love and training, that to live and die for the cause of Christ is great gain.”

Byington’s beloved friend and colleague Kingsbury said simply, “He endured unto the end.”


The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book

Oklahomans Vol 2 :


which can be purchased HERE.

View the inspiring preview video HERE.

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