How the Creek Migration Legend led to formation of the Methodist Church – Part Three
The 19th century engraving above memorializes John Wesley giving a sermon at Palachicola. It was one of the very few occasions that he ever actually had contact with groups of Native peoples. Although comical in its portrayal of the Creek Indians (They are wearing Western Plains headdresses) the engraving above is one of the few examples of religious art that accurately portrayed Creek Indians as being much taller and more robust than Europeans.
Note that in the male chauvinist climate of the times, the Creek women were portrayed on the fringes in submissive postures. That certainly would not have been the case in the early 1700s. In fact, Mary Musgrove (1700-1763) his translator, would have been standing beside him. By the way, the sermon was a total failure.
The Creek Migration Legends Series
Superficially, the period of time that John and Charles Wesley spent in Georgia could be viewed as gross failures by both young men. However, it was necessary that their false pride be broken before they would grow into a higher level of wisdom and spirituality.
Act VI: John and Charles Wesley depart England on October 16, 1735. On board the same ship are 41 Moravians from what is now part of the Czech Republic. The Moravians are descendants of one of the oldest Protestant movements, dating back to the 1400s. They have been invited to settle in Georgia.
Midway across the Atlantic, the ship encounters a late season hurricane that almost sinks it. The mast is broken off. While the British crew and passengers were distraught, shouting that they were about to drown, the Moravians calmly prayed and sang songs. Apparently, the Wesley brothers at least internally, were also shouting that they were about to die. They feel pangs of guilt that their faith appears so weak when compared to that of the Moravians.
The ship miraculously does not sink. After arrival in the New World, the Wesley brothers did some sight-seeing in the colonies before arriving in Savannah. They do not report for work until early February of 1736.
James Oglethorpe assigns the young men chores associated with the physical development of the colony and improvements in the local church. Tamachichi repeatedly asks them to begin teaching the people in his village English, European culture and the Christian faith. Each time, John Wesley equivocates, giving excuses why the services for which he was officially hired must be delayed. The Wesley brothers would not have stalled such an important leader as Tamachichi unless they had been specifically instructed by Oglethorpe to do so. Despite Tamachichi’s stated desire to become a Christian, John Wesley inexplicably avoids contact with him throughout his time in Georgia. Is it guilt?
Complications caused by imperial politics
This is when history gets very murky. Oglethorpe apparently liked the Wesley brothers, but also realized that their youth would make them totally inappropriate for having direct contacts with the leaders of the Creek Confederacy. They were a disaster waiting to happen. However, he also knew that Thomas Christie was the eyes and ears of Archbishop Wake. Oglethorpe had to create the appearance of supporting Wake’s missionaries, while keeping the young men out of trouble.
Creek culture valued the wisdom of elders. Men and women, the age of John and Charles, were seldom allowed to have significant roles in political meetings. Furthermore, because of their youth, they would be ill-equipped to deal with the equality of Creek women and men. Creek women owned all the domestic real estate, plus could vote and hold political offices. During warm months, they went topless and didn’t hesitate to state their opinions on all issues in public. They were not the docile, mindless, “squaws” pictured in the engraving above.
There was another problem. The High King Chikili was a joani, a priest of the Master of Life. Undoubtedly he also functioned as the “archbishop” of his tribe. If the brash, young Wesley brothers challenged Chikili’s version of monotheism publicly, it would be a grave insult, which could cause the alliance between Georgia and the Creek Confederacy to collapse.
At this time, Georgia was totally dependent on the alliance with the Koweta Creeks for its survival. There were approximately 1200 Europeans living in the colony in 1735. The total population of all branches of the Creeks, including those allied with France or not members of the confederacy was about 50,000. There were at least 3,000 Creeks living in the Ocmulgee Bottoms region, where Koweta was then located.
France claimed all of North America west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It had had established a marine garrison at the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers in what is now Alabama. Spain initially claimed all of the Southeast, but by 1735, still claimed all of the Chattahoochee River Valley up to its source in the Georgia Mountains, plus all the land south of the Altamaha River in Georgia. In 1734, Oglethorpe built a fortified town, Frederica, on land that was claimed by Spain.
Even the relationship between South Carolina and Georgia was complicated by issues related to the Native American tribes. Until 1785, South Carolina claimed all of Georgia, north of a line running below Atlanta, Augusta and Macon. Georgia always claimed the lands extending to the North Carolina line. Its charter conflicted with South Carolina’s charter.
Once assured of Creek support, Oglethorpe built Fort Augusta on land claimed by South Carolina and simultaneously issued a law requiring all Indian traders passing through Georgia’s territory to have a Georgia license or see their possessions seized. Almost immediately, Georgia captured most of the Indian trade in the Southeast, with South Carolina only being left the trade with the Cherokees. South Carolina then begins encouraging the Cherokees to attack the Creek towns and villages that occupied most of present day northern Georgia.
Individual Creek provinces had been at war with the Cherokees since 1715, when a delegation of Creek leaders were murdered in their sleep at the neutral Uchee village of Tugaloo, while attending a “friendly” diplomatic conference. Between 1715 and 1721, while they had full access to British munitions and the Muskogean tribes didn’t, the Cherokees conquered a vast territory in North Carolina and Tennessee.
