Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Peter Jones - Sacred Feathers - and the Mississauga Indians (3) Opposition and Challenges

Written by Rev. Ken Herfst
The last instalment described the impact Christianity had on the natives that were converted under the ministry of Peter Jones, an Ojibway Indian, during the first half of the 19th century in the area near the Credit River and the Grand River in southern Ontario.
From the Natives
During the years 1825 to 1827, Peter Jones (Sacred Feathers) regularly trekked to native communities, covering the area along the Thames to the St. Lawrence River, from the north shore of Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe and Rice Lake. Among some groups he received a warm welcome and God blessed the preaching to the point where small groups of Christians were formed. PeterÕs preaching in the Ojibwa language time and again proved key in helping the various related native groups to understand the message of the gospel and to see that that gospel was for non-whites as well.

Not all were convinced, however, and in some places opposition to Òthe white manÕs religionÓ was stiff. For example, Chief Tomiko of Munceytown, south of London, responded that his tribe wanted nothing to do with Christianity. He said: Òthe Whites are Christians and it makes them no better. They have done us much injury. By various pretences they have cheated us out of our lands.Ó Another chief on Walpole Island received Peter Jones warmly, but then, after hearing the gospel, stated as a matter of fact that they would not change their religion. He asked: ÒWhy should they? Was the whiteÕs religion better?Ó He agreed with Jones that alcohol had destroyed Indian societies, but asked, ÒWho makes the firewater? Who sells it to the Indian? Who lies and cheats the Indian? I will hold fast to the religion of my forefathers, and follow them to the Far West.Ó Traditionalists among tribes in the St. Clair area refused to receive the gospel as well.

Yet, there were a few important conversions among the most resistant tribes. Some of these led to intense persecution. In 1827, a young man was converted. Constant taunts and physical abuse finally led to his suicide in 1831. The Saugeen tribe readily embraced Christianity in 1829. By 1831, nearly half of the tribe joined the Methodist Church. However, that spring, the chiefÕs lifeless body was found. It was clear that he had been murdered and the band believed that traditionalists were responsible.

Jones saw these events as evidence of the spiritual conflict in which he was engaged. He had no doubts about this, and later wrote: Òif witchcraft still exists in the world, it is to be found among the aborigines of America.Ó This opposition simply furthered JonesÕ resolve to Òerect the standard of the cross throughout south west Ontario.Ó

From the Church
The traditionalists were not the only ones Jones had to contend with in the opposition to the gospel. In the years following the War with the Americans, Jones worked with them. Many politicians saw Methodism as being an American import with American interests controlling the work among the natives. By 1828, the Methodists established an independent Upper Canadian Church in response to the anti-American sentiments. Still, men like Sir Peregrine Maitland, the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, and Reverend John Strachan of the Anglican Church, viewed the Methodists with marked suspicion. Maitland viewed the IndiansÕ affiliation with the Church of England as a prerequisite for government support. Through the agents assigned to Indian Affairs it was made abundantly clear that if they attended any more Methodist camp meetings, they would be Ôcast off.Õ The Mississauga Band refused to renounce Methodism. Strachan tried to woo Jones and some of the other leaders to join the Anglican Church and promised that they could study at the college that was being planned at York and so enter the ministry of the Church of England.

Jones could not be enticed and writes in his diary: ÒWas man not a free agent with a Ôright to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience?Õ Did not the kingÕs laws grant all his subjects the liberty Ôto worship God as they felt it their dutyÉ If a man thought it right to retire to the woods to pray, who had a right to prevent him?Õ Ó

Later, Sir John Colborne replaced Maitland and was somewhat more sympathetic to the Methodist cause. He was impressed by the social transformation he saw at the Credit River village. At the same time, he was leery of American Methodists and wanted to replace them with religious teachers from England. An attempt was made to recruit British Wesleyans to Upper Canada. Sir John tried to duplicate the Credit River settlement in other parts of the province. Despite promises to leave Methodist converts alone, he employed Anglican clergy to teach at new settlements near Lake Simcoe. Without native assistants, however, the plan failed.

The governmentÕs plan to promote the Church of England confused the natives. As Egerton Ryerson wrote, Òthe first Mississauga converts Ôsupposed that there was but one kind or denomination of Christians.Õ Ó The Indian Affairs agents spoke about and promoted Òthe KingÕs religion.Ó The natives also learned of the ÒFrench religionÓ or Roman Catholicism. This turned out to be more of a threat to Jones than anything he had faced before.

