The Great Spirit Descends

CIRCUIT RIDER James B. Finley (1781–1856) had a successful ministry with the Wyandot Indians of Ohio. In this excerpt from his Sketches of Western Methodism (1854), he glowingly describes an 1828 camp meeting he held among them. His mission ended when the U.S. government coerced the tribe to sell their land and move west.

single-Minded Devotion

The Indians came with their camping apparatus, to the number of one hundred and fifty. A place was assigned them for pitching their tents, so that they might all be as near together as possible. The Indians being more expert in pitching tents than the whites, they, of course, were ready at an earlier hour to engage in religious exercises.

It is characteristic of the Indian to devote exclusive attention, for the time being, to whatever pursuit or employment he may take in hand. If it be fishing, or hunting, or sugar making, or corn planting, nothing else is allowed to interfere in the time allotted to these things. So in regard to religion. The time devoted to God was the most sacred.

Soon the Christian chiefs, and queens, and all, were formed into a circle, and the voice of praise and prayer made the forest arches ring. After singing one of their Christian songs, only as Indians can sing, they fell simultaneously upon their knees and lifted up their faces toward heaven, as if they expected to see the Great Spirit descend in blessings from the parted skies. One of their number would lead in prayer, and when the Indian words tamentare and homendezue would escape the suppliant’s lips, a deep amen would be uttered in concert by all the circle.

Tears, Groans, and Shouts

The Indian has strong faith, and when he makes preparation for a sacrifice to the Great Spirit, he expects with the utmost confidence that it will be accepted. So was it in this instance; for while they were praying the Spirit came down upon them, and the power of God was manifested in the awakening and conversion of souls.

As the shaking of the leaves in the tops of the mulberry trees was an indication to the prophet of the presence of God, so the excitement of the multitude engaged in prayer, as indicated by the tears and groans and shouts, was a sign that the Great Spirit was at work upon the hearts of these sons and daughters of the forest, and presently the tents of the whites were forsaken, and many might have been seen mingling with their red brethren and sisters in the exercises of the hour.

The interest continued to increase and spread as the meeting progressed, till Saturday night, when the whole encampment was in a flame of religious excitement. There seemed to be no need of preaching or exhortation, the Lord having taken his own work into his own hands. All that the preachers and people had to do was to follow the leadings of the Spirit, and the hours passed away in singing and prayer, interrupted only—if, indeed, it may be called an interruption—by the loud cries for mercy, which rose from the burdened hearts of the kneeling penitents, or the louder shouts of praise to God for delivering grace, which rose up on the night air and re-echoed among the trees from the converted.

By James B. Finley

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #45 in 1995]

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