Joseph Samuel “J.S.” Murrow was born June 7, 1835, in Jefferson County, Georgia. Like his father and three of his older brothers he would one day become a preacher. After graduating from Mercer University and being ordained in September of 1857, he sensed just where the Lord’s call was to send him- halfway across the continent to a land as different as could be.
He and his new wife were going to a place called “Indian Territory.” It was a vast wilderness as empty of any of the conveniences that existed (and in the mid-19th Century there weren’t many any where) as could be.
Beginning several decades earlier Indians occupying the Southeastern part of the North American continent ceded their tribal lands in exchange for land set aside for them located inside the Louisiana Purchase that would one day be called Oklahoma. The eastern section went to the five “civilized tribes”: the Cherokees, Creeks, Chickasaws, Choctaws and the Seminoles, the western half to the plains Indians: Comanches, Wichitas, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Kiowas, Pawnees and others.
Imagine their spiritual state. Their gods did not or could not give them power to repel the whites and now they were reduced to entering treaties to move to this new, unknown land called Indian Territory. Like the Israelites, after God’s protective hand was removed from around them, they were at the mercy of their enemies and driven from their land, abandoned, cursed.
Day to Day Life on the Prairie
Imagine living in a place lush and green where you had friends and family then moving to a place with wide open plains devoid of civilization and full of strangers and strange ways. How would you like to have to go outside in the middle of a winter storm just to get water, or to visit the privy? What would it be like to work every day like a field hand to grow or kill then process and store your own food since there are no grocery stores? What if just to cook you had to find, cut down and split the wood to do so and in the summer you baked in the heat because there’s no air conditioning not even electricity to bring some relief by a simple fan? If you got sick there’s no doctor, hospital or even the simplest vaccine we take for granted to cure you.
The Indians surely felt alienated by their new surroundings too but they were used to “roughing it” but for the Murrow family it was all new to them and it would prove deadly. By the end of the next year Mrs. Murrow and her yet unborn baby would succumb to the harsh living conditions. Murrow’s next three wives would suffer the same fate but I’m getting ahead of myself. In mid-December of 1857, they arrived at a place called Micco, a small settlement near present day Eufaula, in what would later become modern day McIntosh County, Oklahoma.
American Indians, Sinners Too
The common thread of all men and women in all modern and ancient cultures including the American Indians was sin. The Indians were primarily animists. They believed gods existed in plants, animals, rivers, everything. They practiced tribal warfare and committed atrocities. They had their own prejudices and discriminatory practices. Like their white antagonists and the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Africans and modern day Islamist they too held slaves, some even from Africa. Women in some tribes were considered inferior to men. Varying degrees of these type sins were what Christian missionaries all over the world were up against. With Murrow it would be no different.
In 1860, after recovering from the loss of his first wife and child he returned his attention to his mission work. He determined the Gospel was needed most by the Seminoles. So he moved 60 miles to the west of Micco, to be near their territory that lies in the small rectangular area that runs north and south in the middle of the above map. In 1861, he planted the very first Baptist church in the Seminole territory, the Ash Creek Baptist Church. It had seven founding members and would grow to over seventy in three years.
What good news Murrow’s ministry must have been to them who listened with open minds and hearts. There weren’t many gods only one who loved all men no matter their skin color because they were all sinners needing His redemption. They didn’t have to perform this or that ritual to gain his favor and the perfect freedom he offered could never be taken away.
War Between the States
Someone once coined the phrase “War makes strange bedfellows.” Murrow had strong “southern” sentiments; so much so it caused the Baptist Association that financially sponsored him to cut off its assistance during the American Civil War. Rest assured Murrow, being a Christian, could not be a supporter of slavery. He was one of those people, haters of slavery and all it represents, who sided with the Confederacy out of a concern, for instance, about federal encroachment over state rights of self government in matters having nothing to do with slavery.
He wasn’t alone in opposition to the North. Seminole men, many in his flock, would volunteer and comprise the Seminole Regiment of the Confederate Army. Murrow went right alongside them serving as chaplain. Other tribes like the Creek, Choctaws and Cherokees also gave their allegiance to the Confederacy but they were slaveholders who felt a political and economic commonality with the Confederacy. Some Indians served in the Union Army too. In the midst of the over four year conflict an estimated 30,000 Native Americans served on either side.
As for Murrow he was so trusted and popular with all Indians that when the Confederate Government asked the tribes who they wanted as their Indian Agent they insisted it be Murrow. So he was relieved of his military duty and served in that capacity for the Confederacy until the wars end. Even when things turned so bad for the South that supplies and even the payroll were probably often late or non-existent he never neglected his duty as agent as he considered it as part of his missionary work.
At Wars End
After the war he was recognized as a man in the know of what spiritually was happening in the territory. His Confederate loyalty was forgiven by the American Baptist Home Missions Society and he was installed as Superintendent of Missions for the territory. His primary task was to encourage other missionaries to venture west to minister the Indians.
In 1867, he relocated to the Choctaw Nation and founded the town of Atoka. Sensitive to Indian sensibilities he thoughtfully named it after one of their beloved chiefs. It would eventually become the spiritual capital of the territory when he founded the 1st Baptist Church of Atoka, the oldest church of any denomination still in existence in the state of Oklahoma.