The formation of the new Koweta Creek Confederacy minimized further Cherokee inroads to the extreme northeastern tip of Georgia. However, the Koweta Creeks originated near Franklin, NC and Clayton, GA, which are in that region. Therefore, they looked to the new Colony of Georgia to supply them munitions to recapture those lost lands back from the Cherokees . . . who were South Carolina’s pet Indians.
Back to our story
In March 1736, Charles Wesley is named Secretary of Indian Affairs for the Province of Georgia and then is promptly sent 65 miles southward to be the chaplain of Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island, where there are no Indians. Charles Wesley’s time at Fort Frederica is a disaster. The Scottish Highlander garrison is mostly Presbyterian and Roman Catholic. Sub-tropical diseases are taking a toll on their ranks and there are very few women. It is not a good time to tell these Highlanders that their salvation will only come via the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer.
While Charles was at Frederica, John Wesley preaches one of his most successful sermons under a massive Live Oak tree. Afterward, the tree was known as the Wesley Oak. Its location is still noted by a historic marker. In later years, he would remember the success of open-air preaching and it would become his principal means of preaching the gospel. Of course, there was the problem that by that time, most Anglican priests wouldn’t allow him in their pulpit!
After a few weeks at Fort Frederica, Charles returns to Savannah, where he has very little to do other than issue licenses to Indian traders. In his boredom, he takes up song-writing. One of the hymns that he composes is “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, plus several carols, less well known in the United States.
A century later, the choir director of the Unitarian Church in Savannah would compose, “Jingle Bells.” Savannah is a most unlikely place to be the Christmas Carol Capital of the World.
In July 1736, Oglethorpe designates Charles to be the bearer of dispatches to England. This is obviously a way of saving face. Charles sails for England in August 1736 and never returned to the Americas. He goes on to become one of the greatest hymn writers of all time. Would he have had the same destiny, if he had never been bored in Georgia and instead become an Anglican parish priest in stodgy ole England? . . . Probably not.
Rather than being dispatched to the hinterland to proselytize the Creeks, John Wesley is assigned by Oglethorpe to be the assistant priest at the Anglican Church in Savannah. Oglethorpe directs him to mingle with the colonists in order to encourage them to be more active members of the church. He is given very few specific tasks and so is free to wander around the small colony making friends, ministering to their needs and holding prayer meetings.
Wesley becomes close friends with the Moravian congregation. They live in a commune just outside Savannah. They are essentially Christian Marxists . . . or maybe “kibitzers” is a better word. Their non-conventional life styles and non-liturgical form of worship repeatedly brings them in conflict with the Anglicans and especially the Lutherans in the Salzburger Colony, farther up the Savannah River. However, John Wesley is able to repeatedly mediate conflicts between the three factions.
A Moravian couple, Peter Rose and his wife, receive permission from Oglethorpe to build a mission schoolhouse on top of the largest mound on Irene Island. Other mission buildings are constructed elsewhere on the island, which was once the location of the powerful town, Apalachicora, which the Spaniards called Chicora.
The Moravian commune intends to relocate to Irene Island. Nearby, Mary Musgrove builds a trading post. A Creek village is developing around the mission-trading post compound. Thus, Oglethorpe can report back to Archbishop Wake that a mission has been constructed. He makes a point of mentioning that John Wesley visited the construction site often – not mentioning that these visits were about the limit of his involvement.
Inspired by the Moravians’ songs, John Wesley publishes the first ever Protestant hymn book in the Americas. At this time, Anglicans normally did very little congregational singing, while hymn singing would become a hallmark of the future Methodist Church.
Oglethorpe eventually allows John Wesley to preach a sermon in the Apalache-Creek town of Palachicola, which is safely on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River, 65 miles upstream. The town’s population is far more assimilated to British culture than the Creek towns in the interior and also includes several mixed-bloods, who are fluent in English. Although also given under a tree, Wesley’s sermon is a disaster.
Wesley preaches to the residents of Palachicola as if they are primitive savages, totally ignorant of spiritual concerns. The condescending treatment of the town’s elders by this young man is especially insulting to the listeners, but out of respect for James Oglethorpe, they listen politely.
At the end, an elder, perhaps also a joani, asks Wesley:
“We worship the same God. We practice baptism before every worship service. Before we enter a sacred space, we must publicly confess our sins and forgive those who sinned against us. Englishman, why is your way of worshiping God the only way? Why must we be in a building in order to be close to God. We feel closest to God, while in the open air.”
Wesley was stunned. After saying several uhs . . . he jumped into “High Church” theological explanations of Jesus’s crucifixion as a blood sacrifice for the sins of all men. The mention of “blood sacrifice” went over like a lead balloon. Apalache-Creek religion forbids the letting of any form of blood, including the hunting of game, within two miles of a temple or outdoor shrine. Continuing to be polite, the elders thanked him for his words and wished him a safe trip back to Savannah. They then walk away.
In Part Four, the climax of our play, John Wesley forswears any further attempts to convert the Native peoples of Georgia – calling them stubborn, ignorant savages. Meanwhile, the Uchee and Creeks on the Savannah River respond whole-heartedly to the sincerity of the Moravians.
Wesley then jumps into more worldly concerns and makes several severe errors in judgment. His time in Savannah ends abruptly, when he escapes in the dead of night from the angry townspeople. These dark events set the stage for a radical change in the lives of himself, Charles Wesley and George Whitefield.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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