Presbyterians of the Past

Joshua Bohannon, 1864-1893

Gideon Blackburn, Nevin, 9-16-2015From the earliest days of the Presbyterian Church in Colonial America there was evangelistic work by ministers among their American Indian neighbors. Through the formation of Philadelphia Presbytery, 1706, then the organization of presbyteries into the Synod of Philadelphia, 1716, and finally the consolidation of synods into the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), 1789, there were ministers that worked with American Indians. The first missionary specifically appointed by the PCUSA General Assembly to evangelize the American Indians was Gideon Blackburn in 1803. Blackburn was an appropriate choice for ministry among the Cherokees in rugged eastern Tennessee because of his frontiersman qualities; he was as at home in the forest hunting and tracking as he was standing behind the pulpit, Bible in hand, with his musket at his side. Blackburn not only provided pastoral ministry but also schools for the Cherokee children. He continued his ministry in Tennessee until 1811.

Following the Civil War, both the PCUSA and the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) operated missions in the Indian Territory. The Indian Territory had been established in the eastern part of what is currently Oklahoma as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Some of the American Indians removed from their land east of the Mississippi River for relocation in the territory were the Cherokees via what is known as “The Trail of Tears,” to which were added the Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles, or what are collectively known as the Five Civilized Nations. Indian Territory, OK, circa 1892, 5-18-2016As the years passed, others, such as the Apaches, were moved onto their respective reservations within the territory. The PCUS, which had churches predominantly in the South and had existed since 1861, had experienced difficulties and setbacks with its Indian Territory missions from about 1865 into the 1880s. By the time young Joshua Bohannon entered his educational program and was ordained to the ministry, the PCUS had determined that the best way to resolve its missionary difficulties to the peoples on the reservations was with Indian ministers. E. T. Thompson notes that by 1889, the PCUS had thirteen missionaries including ten American Indian ministers serving twenty-two churches, but four of the Indian ministers with 332 congregants left the PCUS to unite with the mission of the PCUSA that same year.

It can be seen from the vital dates in the title of this biography that Joshua Bohannon lived a short life, which unfortunately means there is only enough information to provide a terse, facts and figures biography mixed with some speculation. He was born in 1864 in the Choctaw Nation but his parents are not named in his entry in Scott’s Ministerial Directory of the PCUS. It is possible that he was an abandoned orphan and his Bohannon surname was assigned to him by an orphanage, or his father may have been Anglo and his mother Choctaw, but it seems from the scanty information available that both his parents were Choctaw. It is likely that he would have attended one of the academies on his reservation that was operated by missionaries. His college education was accomplished in two Presbyterian Church institutions beginning with Arkansas College in Batesville, 1885-1887, and then Southwestern Presbyterian University, 1887-1890, which was at the time in Clarksville, Tennessee. He remained at Southwestern for his theological education in its divinity school graduating on December 22, 1893. For about a year during his seminary studies he was a student missionary to the Choctaws and Chickasaws. Upon completion of his program at Southwestern, he was first licensed by Nashville Presbytery and then ordained by the Indian Presbytery, July 2, 1893, to pastor churches in Bennington and Durant in the Choctaw Nation. After all his preparation, he served his call for only six months dying in Durant on December 22, 1893.

A friend of Joshua’s from his days at Southwestern published an obituary in The Southwestern Presbyterian newspaper, January 11, 1894. The remembrance was signed “H.J.C.” which was likely Henry Joseph Compton (1851-1918) who was a minister in McComb, Mississippi.

Title Page, Choctaw Joshua-Ruth, 1913, 5-18-2016In the death of this young soldier of the Cross, we are again brought to a realization of the fact that God’s ways are not our ways. Strange and sad as it may seem, that one in the bloom of youth, scarcely yet thirty years of age, and having but entered upon his life’s work, after spending seven years in preparing himself to preach the glories of his Master’s kingdom, should be thus suddenly taken away. His one hope and ambition was to preach the Gospel to his own people, but his ministry was of less than six months’ duration. His course was run, and the Master called him home to receive his crown….

…Bro. Bohannon was loved and honored by all with whom he associated. He was a diligent and faithful student, a consecrated, conscientious Christian–in short, all that may be expected of a true Christian gentleman. His was of a noble disposition, not easily provoked to anger or impatience. The writer, having roomed with him for two years, never once saw his tranquil temper disturbed.

He had consecrated his life to the Master’s service; and often said if it were not for the great need in his own Territory, and his adaptability to that work, he would unhesitatingly go to the Foreign field.

Title Page, Choctaw Book of Joshua, 1913, 5-18-2016His life was full of promise, and he looked forward with joy to winning many souls to the Savior. He had just completed a home, but the Lord called him to the place prepared for him in the Father’s house. Had he lived, no doubt but that he would have won many precious souls; but his death may be the means of leading many prodigals back to the Father’s house. “No man dieth unto himself.” “He rests from his labors and his works do follow him.”

In the death of Bro. Bohannon, the Church has lost a valiant soldier. Who will rise up to take his place?

By this act of Providence, there are hearts that ache, hopes that are blighted, spirits that are crushed. May the comforts of the Gospel of “the Man of Sorrows, who was acquainted with grief,” be their portion in this dark hour of trial! “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

It was not the normal practice of the PCUS General Assembly to publish memorials in its minutes for minsters that had died, but Rev. Joshua Bohannon was remembered with a brief paragraph in the 1894 edition. As Bohannon’s memorialist noted in his heart-felt words in The Southwestern Presbyterian, God’s ways are not our ways. The Westminster Shorter Catechism in its answer to Question 11 says that “God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions,” but in the case of young Bohannon, who had followed his long road of preparation for ministry with cross-cultural challenges, more years living in pastoral service would have made sense, humanly speaking. But, then, maybe Rev. Bohannon’s relocation to his eternal home was a reward for a well-lived but brief life of service to his Lord.


Sources—The portrait of Gideon Blackburn is from Nevin’s Presbyterian Encyclopedia. The information on Southwestern is from W. R. Cooper, Southwestern at Memphis, 1848-1948, Richmond: John Knox, Press, 1949, and from some catalogs of the university available online. The pages consulted in E. T. Thompson’s third volume of Presbyterians in the South were 71-77. The memorial for Bohannon from The Southwestern Presbyterian was provided by the PCA Historical Center, Wayne Sparkman, Director.

Notes—The United States Congress admitted Oklahoma the sixteenth state on November 16, 1907. A Portrait of Joshua Bohannon could not be located. The map of the Indian Territory and abutting states is from, The Universal Atlas Including County and Railroad Maps of the United States Together with Carefully Prepared Maps of all other Countries from Latest Surveys, New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1892. Note that other spellings for Bohannon include, Bohannan, Bohanon, and Bohanan. To read biographies of other missionaries to American Indians on Presbyterians of the Past, click HERE for Thomas S. Williamson (1800-1879), or HERE for John Ross (1783-1876). For a brief explanation of the terms “New School” and “Old School,” click HERE.

The Divinity School at Southwestern Presbyterian University began operation in 1885. It included among its faculty over the years James A. Lyon, Jr., R. A. Webb, Thornton Whaling, and W. A. Alexander. The divinity school continued until its program was suspended in June 1917. Given that The Great War began for Americans in April of that year, it is possible that diminishing attendance in the divinity school was dealt a death blow by the many young Doughboys that suspended their educations to go “Over There” and serve their country. For a biography of James A. Lyon, Jr.’s father on Presbyterians of the Past, click HERE.

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