REV. W. P. DUNKLE
Some years ago there fell into my hands the diary of Rev. Willis F. Folsom, a Choctaw Indian, who labored with apostolic spirit and zeal among his people from 1856 to the time of his death, in 1894.
Reading this diary set me to wondering why we so often pass by the heroes at our door and go far afield to find heroes. Is not a converted Indian as truly a proof of the power of Christ as a converted Korean, for instance? The Koreans are not more truly heathen than were the Indians when Christ was first preached to them.
Somewhere in Mississippi, on February 9, 1825, was born a round-faced, black-haired, black-eyed, chubby little heathen Indian baby to whom was given the name of Willis. His father’s name was McKee Folsom, a half-white Choctaw Indian. When the baby boy was about five years old he was brought to the wilderness land of Indian Territory by his parents, along with the members of their tribe. There were no schools and no churches. It was a wild land for wild people. A few years later some devoted missionaries began to preach among these wild and heathen people and to establish schools for them.
When Willis was about fifteen he was sent to school for the first time. Fancy this shy, backward boy, along with some dozens of others, coming for the first time to a teacher. And, pity the teacher who had to make his way in to the confidence of these wild boys, who spoke a tongue of which he was as ignorant as they were of his. When the lad had been at the school for some months a missionary began a revival meeting for the students. What he said and what he did was all new and strange to them; but though he understood little or none of its meaning, Willis found his heart longing for the thing which he felt the missionaries had. He knew not what it was he longed for, but, as he afterwards wrote, his "heart hurt for something." After days of weary waiting and struggling and inarticulate prayers, the meaning of which he
himself did not know, suddenly his whole soul was stirred with light and joy, and he loudly proclaimed his new-found wonder and treasure. "Immediately," he says, "I felt that I must learn what was in the Bible, so that I could tell it to my people." Thus began. the mental and moral awakening of Willis Folsom, an awakening which led him into most arduous labors as a student and as a missionary to his people. Though his school advantages were few and limited, yet by diligent study through a long life he became a fair English scholar and a great expounder of the deep things of God.
Folsom was licensed to preach some time in the year 1851 or 1852; was ordained deacon by Bishop Early a the session of the Indian Mission Conference in 1858, and elder by Bishop Pierce at the session of 1859; and was admitted into full connection with the Conference at the session of 1894, in order that he might die a member of the Conference which he had served so long and so faithfully in many capacities. His bones lie in an unmarked grave at Pocola, Okla., where he had lived for many years.
His diary begins August 11, 1856, with a solemn dedication of himself to the Lord:
I do hereby most solemnly consecrate myself to my Heavenly Father to seek a blessing of a clean heart, holiness of heart, without which no man shall see the Lord. I do sincerely forsake all my sins and do heartily repent and bewail my manifold transgressions. O my God, cleanse me from all inward sin by the application of the blood of the Lamb! My Lord, grant it. Amen.
For the next several years he seems to have been employed as interpreter for the missionaries and with them traveled far and wide throughout the bounds of his nation and often into other tribes.
From January 2, 1859, the diary is unbroken and gives an account of each day, as:
Thursday, 6th.—At prayer meeting at Brother Mickle’s, six miles from home. Very cold; four present; felt blest; conducted service.
Saturday, 8th.—Quarterly meeting on Mushulatubbee Circuit, nine miles, at Holitasska. Dr. F. M. Paine preached at eleven, Rev. W . X Wilson at night. Interpreted both times and closed with exhortation. Eighty persons present; ten united with the Church.
This meeting concluded on Sunday night, he having interpreted four sermons, the business of the Conference,
preached once, and exhorted three times, besides baptizing six infants and four adults.
On Monday night he is at Short Mountain, thirty miles away, where a two days’ meeting was held, preaching twice and interpreting four times, besides exhorting and baptizing nine adults. So the record runs from day to day through the days of the year, with only here and there a day off. And even these he felt were "lost days," saying: "Today I did not get to preach; day lost." Not only did he preach and exhort in public, but as he went he found time and opportunity to do the same in private ways.
