In 2010, I thought of a potentially fun and edifying (and NERDY) research project: to google the early ministers from the First Congregational Church in Charlevoix and investigate the lives they lived before and after serving this particular congregation. I wanted to see if there was any cultural and theological baggage they brought to Charlevoix from the seminaries they attended or see if any of them were famous. I really didn’t know what to expect and I figured I would learn something along the way.
Five years later (!!!) I started googling Rev. C. F. VanAuken (who was the first pastor of this church when it was organized in 1883), and discovered a quote from Rosa Nettleton1 that led to a long research rabbit hole. The quote, suggests that the cultural origins of the Congregational Church of Charlevoix precede Rev. C. F. VanAuken, and actually stem from a Presbyterian “movement” of the early 1870s:
“A Review of the History of the First Congregational Church of Charlevoix (January 19, 1893)…The work of the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions in this field twenty or more years ago, should not be confounded with the origin of the present Congregational Society. Back almost as far as local history reaches, the Presbyterians had a mission here. The pastor in charge of the work was Rev. George W. Wood. He labored here about six years, when, for some cause unknown to the writer that denomination abandoned the work here; but, unquestionably from that early Christian movement sprang the present prosperous Congregational Church of Charlevoix.”
This quote raised several questions for me: Who was Rev. George W. Wood? What was the “Presbyterian Board of Home Missions?” What did the PBHM do in Charlevoix and why would it abandon work there? Why would a CONGREGATIONALIST society attribute its founding to a PRESBYTERIAN missionary? Why had I never heard of this guy in the ~15 years I lived thin Northern Michigan?
(1) The older Reverend Doctor George W. Wood was a Presbyterian missionary to Turkey (1840 – 1850, 1871 – 1886) and the Corresponding Secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in New York City, from 1852 to 1871. ABCFM was, for many years, the most prominent foreign-missionary-sending organization in the United States.
(2) the younger Rev. G. W. Wood (the reverend mentioned in the above quote) was an early Presbyterian “home missionary” to Northern Michigan (1872-1879) who lived there for 7 years. Before leaving Charlevoix he worked for 3 years as a colporter (itinerant bible salesman) in Charlevoix and Emmet Counties, and bought an 80-acre plot of lakefront property on Lake Charlevoix (Wood’s Creek, near Quarterline Road) that remained in his family for over 50 years. After he left Charlevoix, he moved to the Montana Territory (1880 – 1889) to work “foreign” missions to Native Americans. As far as I can tell, he then moved back to Michigan where he bounced around from the Upper Peninsula to Charlevoix/Undine in 1893 and tried to start a Boyne area newspaper. In 1893, he began publishing a Christian newspaper (the Mackinaw Witness) with his two sons George H. Wood and Daniel Snyder Wood. From 1901 until his death in 1924, he can be found in Alabama, where he became part of a utopian “Fairhope Single Tax Colony.”
I think there are several reasons I am interested in this subject:
As a “historical biography” guy I enjoy learning history through reading about the lives of individual people who lived during past periods. It is sort of a backwards way of discovering information, but it forces me to actually think critically about whether I really understand a time period versus just saying “the 1870s and 1880s was Reconstruction after the Civil War” and moving on to the 20th century. You actually have to stop handwaving history and ask “what ACTUALLY HAPPENED (in this guy’s life) for those 20 years?” Do I really understand the difference between “Foreign Missions” and “Home Missions?” And then you are faced with philosophical questions like “Does a church start when the building goes up in 1883, or does it start in 1872 when a guy decides to preach the Gospel in a region and get everyone to read the Bible?”
There is an air of mystery and investigation for me. As someone who grew up in Charlevoix (particularly, in the 1st Congregational Church there), I am fascinated as to why nobody I knew (including me) had ever heard of him before 2015. I have enjoyed the adventure of asking questions and unearthing “clues” as a part of this research project.
In researching the younger George Wood, I found a Christian I have a lot in common with (over-intellectual Pastor’s Kid(PK), Reformed/Congregationalist, deep connections to Charlevoix, estranged from the denomination of his birth, a Christian ministering in a place where he did not grow up, dreams of a Christian “newsletter” or other mass outreach to the region). In one sense, I am probably projecting myself on this guy’s life, but in another sense, I feel like these characterizations of him are apt, and the commonalities make me feel less weird about my own idealistic Christian sensibilities in Richmond.
There is a generational aspect of this that I vibe with. As a PK whose parents are both UCC PKs, I am fascinated by the life situation of a missionary who was born the son of an arguably “famous” missionary who chose to dissociate from an organization (ABCFM) where his father held a leadership legacy. Born in two different generations, the two men named George Wood certainly faced starkly different denominational situations and social situations in which to minister. In choosing not to follow his father to ABCFM missions in Turkey, G.W. Wood, Jr. must have wondered (as I have often wondered) how he should, in 1871,”make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.”2 by joining the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions.
I am getting close to joining a Presbyterian church and have a general interest in how Presbyterians and Congregationalists worked together (or not) in the past. Both men named G. W. Wood crossed denominational boundaries during the course of their missions work, in different ways.
