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John Deckenback recounts church history of Inland NW

Central Atlantic Conference Minister John Deckenback attended the PNC Annual Meeting and was one of the storytellers, recounting the history of the church in the Inland Northwest.


John Deckenback shares his research on early missionaries.                  

When he was at Whitworth University studying sociology,  his senior project was to do research on the history and future of downtown Spokane.  In 1968, he did not anticipate that this would be the World’s Fair site that would transform downtown.  He and his wife, Carolyn Roberts, also a Whitworth graduate, visit Spokane frequently to visit her family.  Their  son also studied at Whitworth from 2001 through 2006.

On one of the visits, John met Bill Robinson, who was then president of Whitworth.  Bill suggested that John consider studying the impact of the early missionaries on the region as a possible sabbatical project.  At the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC), he discovered a treasure trove of information on this period.

Among the Mac’s collections are research files of Clifford Drury, a Presbyterian historian, who began research on early missionaries in the 1930s, in anticipation of the centennial of their arrival.

In the early 1880s, students at Williams College in Massachusetts took shelter under a haystack in a thunder storm, said John.  The “haystack prayer meeting” led to establishing the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which sent missionaries around the globe, including to what became the Whitman Mission to Old Oregon.

Nez Perce, Spokane, Cayuse and Coeur d’Alene tribes each had about 2,000 members in the early 19th century.  The Spokane tribe lived inthe area that is in and around what is now Spokane. 

The missionaries were not the first Europeans to come. First, there were trappers and entrepreneurs with the Hudson’s Bay Company.  They came through Canada to escape the ruggedness of the Rockies.  The Hudson’s Bay Co. sent young Native Americans to school in Toronto. 

Europeans brought with them smallpox and measles, for which Native Americans had no immunity.  Many died. 

“Word of what had happened to Native American tribes on the East Coast had filtered to the Northwest,” John said.  “A small group of Nez Perce went to St. Louis in search of the ‘white man’s book’.”

On behalf of the American Board, Samuel Parker retraced the route of the Lewis and Clark to determine if the region was suitable for a mission effort.

His traveling companion, Dr. Marcus Whitman, decided to organize a mission party.

These Congregationalists and Presbyterians came before Catholics.  Their mission was in four locations:  just west of Walla Walla, east Lewiston, at Lapwai and Kamiah and at Tshimakain near Chewelah at the southeastern gate of what is now the Spokane Reservation.

ABCFM rules required missionaries to be married, so missionaries did a few days of speed dating and married.  Their wives were the “First White Women over the Rockies,” the title of a book by Drury.

“The women were full partners in the mission, raising children, gardening, cooking, participating in meetings, teaching Sunday school and leading Bible studies,” he said, “but they were not allowed to vote on mission business.  They established the first Women’s Aid Society in Old Oregon.

Marcus and Narcissa Whitman established their mission near Walla Walla on what would become the Oregon Trail, a busy route for immigrants going west.  There was less traffic on the north-south route that passed by Tshimakain.

The initial missionary group also included three pastors and their wives, Henry and Eliza Spalding; and two years latter,  Cushing and Myra Eels, and Elkannah and Mary Walker.

For some, the purpose was to convert “the heathens.”

“American exceptionalism brought American values to counter gambling, horse stealing, polygamy and longhouse communal living,” John said.

There was a difference between the Catholic and Protestant approaches.  Protestants emphasized worship, Bible study, Sunday school, teaching and codifying language.  People baptized after they converted.  Catholics baptized first.

When there was threat to close the mission, Whitman went back to Boston and fought to keep it open.  Some also think he went “to save Oregon for the United States.”

He returned to Walla Walla on a wagon train with 1,500 people.   Again disease decimated the nearby Native Americans.  They did not understand why Dr. Whitman’s medicine worked on the Europeans but not on them.  A group of Cayuse raided the Whitman mission, killed 13 including the Whitmans, and took 50 hostages.  After a month, a vigilante army came from Portland, arrested, “tried” and executed five Cayuse men.  The Cayuse war followed, and the Whitman Mission sites were abandoned and the ABCFM closed it and evacuated other missionaries.

Two decades later, after the Civil War, Presbyterians and Congregationalists returned in different ways.

Spalding came back as a federal agent to the Nez Perce.  He brought a recent seminary graduate, Henry Cowles. Finding it hard to make a living with the Nez Perce, he became a teacher among the Spokanes, who were required to register their land with the federal government.  Cowles assisted.  Funding for that came through the abolitionist American Missionary Association, which continues today through the UCC’s Local Church Missionaries.  In gratitude, the Spokanes gave him a tract of land, which he enlarged into 140 acres of what is now downtown Spokane. A few blocks from the Convention Center by the hospital is a small park with plaques memorializing Cowles’ home site and his contribution to the city’s development.   The railroad “appropriated” some of his land.  He sued and won a significant financial settlement.  He used some proceeds to start a newspaper, which later became the Spokesman Review.

Cowley was founding pastor of Westminster Congregational UCC, Spokane’s oldest Protestant church.  A bell donated by Cushing Eels hangs in the bell tower today.  Several mission sites are now part of National Park Service sites and interpretive centers.

“What can we learn from these early missionaries?” John asked.  “The missions failed.  They did not learn the language and culture of the people.  They tried to get highly mobile, hunter-gatherer people to settle in fixed locations to farm.  They were poorly funded and tried to manage the missions long distance from Boston. 

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Copyright June-July 2015 © Pacific Northwest Conference News



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