Jerusha Swain and Single Female Missionaries (1822-1862)

In any generation, a single young white female departing an educated, somewhat affluent home in New England, a traditional lighthouse of Western Civilization, for a land populated by a different race and culture of people half a continent and two thousand miles away, would represent a notable undertaking. For 30-year-old Vermont native Jerusha Swain in mid-19th-century America, it stood as nothing less than audacious, not to mention dangerous and uncertain by nearly every human measurement.


Upon arriving on the frontier in present Sequoyah County at the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions’ (ABCFM) Dwight Mission to the Cherokee tribe in 1852, Swain embraced a plethora of responsibilities. She taught sewing classes to the Cherokee women, as well as countless other domestic arts practices, counseled, mediated disputes, and provided spiritual encouragement and instruction.


The ABCFM designated serving as a “surrogate mother” to Cherokee girls as one of her most important assignments. She did this for numerous Natives during her decade-long service at Dwight Mission. Teaching school to the Indigenous people in the area represented her other crucial undertaking.


Letters Swain wrote and received from back home took around three weeks to arrive. One she wrote to her mother not long after arriving among the Cherokees chronicled a typical Lord’s Day. Sabbath School (Bible education) ran from 10 to 11 a.m. Around 20 Indians attended, mostly from her school class. Worship began at noon. She struggled to focus on the sermon as an interpreter relayed it, and Rev. Willey the preacher struggled with the absence of his normal interpreter, who had left to attend seminary.


She provided her mother additional written windows into a different and far away world:


“I should like to have you see our congregation just once. I know that you would be interested in them, for they are an interesting people. But they do not look much like a New England congregation either in dress or appearance. The men almost all wear a sort of hunting frock instead of a coat, they are made generally of calico and ruffled all round, but sometimes of some kind of checked flannel which they manufacture themselves. They are made about like your old calico sack that you wear to wash in, the women some of them wear sunbonnets, but the full blooded Cherokees all wear handkerchiefs on their heads, they will come in & sit till they get tired & then perhaps jump up & run out, sometimes the same ones going out & coming in two or three times during service.”


Christianity over Culture


As with any cross cultural enterprise, not least Christian missions, cultural practices and biases challenge all parties. Swain, her fellow New England missionaries of the time, and the ABCFM all evidenced this. The greatness of the Christian civilization that New England in that and earlier generations embodied so well propelled the region to some of the greatest mission enterprises of its or any other era. Its blindnesses and narrow-mindedness hampered these efforts, and in the case of the ABCFM, finally ended its direct involvement in Indian Territory.


The ABCFM’s ability, however, to draw men and women of such character that they eventually practiced the ideals animating the organization even more faithfully than it did, lives as a lasting legacy. Jerusha Swain stood in the vanguard of that remarkable company. She and others dared shed sometimes-treasured cultural perspectives and practices, upon discovering they varied not only with those of the Natives, but the Scriptures.


Swain, for instance, as related by her biographer Meg Devlin O’Sullivan, served as a foster parent for numerous mixed and full-blood young Cherokee girls between 1852 and 1861. One of these Rosela Talley, was a lovely, articulate, 16-year-old, eager to learn and whose mother attended school at Dwight Mission. Swain seemed delighted to serve, befriend, and house this young woman in her log cabin.


Ten-year-old Nancy Watts also lived with her. An awkward, sometimes sullen full-blood and orphan, she proved more challenging. Yet when the outbreak of the Civil War compelled Swain to leave the Cherokee country, she desperately wanted to take Nancy with her.


“I have not the means of taking her home with me if I should go, or any way to support her,” Swain wrote her mother, “I would love to take her if I knew there was any way for her to get a living when she got there.”


How human were the struggles and feelings of this intrepid Christ-bearer, even concerning her greatest passions in life: “I fear I have not in my heart any real love for souls, or desire for their salvation. I have such a reluctance to saying anything to them on the subject.”


Yet, her life bore witness that, unlike most people, her actions far excelled her words. For in the same letter as she wrote her mother the preceding thoughts, she penned these:


“O what a solemn thought, that they have all of their immortal souls to be saved or lost. How much may be depending on me on the influence that I exert on their souls, what shall be their future state, fearful responsibility! Who is sufficient for these things? Three of my dear pupils have lately hoped that they had given their hearts to the Savior. Pray for them my dear Mother that they may hold out to the end, and will you not pray for me so that I may be fitted for my work…”


Abolition over Christianity


As with the Byingtons, the Kingsburys, and other ABCFM missionaries, the organization eventually established the abolition of slavery as a higher priority than the spreading of the gospel of Christ—that is, than the deliverance of souls from eternal damnation—in those areas where slavery, still legally protected, continued. It pressured its Indian Territory missionaries to declare slaveholding a sin and excommunicate anyone involved in the practice. As with others among the Five Civilized Tribes, this encompassed many Cherokees.


The ABCFM, according to Swain, a New Englander and no proponent of slavery, “have been wanting to get rid of us and have harped on the slavery question for that very reason, but they could not bring us into a position to make that bear, so now changing their tactics they take the ground that the (Cherokee) nation is Christianized.”


Animosities fueled by sectional disputes over slavery, economics, the Constitution, and the dawn of war itself, spurred the ABCFM to terminate its financial support of Swain and other Dwight Mission clergy in early 1861. These and other such actions gutted the organization’s once-luminous missionary prowess.


Swain rejoined her parents, then living in Wisconsin. Her focus on others, though, continued. For instance, in July 1862, as the War Between the States raged, she admonished the ABCFM to provide for another former missionary, now penniless. Swain declared she “would gladly do all that I could for her, but I feel that my own life is rapidly wasting away from the effects of a malignant cancer.”


That cancer would end her mortal life at age 40 a few months later.


What a remarkable testament her life etched, and that God wrote upon her life. O’Sullivan wrote that Swain “was able to redefine her conceptions of race and recognize the humanity of the people she came to serve.” For when she departed Indian Territory the year before dying, she wrote:


“I feel sad at the thought of leaving for I have been here so long that I have some very dear friends that it will be hard to part from, and I have become so much assimilated to the people that I feel more like a Cherokee than anything else. I hardly know how I can act in civilized society.”

 

She and others dared shed sometimes-treasured cultural perspectives and practices, upon discovering they varied not only with those of the Natives, but the Scriptures.

 

Commencing thus early in life, to march along the path of temperance, these youthful soldiers, now the beauty and hope of our country, and hereafter to become its mothers, fathers, laborers, law-givers, and guides, must exercise an immense influence, and perhaps are those destined to consummate the great cause in which they have enlisted.

—William Ross

 

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