This day I found a man very sick and in great distress about his soul, for he was not prepared to die. I prayed with him and pointed him to the Lamb. He presently found peace and wished to be baptized, which I accordingly did. We parted to meet in heaven. About sixty miles from home.
Thus from day to day, ever busy, until he closes the year:
December 31st.—Preached at Double Springs at eleven. Interpreted for Rev. W. L. Molloy at candle-lighting. So closed the year. Preached 117 times; interpreted 204 times; 183 united with the Church this year. O how I long to be holy and to see the salvation of my people! Lord, forgive me the mistakes and sins of this year.
The year 1860 begins with:
January 1st.—Preached at Fort Coffee at night. One joined; one converted. O Lord, keep me from sin this year; make me more diligent and useful.
On the 22d of January he writes:
At eleven Rev. Molloy preached, and I interpreted. At night I preached. Not one joined the Church. How sad!
Again he writes:
Did not preach today. Went to New Hope, but was not invited to preach; so I went to Fort Coffee thinking they would invite me to preach, but was not invited. I felt very bad to have traveled twenty-eight miles and back and not get to preach.
Young Ewing was his presiding elder, and they ranged together. In March he notes:
Water-bound for four days; no bread, slept on saddle blanket tinder ledge of rock.
That he read as he rode appears:
This day read book of Jonah, with notes by Clark, and sermon by Watson, "God with Us."
September finds him far from home in the bounds of the Chickasaw Circuit:
John Sterling preached; I interpreted. Next day Y. Ewing preached at eleven; I interpreted. Preached at three and called for mourners; seven came forward; baptized three infants and one adult. Y. Ewing preached at night; I interpreted; two hundred and fifty present. About one hundred miles from home; been gone six weeks.
The following days were spent traveling and preaching until we come to this date:
Sunday, September 16.—At eleven Rev. Hamil preached; I interpreted. At night I preached. Had great liberty; melting time; about four hundred present; thirty joined the Church; many converted.
A few days later he is on the eastern border, more than one hundred miles away, over rough roads, in the bounds of Kiamitia Circuit. Here he says:
At night Rev. George R. Buchanan preached; I interpreted. It was his first sermon by an interpreter. Very awkward.
This was a quarterly meeting occasion, and, as was the custom, a camp meeting was held in connection with it, lasting three days. He did all the interpreting and preached thrice.
About four hundred present; twenty-two joined the Church.
From Kiamitia they moved on to Doaksville, where Isaac Newman was in charge. Here, as usual, they held a three days’ meeting and the Quarterly Conference. He did all the interpreting, as usual, preached thrice.
About three hundred persons present; forty-two joined the Church; ten infants and six adults baptized.
The meeting closed on Monday night, and Friday finds him and Ewing seventy-five miles away on the Perryville Circuit in another meeting:
Three days’ meeting. About sixty persons were present; eight united with the Church.
On Monday he turns his face homeward, having been absent ten weeks. Five days later he is at New Hope, where he preached at eleven, at three, and at night. He says:
Have a slight fever and think of staying at home for a few days.
But not so. Three days later he and Ewing are in a three days’ meeting at Double Springs. Ewing preached at eleven, and he interpreted, as was the custom. At night he
preached and called for mourners, and "about twenty came forward."
Four days later he is in another meeting, where he preached four times and interpreted nine times. Here "nineteen joined the Church."
The close of 1860 finds him at Fort Coffee, and he writes:
By the blessing of God I am well. I have traveled over one thousand miles this year, preached two hundred and four times, and interpreted three hundred and nine times. About three hundred have joined the Church this year. O Lord, make me more useful next year!
March 2, 1861, Folsom writes:
Started to Lost Hill to preach. Stayed all night with Mr. John Nail. Sunday it rained all day. Returned home Monday and found my, little girl dead.
The horrors of the Civil War were now being felt. On May 1 he writes:
Soldiers burned my house and destroyed my corn and drove away my stock.
And yet the fire of this flaming evangel was not quenched. On May 5 he writes:
Went to quarterly meeting. Rev. Lewis P. Lively preached. Melting time. I was so happy in the Lord.