The Well Rounded Christian
Murrow, the ever dedicated missionary accepted his Christian duty to include being an educator. There were no public schools anywhere in the territory in those days so he founded the Oklahoma Baptist Academy. It was a place where children, no matter their race, could peacefully gather together and learn to read. It went a long way to promoting peace and understanding between the races too.
In 1870, he bought a printing press and began publishing “The Indian Missionary” a gospel tract that was distributed throughout the plains Indian portion of the territory.
Well Intentioned Evil
In 1902, Murrow became a self appointed protector of Indian orphans. Then, just like now, people, driven by their sinful nature, would take advantage of well-meaning but naive government laws to help minorities.
A program was started where if someone adopted an Indian orphan they would become an automatic member of the child’s tribe. This entitled the new parents to tribal citizenship and inheritance. Soon the dark side of this compassionate effort to give kids loving homes appeared. Whites and even Indians began trafficking homeless kids. Typically, the newly adopted child would die or disappear but his family would always receive the government sponsored inheritance. Murrow saw this evil. He didn’t forgive it, or apologize for it or look the other way. Instead he fought it.
He rescued any abandoned or orphaned Indian child he could find eventually leading to a need for an orphanage. His Christian brothers and sisters of the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes opened their hearts and set aside some of their own land near Atoka for it. This led to his beloved recognition as “Father Murrow” among the Indians and today the Murrow Indian Children’s Home is still saving kids.
An Example for All of Us
This man used his abilities, love and obedience to the Gospel to the fullest. He simply preached and met the direct and immediate moral and spiritual needs of his flock, the Indians. He didn’t do what so many modern pastors do today: get distracted from this simple mission by building massive cathedrals, mass media outreach programs or huge Christian theme parks, organizing lock-ins, starting youth basketball leagues, or building gymnasiums.
His original hand written sermons, still in existence, show their theological conformity with the mainstream of 19th Century Baptist Theology that sprang from the Philadelphia Confession of Faith and New Hampshire Declaration of Faith. Many preachers revered today such as Charles Spurgeon, James Petigru “J.P.” Boyce, Benjamin Harvey “B.H.” Carroll, etc., considered them anchors to the faith, second only to the Gospels.
He suffered his share of personal tragedy and hardship. In 1870 at what we consider the youthful age of 35, Murrow suffered a complete physical breakdown and a temporary bout with blindness requiring a hospital stay till he recovered. Many men would seek a life of ease after going through that. Not Murrow. He went straight back to the territory. Still he must have been very lonely and maybe at times even felt cursed but like Job he never abandoned his faith or his spiritual mission.
He died in September of 1929, and to most of us his existence and ministry is obscure. That’s him on the right. Oh he looks like any other ordinary guy from the late 19th, early 20th Century, but he was a man fit for any time past or present. He was college educated but it was life’s hard knocks and the Gospel that really equipped him for his 72 years of service to the Lord. Let’s review some of his accomplishments.
He established 75 churches. He helped ordain 75 Indian pastors and brought 2000 to accept Christ as their personal savior. Records show that by 1881, 60% of all Seminoles in the Indian Territory were Baptists, attributable in some way to Murrow’s involvement. We don’t know how many of them went on to become solid members and contributors in the world of business, the sciences, politics, etc., or how many just turned out to be great Christian husbands, fathers, dads and moms but the other side of eternity will hold the answer.
The American Indians and how they were conquered and relocated is an emotional historical event. Atrocities and abuse happened on all sides but all along the way God was sovereign and His desire for the salvation of all was on His mind. J.S. Murrow was a simple, faithful messenger of the Lord. He was one instrument used to spread the Gospel in one particular place at one particular time in world history. His life and missionary work demonstrated how one person can lead others to let go of their particular time honored, pagan, sinful driven ways and reach instead for the cross to escape spiritual destruction.
Baird, W. David et al.,“We are all Americans”, Native Americans in the Civil War” 2009.
Bradford, James C., A Companion to American Military History, Vol. 1, 2010.
Boulware, Tyler, Prof. University of West Virginia, “Indian Slave Trade in The Colonial South” http://www.cspan.org/video?318532-1/Indian-slave-trade-colonial-south.
Justice, Lawrence, “J.S. Murrow, 72 Years a Missionary to the Indians” (Victory Baptist Church, Kansas City, Missouri, March 9, 2014).
Keeley, Lawrence, University of Illinois, War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, Oxford University Press, 1996.
LeBlance, Steven, Harvard University, Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage (Saint Martin’s Press, 2003).
Seybert, Tony, “Slavery and Native Americans in British North America and the United States: 1600 to 1865.” (2004).
Thomas, Ray, “Joseph Murrow-American Indian Missionary for 72 Years” Baptist Bible Tribune (10/2013): p.21.
Photo of J.S. Murrow comes courtesy of the Murrow Indian Children’s Home. Visit this fine institution on the world wide web at: murrowchildrenshome.org or search and find them on Face Book. Become involved in its still continuing work to bring Gospel inspired love and care to orphaned Indian children.