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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 13, No. 3
September, 1935
OLD PHILADELPHIA BAPTIST CHURCH

W. B. Morrison

Page 266

About eight miles east of Durant on Highway 70 the traveler may notice a modest white frame building on his left just before he crosses Blue River. It is the present home of Philadelphia Baptist church, probably the oldest active Baptist organization within the state of Oklahoma.

The founding of this church dates back to the first planting of Baptist missions among the Choctaws by the American Indian Mission Society of Louisville, Kentucky, shortly after the arrival of the Indians in the Oklahoma country. This pioneer work centers around the labors of Ramsey D. Potts. The career of Mr. Potts is full of interest. He first came among the Choctaws in Mississippi as a Federal agent. The Baptists had an early mission to the Choctaws, Carey and Thomas being two of their stations in Mississippi. At first Mr. Potts was not even a professed Christian, but after boarding for a while in a missionary family, not only was he converted and brought into active membership in the Baptist church, but he also married one of the missionaries at Thomas station, became earnestly interested in their work, and soon applied for ordination as a minister.

When the Indian removals disrupted the work in Mississippi the Baptists decided to continue their work for the Choctaws in their new home in the West. In 1835 Mr. and Mrs. Potts were sent as missionaries to the Choctaws along Red River in Oklahoma. They opened a mission school, to which they gave the name of Providence, at a point in what is now Choctaw County, twelve miles west of Fort Towson and six miles north of Red River. The career of Mr. Potts as a missionary and educator in the western portion of the Choctaw Nation continued through a period of more than seventeen years.

In 1844, when the Choctaws decided to found an academy for boys in the western portion of Pushmataha District, Rev. R. D. Potts was invited to take charge of it, the Indian Mission Society of Louisville, Kentucky, paying a third of the cost of oper-

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ating the school. The site of the new institution was selected at a point about three miles northeast of the present town of Bokchito, and in honor of the popular Choctaw Agent, William Armstrong, was given the name of Armstrong Academy. It became a very important center of Choctaw educational and political life for the next half century.

However much Ramsey D. Potts was interested in the educational progress of the Choctaw people, there is no doubt that he was still more interested in their spiritual development. We find him riding a great circuit extending from Blue River on the west to the Kiamichi on the east, preaching the Gospel wherever a group of people could be gathered to hear it. By reason of the work of Mr. Potts there were soon large numbers of people throughout this territory holding to the Baptist faith but possessing no church organization. To remedy this situation, a company of these believers met at Providence on July 5, 1846, and proceeded to organize what the old minute book of the Philadelphia church asserts to be the "first Baptist church in the Choctaw Nation." Ministers taking part in the formation of the church were Rev. Ramsey D. Potts and Rev. J. L. McClendon. After the organization, and on the same day, Mr. Potts was chosen pastor, P. P. Brown, clerk, and H. W. Jones, deacon. Three new members were received into the church by baptism. It was a great day for the Baptist church in the new country.

For a number of years this organization might well be called the "First Baptist Church of the Choctaw Nation," for it had no permanent location. Meetings were held and the doors of the church opened whenever and wherever the officers thought it advisable throughout the large district covered by Mr. Potts' ministrations. For instance, on July 19, 1846, the record states that the "doors of the church were opened at a meeting held in a regular preaching place in Ponubbie's neighborhood." Two members were received and baptized at this time, one of them being Ponubbie himself. In December of the same year an entry records the death of Ponubbie from "bleeding of the lungs." The funeral of this brother was not held, however, until the 14th of February, 1847, following a custom still prevalent in the mountains of West Virginia and Kentucky. At this funeral the doors

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of the church were opened for the reception of members. Throughout this early record we find these delayed funerals, and in nearly every case they prove to be occasions for the reception and baptism of new members, not infrequently relatives of the deceased.

The first record of a meeting of the church near its final home occurred on February 21, 1847, at Armstrong Academy. It is interesting to note that the clerk, P. P. Brown, and the deacon, H. W. Jones, were both present, though Armstrong Academy is some fifty miles from Providence where the original organization took place. It was voted to hold regular meetings of the church here once a month, evidently because of the great interest on the part of the people of the neighborhood. Sunday, March 21, 1847, seems to have been a red letter day for the church in this locality. Several members were received, including Capt. William Lucas and his wife, prominent people of the Academy neighborhood. Dr. Adiel Sherwood, corresponding secretary of the Indian Mission of Louisville, Kentucky, and Rev. Joseph Smedley, missionary to the Creeks and Chickasaws, were present and assisted with the services, which were concluded with the celebration of the Lord's Supper.

