Saturday, April 28, 2012

Circuit Riders in Indiana

Oak Ridge Church - 1941

I recently received a request from a young man that was looking for a special boarding school/mission where his grandmother was sent when she was a child. From looking through our Archives and sending out this question to some of our native Brown Countians I’m afraid we came up with very little to help him find his answer. The only thing I could do was refer him to the Methodist Church Archives at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. A group of us visited there last year to do some research on some our local Methodist churches here in Brown County. We came back from our visit with tons of new information. This reminded me of the history I had learned about the church and how education was brought to Brown County.

At the time of the westward movement in the U. S., many settlements were without schools or churches. Many early pioneers could not read or write. In the year 1817 a group of Philadelphia men organized the Sunday and Adult School Union. In 1824 the name was changed to the American Sunday School Union. Its purpose being to locate and help maintain Sunday Schools in communities where there were none and to provide literature for these schools. A number of missionaries were sent out with Christian literature, lessons, and books for the children. The Union was non-denominational. After the school was established the residents were left to choose their own denomination. Both laymen and clergy were involved in this mission. Churches from Catholic to Methodist were involved with the mission. Many of these traveling missionaries came to be called Circuit Riders. If you can find records of these Circuit Riders then you’ve found a treasure of information. Two of these Circuit Riders played a big role in our county at different times in our history, the Reverend Eli Farmer and Reverend Warren C. Chafin.

In 1840 the Union published story books for children to help them develop good values and morals. Often children in disadvantaged areas of the country first learned to read from these books. With the coming of the American Sunday School Union to Brown County this was the only education these remote areas would see for many years to come. At one point in our county’s history these Sunday Schools were the only schools established in our county. The Methodist church was the biggest supporter of schools in Brown County. If a child wanted to learn to read then they went to Sunday school.

I didn’t realize how important the church was to the local community. The church was the center of the whole community. Everyone gathered there for everything from religious services to social events to schooling. This might be the only time a family would leave their home and farm to meet with their neighbors or learn of news from the outside world. The church was indeed the absolute center of the community.

This has always amazed me especially when reading through these old church records. They contain a world of information. We’ve been compiling church histories for our local genealogical society to be put in print for researchers. This visit to the Methodist Archives was just a beginning. We have plans to go back with so much more information to bring back with us.

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