During the French regime, the Jesuits had worked among Algonquin peoples throughout the Great Lakes area. With the British conquest, they left the area and moved to present-day Quebec. There the mission was run by Sulpicians in Montreal and continued to attract natives from Upper Canada. One of their early converts was Jean-Baptiste Assiginack or ÔBlackbird.Õ He became a catalyst for a Roman Catholic resurgence in the Upper Lakes area. Blackbird was appointed missionary by the local priest and was effective in teaching in his native language. He worked tirelessly and Òpreached to his people and taught them how to pray to God and to the Virgin Mary and all the saints and angels in heaven.Ó Jones had opportunity to hear him in 1830 and was impressed with his oratory skills. Blackbird moved down from Penetanguishene to the Lake Simcoe area in 1832 where he exercised great influence.

JonesÕ Response
In view of such formidable opposition, Jones sought to strengthen the Methodist cause in southern Ontario. He traveled to New York City, where he spoke at the tenth anniversary of the Missionary Society. The tour proved to be successful and included speeches at Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston. Overcoming his initial fear to speak to large white audiences, he pleaded for more missionaries.

During this time, Peter Jones was not only in the employ of the Methodists, but Rev. William Case, the first superintendent of Canada still supervised him closely. So much so, in fact, that Jones approached Case for permission to marry. By this time he was twenty-seven years old and had found a woman at the Credit River he wanted to marry. Case, however, thought that Jones was too valuable at this juncture for work among the natives and felt that he needed to be totally free to work among other people. Besides, finances for the mission were not the best and as there was no permanent fund to support native workers, he saw no way to allow this marriage to take place.

This financial crisis led the Canadian missionaries to look to England for funding. Case wanted to convert the natives of Upper Canada to Methodism. Part of his vision was to teach promising young converts so that they in turn could teach at native schools. They needed translators, teachers, interpreters and pastors. All of that required money and British Methodists annually collected fifteen times as much as their American counterparts. Church leaders in Canada decided there was only one thing to do: send a Canadian delegation to England to generate interest and funds for the work. Peter Jones was selected and on March 24, 1831, he accompanied Rev. George Ryerson, EgertonÕs brother. After a stopover in New York, they reached Liverpool on April 30.

Peter Jones attracted considerable attention in England. He spoke for the Methodist Mission, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Naval and Military Bible Society, at the anniversary of the London Missionary Society (before some four or five thousand people), and the London Religious Tract Society. Jones recognized that his identity as a North American native attracted considerable attention. ÒI am gazed upon as if I were some strange animal,Ó he wrote home. For almost a year, he preached and spoke, wearing native dress. He delivered sixty sermons and gave one hundred speeches on the history and way of life of Canadian natives. In some places eager listeners were turned away by the hundreds because there was simply no room in the chapels.

In addition to speaking, Jones had the opportunity to visit with leading Christian thinkers and theologians of the day, including Dr. Adam Clarke and Richard Watson. He enjoyed all the conversation and hospitality during his travels. At the same time, inequities between the rich and poor troubled him deeply. He heard the most eloquent sermons in the most beautiful churches he had ever seen. Yet, in this same ÔChristianÕ land, he heard people curse and saw men and women drunk in the streets. It puzzled him.

During this year of speaking and preaching, Peter carried on with his work of translating and revising parts of the New Testament for the British and Foreign Bible Society. He corrected his brother JohnÕs translation of the Gospel of John. The Gospel of Matthew had already been printed in York.

Jones Meets Eliza
And finally, this same year, Jones fell sick of pneumonia. While recuperating, a young woman visited his hosts. These visits became more frequent, and before Peter returned to Canada in April of 1832, he proposed marriage to Eliza Field. Her parents were quite well to do. Charles Field, her father, was a devout Christian who belonged to the Surrey Chapel, founded and led by Rev. Rowland Hill. Hill was one of the leaders of the Anglican revival and has been termed one of the last great evangelicals to be mightily used of God to address religious indifference and nominalism.

Like many people of that day, Eliza kept a diary. Unfortunately, her diary for 1831 has not survived. However, a close friend, Martha Woods, wrote of her impressions of Peter Jones:

June 12th É What I wish to record of him is that he is an
exemplary Christian, a man of deep piety, great humility and
Christian simplicity, walking closely with God--in short, he is a
Bible ChristianÉ The above traits of character have all been
eminently exhibited under our roof during a season of affliction
which put to the test all his gracesÉ The Physician who attended
him had very considerable doubt of his recovery for some timeÉ He
has so won the hearts of all our family by his temper and
affability of manners together with his gratitude for all that
has been done for him.

Evidently, Peter won ElizaÕs heart as well. Although he candidly warned Eliza of the prejudice she would face on the part of white settlers, Eliza could not be deterred. She took a ship from Liverpool and on September 8, 1832, Peter and Eliza were married in New York.

To be continued.
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