Another evidence of the growth of the church in the region of Armstrong Academy was the appointment of a committee in May, 1847, to select the location and let the contract for the building of a church building, Captain Lucas being one of the members of this committee. The instructions given to the committee are interesting: "The location should be made near a supply of good water, pasture, and near some one who will feel an interest in and look after it occasionally. That the Committee make no contract until they are well satisfied what their funds are; be careful not to bring their church into debt; and that they build as good and large a house as the funds under their control will permit." The house was not erected until nearly two years later, and then under the supervision of Mr. Potts, at a point about three miles southeast of Armstrong Academy. In honor of their pastor, the congregation named their new church "Ramsey," by which it was known until 1855 when the name was changed to "Philadelphia."

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As long as Mr. Potts conducted Armstrong Academy he continued to preach at other points farther east, receiving members into this church from time to time. One of these preaching places, whose location has been lost, was known as Winchester. It was probably near the district court grounds in what is now Choctaw County. Students of Oklahoma history will remember that the Choctaw Nation was divided into three districts, the western division being named after the great chief Pushmataha. The first chief of this district was Nitakechie, a nephew of Pushmataha, who led a band of Choctaws over the "Trail of Tears" to their new home. It is not now definitely known where Nitakechie and his family made their home, but it was somewhere within the eastern bounds of Mr. Potts' circuit. There is no evidence to show that Nitakechie was ever reached by the missionaries—he was opposed to them in Mississippi. It is also known that Nitakechie returned to Mississippi on a visit and died there in December, 1845. At least two of Nitakechie's sons, however, were converted under the preaching of Mr. Potts. One of them, who had taken the name of Henry Graves while attending school at the Choctaw Academy in Kentucky, was converted at a meeting held at Winchester in the autumn of 1849. He became a very earnest and faithful Christian, and in July, 1851, by the vote of the church during a meeting at Winchester, was called to ordination and became a helper of Mr. Potts, serving faithfully until his death, which occurred in February, 1854. His wife, Mary Graves, was converted and baptized at her husband's funeral. Another of the chief's sons, Captain Jackson Nitakechie, united with the church at Winchester in 1851.

An interesting minute of a meeting of the church. held at Winchester in June, 1850 records the reception and baptism, of a number of persons: "One of the above, Yakmetubbe, was tried for murder and condemned the 19th instant to be executed the first of July. Immediately upon his condemnation, by his request he was put in charge of an officer who was a member of the church, and who endeavored to show him the danger to which he was exposed, and urged upon him the necessity of an immediate preparation for death. His heart was reached. He prayed for forgiveness for his sins, and as we hope, in answer to his petitions his sins were forgiven, and though compelled to suffer the penalty

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of the law of his country, we trust he will escape the severer penalty of God's law through the mediation of Jesus Christ." It will be remembered that the Choctaws administered capital punishment by shooting. They had no jails in the early days, and during the interval between the conviction of the criminal and the carrying out of the sentence, the latter was practically at liberty or under the nominal charge of an officer of the law. Few instances are recorded, however, where a condemned Choctaw failed to present himself at the time and place appointed for his execution.

In December, 1851, Rev. A. G. Moffatt and wife, and her sister, Mary Jane Glasgo, new teachers at Armstrong Academy, were received by letter into the church at Ramsey. Not long afterwards Mr. Potts' health began to fail. From the official records at Washington, the indisposition of Mr. Potts is cited as a reason for the tardy presentation of the report from Armstrong Academy in 1853. We are not surprised, therefore, to find the church on March 12, 1854, accepting the resignation of their old pastor "at his request," and to note the election of Rev. Andrew G. Moffatt as his successor.