As someone who grew up in the United Church of Christ (both the Congregational and E&R wings), I have had a lot of conversations about the positive and negative aspects of ecumenicism. One positive is visible unity and cooperation among churches (what the church nerds call “conciliar fellowship“), and one negative is the inevitable tensions that come when churches with differing (and perhaps erroneous?) theology and polity try to work together. The 1800s Protestant Missions Societies (and their historic policy conflicts over slavery and foreign missions) are illustrative of the organizational and interpersonal conflicts that ultimately led to the American Civil War.
I have several good friends who have chosen to go on long term mission trips overseas. I have been forced to think about missions in a personal way rather than a theoretical way. What makes people want to drop their lives and move to a place with a foreign culture? What does it mean to leave for missions (or to organize a mission) today versus 150 years ago? I think about my friends and wonder whether there is something to be gleaned from history that might relate to their modern day missions experiences.
I have learned a lot about missions theory. Corresponding Secretaries for the ABCFM (such as Rufus Anderson) had to think big thoughts about missions and then apply their theories to actual people ministering in different places around the world. Sometimes their mission activities didn’t work out very well, but their mistakes and miscues informed their theory of ministry. I think I have neglected my thinking about missions, perhaps because of critiques comparing Christian missions to “cultural colonialism.” On the other hand, when you look at the lives of 1800s missionaries, many of them really did wrestle with the sociological situation of the communities they were ministering to, and they prayerfully applied themselves to tough questions about how best to conduct their mission work. Practical questions like “What mission work is in the best long term interest of these people?” How much power should the central body (with lots of general experience) have, versus letting people navigate particular problems in particular places? Should missionaries seek to raise up “local missionaries” and then leave? How does a missionary know when they are being called to another mission field? What is the best way for the Church to marshall resources to enable sending of missionaries?
I have obviously put a lot of thought into this. (Maybe too much?) When I am googling G. W. Wood in bed at night (!!!), I sometimes self-accuse that I am too interested in the life of G.W. Wood versus the life of Jesus. Maybe I should be more interested in the life of Jesus. I mean… (cue the eye roll) He sheds light on the larger historical events of his era… He has an interesting relationship with his father… He makes missions personal AND informs our missions theory… He understands and teaches me the nuances of denominational differences (Essenes, Sadducees, Pharisees) … He is a lot like me and could relate to my life… Am I talking about Jesus or G. W. Wood? This blog post is not meant to be a sermon, but I the above points remind me that there is a fine line between hagiography (creating a lens to help people see God) and idolatry. (worshiping the lens) ANYWAYS… right or wrong, I love learning and I love that following two Presbyterian missionaries through their life story seems to be bearing intellectual (and spiritual?) fruit.
Other funfactual things I am learning about as a part of this research project:
From G. W. Wood Senior:
The decline of the Ottoman Empire from the 1840s to the 1890s (particularly, the Tanzimat period of modernization) and the implications of Istanbul’s unique geographic position straddling the Bosphorus Strait between Asia and Europe.
The early prominence of the American Board of Commissioners for Home Missions (ABCFM) especially as they sent missionaries to China, India, and the “Near East” (Modern Day Turkey, Syria, and Israel) as well as “foreign” places in the United States requiring missionary acquisition of Native American language skills.
The founding and scope of the American Home Missionary Society (AHMS) and the dilemmas it introduced by nature of its multi-denomination membership.
The centrality of the Bible House on Astor Place in New York City, as it housed the American Bible Society, the AHMS, the American Tract Society, and other Christian organizations. (Related: Another Bible House was built in Constantinople in 1873)
The slow decline of the ABCFM under the Congregationalists after the New School Presbyterians ended the 1801 Plan of Union and re-merged with the Old School Presbyterians in the early 1870s (after the Civil War).
ABCFM/Congregationalist missionaries to the Armenians (in Turkey) witnessed the ~1915 Armenian Genocide and played a large part in WWI relief efforts in the area. (While I was at a UCC church in Richmond in the 2000s, former SEV employees visited the congregation and told us about how overt missionary work in Turkey ceased after that country secularized in the 1920s.)
From G.W. Wood, Jr.
The difference between foreign missions and home missions.
Discovering interesting Northern Michigan narratives and personalities, such as Archibald Buttars (a famous-in-his-day politician who is virtually unknown today) and John Redpath (a pioneer Presbyterian pastor in Petoskey who who married Sarah Upjohn of the the prestigious Upjohn family).
History of the founding of Indian missions, Sunday schools, congregations, and presbyteries in Mackinaw, Grand Traverse Bay, and Little Traverse Bay, which gives me insights into where people settled first and how they saw themselves fitting in to larger US culture and settlement trends
Geography and History of the Dakota and Montana Territories, and the moral dilemmas that missionaries faced in trying to convince Natives to adopt “white” ways.
The basic principles of “Georgism” (some strange-to-me ideas about land taxation)
how to research people from the late 1800s (deed records, libraries, websites, denominational resources, and missionary publications such as the Missionary Herald and the Home Missionary)
Also, I got a general sense of the pro’s and con’s of writing things down for history. If you peruse “annual reports” of the various missionary societies you get a feel for the largeness of these organizations and the ambitious attempts to record EVERYTHING and EVERYONE that was participating in the movement. How much history can a single person absorb?
1819 (Volume 15 “The Panoplist and Missionary Herald”)
9 Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs.10 The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
11 The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd.[b]12 Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.
13 Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.