But the toughest body must have rest.
From second Sunday in June to July 28 I was not able to preach.
July 28.—This day I tried to preach in Choctaw and in English at Buck Creek to the Choctaw Regiment, but got confused.
The year closed with war and rumors of war. He says:
Many have been slain this year; few have been saved. O Lord, revive thy work; let not the wicked prevail. Help me to be more useful.
The year 1862 he began with a prayer meeting; and though war and its horrors were all about, he abated nothing of his zeal and industry, neither does mention of it appear in the diary. But, labor as he would, the old-time fires would not kindle. Here and there the note of victory rings out, but all too often the entry appears: "None joined the Church; called for mourners, but none came."
Constant labors and anxiety wore him away this year. He writes:
From September 7 to October 24 I did not preach on account of sickness. Been poorly all year.
And yet the year closed with these words:
Have preached only one hundred and thirty one times this year. Very few have been saved. O Lord, fill me with thy Holy Spirit; cleanse me from all sin; revive thy work in our midst.
The troublous times did not abate, neither did his ardor. On April 12, 1363, he writes:
This day I preached at my house. About forty present. At night I preached at Brother Williarms’s. After I had preached about fifteen minutes I was interrupted by soldiers presenting arms, expecting to find some deserters in the congregation.
Again he writes:
June 21.—Preached at George Parrish’s. About forty present, mostly soldiers.
And on the 27th:
Tried to hold a two days’ meeting at White Bluff. No congregation on Saturday and only three at eleven o’clock Sunday.
Though in labors abundant, results were meager. His people had suffered all the trials of war. Their untamed nature had often given way before passion. The border was most disturbed, but the interior was not unmolested. In fact, Willis Folsom was one of the few Methodist preachers who remained with the people and tried to hold together the churches founded by years of heroic labor. Most of the white preachers were forced to leave the field, and but few of the Indian preachers held true. The close of the war found only five members of the Conference on the field and only three circuits to report, and all of these were in the Choctaw Nation, where Folsom’s zeal and holy life had touched them. Undoubtedly the continuance of the Indian Mission Conference after the war is due as much to Folsom as to any other man, unless it be Bishop Marvin.
Folsom was as unsparing a critic of himself as could well be. Being called upon to preach unexpectedly, he failed and wrote:
I tried to preach from 2 Thessalonians III. 13 and could not at all, being unexpectedly called upon. My mind was not free. O Lord, have I, then, backslidden[sic] from thee? O Lord, take art thy Holy Spirit from me! O my God, thou knowest my heart and my trouble. Give me grace to bear all things for thy sake.
The years following the war were years of abounding labors with meager results. Not until well into the seventies
does the return of better times begin to appear. On the forty-ninth anniversary of his birth he writes:
This is my forty-ninth birthday. I have been very happy all day. May God help me to be more faithful to him.
The next day he writes:
Killed a fine, fat buck to-day. Eight prongs.
This is the only record that he ever hunted, though game was abundant.
On February 23, 1874, he wrote:
This evening I left home for Quarterly Conference on Perryville Circuit. Spent the night at G. Ansley’s, eight miles. Tuesday. Got to George Edwards’s, thirty-five miles. wednesday. Got to Higgins’s, thirty miles. Thursday. Got to Isaac Colbert’s, thirty miles. Friday. Got to Brother Rogers’s, twelve miles; preached at night.
A three days’ meeting was held here, and on Monday he started to Perryville, twenty-five miles, where a two days’ meeting and Quarterly Conference were held. The next morning he started for Sans Bois Circuit, sixty-five miles away. Here a three days’ meeting and Quarterly Conference were held. On Monday he started home.
Monday. Thirty miles; preached at night.
Tuesday. Twenty-two miles, to New Hope, and preached.
Very often in the years that follow this record appears:
"This day I preached three times," with the names of as many different places, and always with "Called for mourners." On one occasion:
Called for mourners. About forty came forward. The Lord blessed me in the pulpit and made me uncommonly happy. Bless the Lord, O my soul!