In April, 1855, comes the reorganization of the church, with a change of name from Ramsey to Philadelphia. Doubtless prior to this other churches had been constituted within this district and independent of this organization. Some of these, dragging along at a poor dying rate, were invited to join the parent body, which was probably the reason for the change of name. There was certainly no cause, as we shall see later, for any reflection on their late pastor and friend, Ramsey D. Potts, nor desire to deprive him of honor. During this period Philadelphia church seems to have joined the Sister Grove Association in Fannin County, Texas. At a meeting of the church in conference on September 4, 1858, a resolution was adopted asking for a letter of dismission from this Association, and at the same time delegates were chosen to attend the Indian Association "lately and informally organized in the Creek Nation." However, in December, 1860, an Association of churches was formed at Philadelphia church, and was named the "Ramsey Baptist Association," in honor of the first missionary, Elder Potts. Delegates were present

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from four other churches; namely, Rock Creek, Cedar Creek, Ephesus and Good Spring. The last mentioned church was on "Allen's" or Island Bayou in the Chickasaw Nation. Cedar Creek, later called Bethel, was in Skullyville County in the northern part of the Choctaw Nation. This Association met again in 1861 with Cedar Creek church, but the advent of the Civil War brought it to an end. All of the member churches of the Ramsey Association, except Good Spring, assisted in the formation of the Choctaw-Chickasaw Baptist Association near Atoka in 1872.

Rev. A. G. Moffatt resigned the pastorate of Philadelphia church in 1858, but remained in this section for about a year, afterwards going to Canada. He was succeeded by Rev. Robt. J. Hogue, who came from Georgia as a missionary to the Choctaws under appointment from the Domestic and Indian Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. His support was pledged by the Bethel Association of Georgia. The remainder of Mr. Hogue's long life (he died at Atoka in 1906) was identified with mission work in the Choctaw Nation. His pastorate at the Philadelphia church included the dark days of Civil War, when Armstrong Academy became a Confederate hospital, and the surrounding country an asylum for refugees from the northern part of the Indian Territory. He did what he could to relieve the sufferings of the sick and wounded, and gave Christian burial to those who died. Within a rock vault in the now deserted cemetery of Armstrong Academy lie the remains of four of Mr. Hogue's children. At the close of the war, in October, 1865, to be exact, Mr. Hogue resigned the pastorate at Philadelphia and moved to Texas. In 1868 he was recalled, retaining the pastorate until 1872. He then removed to the region of Boggy Depot, where he had organized a church in 1871. Elder Hogue frequently visited Philadelphia church for many years after he ceased to be its pastor, and his name occurs as moderator of conferences there as late as 1896.

Since the days of Rev. R. J. Hogue Philadelphia church has generally had Choctaw pastors. Among them should be mentioned Johnson Baker, Alfred Wright, R. S. McFarland, E. N. Patterson, and S. E. Nelson who has held the pastorate since 1917. Several of these men were called to ordination from the member-

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ship of Philadelphia church. A knowledge of the Choctaw language is still a valuable asset to the pastor.

In the year 1883 the site of the church building was moved to a point about three miles east of the present town of Blue. In 1887 this structure was burned, and the church was rebuilt near the river west of Blue. As this site did not prove satisfactory, Philadelphia church in 1905 made its last move and erected the present building on ground donated for the purpose by Mrs. Adeline Patterson, one of its members. The bell now in use in this church was brought from the old Choctaw court house at Armstrong Academy.

In recent years Philadelphia church has only a small membership, but it is far from dead. In the Baptist "Seventy-five Million Campaign" this little organization pledged $850.00. It keeps up Sunday School and other church activities. In 1929 it won the banner offered by the Choctaw ad Chickasaw Singing Convention. A men's quartet from the Philadelphia choir has been one of the most popular in southern Oklahoma in recent years, especially in the rendering of sacred songs.

SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

1Inge, Mrs. T. T. (Daughter of Rev. R. J. Hogue), Atoka, Oklahoma.
2McCoy, Isaac, "History of Baptist Indian Missions."
3Records and Minutes of Philadelphia Baptist Church.
4Rose, Alvin, Durant, Oklahoma.
5Taylor, Baxter, "An Early Baptist Missionary" in Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. IV, p. 296.
6Thoburn and Wright, "A History of Oklahoma," Vol. I.
7Underwood, W. H., Atoka, Oklahoma.

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