Persecuted Missionaries

Revs. Mr. Worcester and Dr. Butler, it will be remembered, were Presbyterian ministers, sent out as missionaries to labor with the Cherokee Indians, while they were still upon their reserved lands east of the Mississippi river. They entered upon their work in the year 1825, while themselves and families were comparatively young. Having labored successfully a few years, the General Government determined to purchase the Indian reserved lands, and remove the Cherokees to new territory on the frontiers west of the Mississippi. The first overtures on the part of the United States authorities were treated with indifference, amounting almost to contempt. After a time the efforts were renewed, but without success. The people of Georgia became impatient of delay; they were eager to divide the fertile lands among themselves. It would open a rich field for speculation. It was finally determined that Georgia would extend her jurisdiction over the Cherokee nation, and control matters according to her sovereign pleasure. They affected to believe that the missionaries employed their influence adverse to the interests of those who were striving to obtain the possession of the reserved lands. Laws were accordingly enacted requiring all white men to quit the Indian territory, under penalty of heavy fines and confinement in the state prison. The local officers were not reluctant to execute the laws with the utmost promptness and rigor. All the missionaries obeyed the unrighteous mandate except Mr. Worcester and Dr. Butler. They believed the law to be not only iniquitous, but unconstitutional; claiming that, if the Indian title were even extinguished, the General Government alone could exercise jurisdiction over the country, and that the state of Georgia had no power in the premises. They were so advised by eminent legal counsel. And knowing themselves to be guilty of no crime, and believing that it was the will of God that they should remain with their people, to take care of their Churches, and not leave them to be scattered abroad as sheep without a shepherd, they determined to remain and abide the consequences.

They were immediately arrested, and, after a preliminary examination, they were required to appear and to answer in the state court, which would not convene for several months. They were not suffered to give bail, though no one entertained the slightest doubt as to their willingness to appear and answer at the proper tribunal. Dr. Butler and Mr. Worcester were carried out of the Cherokee country, and placed in custody of a police force known as the “Georgia Guards.” Their prison limits were defined; and if they should presume to travel beyond them, the decree was that they should be immediately locked up in the county jail.

During the time they were in the custody of the ” Georgia Guards” Mr. Worcester’s family was seriously afflicted; and finally a messenger came to inform him that his daughter was dead, and that it would be a great comfort to the bereaved mother and wife to have him come at least to the funeral. He earnestly requested permission to go and comfort his wife and bury his child, but the prayer was not heard. They rejoiced to witness the agony of his soul, hoping that he might be tortured into a compliance with their wishes, and so take his family and abandon the country. But when night came, at a late hour he stole away, and traveled rapidly to the home of his afflicted family. He whispered words of consolation to his wife and little ones; prayed earnestly that Heaven’s blessings might rest upon them in their season of darkness and trial. He then gazed for a few minutes most earnestly upon the lifeless remains of his beloved daughter. Then leaving his wife in sorrow and tears, and the child unburied, he hastened back to the place of his confinement, and saw his family not again till he had been clothed in the garb of the miserable convict, and locked up in the dark cell designed for robbers and cut-throats.

At the court both Worcester and Butler were found guilty of a violation of law, and sentenced to confinement, at hard labor, in the state prison for a period of four years. The decision of the court was carried into immediate effect; they were incarcerated, and no act of kindness or mercy was extended unto them. They immediately took an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States; the appeal was prosecuted with promptness, and the decision of the Georgia court was reversed, and the marshal was ordered to set the prisoners at liberty; but the Georgia authorities claimed sovereignty, repudiated the authority of the General Government, defied the Supreme Court, and trampled its mandate under their feet. A period of fifteen months elapsed before those persecuted ministers were set at liberty; they were kept by arbitrary power, and in contempt of the decrees of the highest tribunals of the nation.

The facts here recorded we had from the lips of Mr. Worcester. He spoke of it modestly, not censoriously; and whenever it was possible to extenuate the course of conduct which men in high places had pursued, he seemed to take pleasure in doing it. No word of bitterness escaped his lips. Nor have I, at this date, the least inclination to record a word of censure against those who acted a prominent part in that scene of persecution, in the exercise of an unwarranted assumption of power. The most of the actors have doubtless gone to that tribunal where every act and motive will be read and known, and a righteous judgment shall be rendered.

The result of the unhappy struggle between the Government and the Cherokees is well known; the facts recorded present a dark page in our history. The lands were obtained; the Indians were driven from their homes, their altars, and their council fires. The faithful missionaries, true to the cause of Christ and his followers, accompanied them to their distant home in the wilderness; and there we found them earnestly engaged in the prosecution of that glorious work to which their lives had been consecrated. They entertained no thought of ever leaving their mission fields; they were even laying their offspring upon the same altar; training them to walk in their footsteps; devoting their lives to the cause of the Redeemer.

I had read of missionaries–of Brainerd, of Eliot, and others–but hitherto I had seen none whom I regarded as worthy of the appellation. These had passed through fiery ordeals, and had stood firm. They had suffered willingly for Christ’s sake, only claiming rewards in heaven. They were not missionaries for a month or a year, but for life; and no man is really a missionary who does not cheerfully give all to the great work of evangelizing the world.



Benson, Henry C. Life Among the Choctaw Indians and Sketches of the South-West. L. Swormstedt & A. Poe. 1860.

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