That he was brave enough on one occasion appears from this record:
This day an old man came with a girl not over thirteen to be married. I told him it was not right and refused.
Here is another:
Horse strayed or stolen; so I walked to Short Mountain and back, twenty-two miles, to my appointment. Six joined the Church. Warm time.
Here is a very significant entry:
O my God, bless my children. Convert them and save them or Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Here is the outline of an address on Sunday school attendance:
Older people should attend Sunday school as well as young people because: (1) They are more experienced in the things of God; (2) they cannot learn God’s word too much; (3) they should lead their own Children and the children of others; (4) they should study God’s Word, to teach as well as to expect others to teach them.
This is a remarkable entry:
Double Springs District Conference. I preached at night. About thirty mourners; forty joined the Church.
On his birthday, February 9, 1880, he writes:
This is my fifty-fifth birthday. Thank God for his goodness toward me. I expect to spend and be spent in the service of him who has been so good to me. Lord help me to be more faithful and more useful. Forgive all that thou seest amiss in me and fill me with thy Holy Spirit.
The record of his journeys reminds one of John Wesley:
September 1, 1884. Annual Conference at Paul’s Valley. Rode four hundred and twenty miles, preached nineteen times, and interpreted eleven times.
December, 1884. This month I went as a delegate to the Centennial Conference at Baltimore. Left on the fifth of the month. Visited St. Louis, Cincinnatti[sic], Washington, Baltimore, Richmond and other smaller places. It was good to be there.
The year 1885 finds him as busy as ever, traveling widely, preaching, interpreting, and exhorting, with seldom more than a day at home. On August 28 he returns from a long absence to find his wife very sick, and on the 31st appears this entry
Wife went away this morning. We have been together in many trials for a long time. O my God, help me to bear patiently all thy doings.
September 5. This day Brother Shappard preached my wife’s funeral.
The spirit was brave but the flesh could not always keep level with it. Several entries say: "I am so lonely since wife died."
In March, 1889, he accompanied Rev. J. T. McCrary on a trip through the East in an, endeavor to raise money for Galloway College, at Vinita. They visited Memphis, Granada, Carrollton, Holly Springs, Kosciusko, Durant, Yazoo City, Jackson, Leland, Greenville, and other places and returned home June 19. Everywhere he either preached or
told his experience. The trip did not produce much money for the school, but it gave Folsom a fine insight into the nature of many things and some people. His comments are always such as a Christian should make, but they are not void of humor, as, for instance: "They seemed glad to see and hear me until we began to speak of money."
Until the midsummer of 1893 he seemed unaware of any abatement of strength. But suddenly, in the midst of wide travels and incessant labors, he records: "The end cannot be far off. I shall be glad to be in heaven." But there is no sign of decreased labor. He still preached more than thrice a week. The people heard him with old-time gladness. Mourners were converted, sinners convicted, and saints made happy wherever he preached. The diary is briefer, but at almost every service it says: "The Lord was with us"; "came forward for prayer"; "were converted"; "joined the Church."
October 28, 1894, is the last entry. It is written in a strong, firm, clear hand:
New Hope, Sunday night, Matthew XI 28-30. Had much liberty; nine came for prayer; two converted; been happy all day.
Within a few weeks he passed through the gates to join company again with F. M. Paine, Young Ewing, John Harrell, Thomas B. Ruble, J. C. Robinson, W. B. Austin, J. Y. Bryce, J. C. Carr, John Page, and a host of others whom he had companioned long with on earth.
EDITOR’S NOTE.—The editor of this diary is mistaken in describing this man as a heathen in his boyhood. His grandfather, Nathaniel Folsom, was converted to Christianity, at Mahew, Mississippi, in 1827. Concerning his father McKee Folsom, the Missionary Herald, January, 1823, Vol. 19, page 1, says "On the 13th of November, McKee and Israel Folsom, two Choctaw youths, having completed their term of education at the Foreign Mission School, arrived at Brainerd, on their way home. Both are promising young men; though only McKee, the older of the two, is professedly pious."