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In God we trust: Seminoles and Christianity

By Judy Weeks

“In God we trust” has always been a part of the foundation of the Seminole culture. The Seminoles are a spiritual people with a strong belief in the power of their Creator, Breath Giver or God, who has given life to the land and its inhabitants of which they are a part. Shared belief and worship in the unseen power of God is the basis of their religion and has sustained them through the most difficult of times.

Over many centuries, the ancestors of the Seminole people have created the rich, cultural heritage that gives them the strength, perseverance and unique attributes that have made their survival possible. One of their greatest strengths has been their ability to adapt to the changes in their circumstances in a positive manner despite environmental fluctuation, persecution, disease, warfare, forced migration and interaction with other cultures.

With the arrival of European influence, Native American cultures experienced a new history of oppression, racism and aggressive force to take their lands and destroy them by warfare, disease and assimilation into another culture. Unfortunately, the arrival of Christianity coincided with these other devastating events, and many Native Americans feared it as the invader’s religion.

For the Tribal members remaining in Florida following the mandate of the Indian Removal Act and three Seminole Wars, Christianity was greatly feared as a tool for their extermination. Living in seclusion, they resisted all attempts at an introduction to what they considered “the white man’s religion.”

The many Native peoples displaced to the Indian territories had increased exposure to the concepts of Christianity and soon came to realize that religion belongs to its believers and not to any one race or culture. As the son of God, Jesus Christ recognized all races, colors and circumstances in life. With the acceptance of Jesus Christ came new hope and a zealous desire to share this newfound knowledge with others.

Around 1907, Creek Seminole missionaries from Oklahoma arrived at the northern camps of their Florida brethren in the hopes of sharing their Christian beliefs. Despite the fact that they were treated well by their hosts, they were initially rebuffed. Their persistence finally paid off in the early 1920s, when conversions came from members of a Snake Clan family that included Mary Tustenuggee Tiger, Ada Tiger, the Tommie family of Annie Mae, Tudie, Jack and Sam as well as children, and Lena, Pocahontas and Frank Huff. Other members of the camp followed their example, and several of their descendants represent the backbone of congregations in the reservation churches at the present time.

Missionary efforts by the Episcopal Church began in the 1890s, when Bishop William Crane Gray built a mission store and small hospital in the Big Cypress near Brown’s Trading Post and called it the Glade Cross Mission. It failed miserably, and in 1908, the church purchased Brown’s and moved the mission under the leadership of W. J. Godden, where it again failed and became inactive by 1914. Deaconess Harriet Bedell reestablished the Mission in Everglades City in 1933 and began offering medical assistance and economic advice until her retirement in 1960. She became a close friend of the Seminoles but received no converts to Christianity.

Acceptance of the Christian faith remained very slow until the arrival in 1923 of a Creek Baptist from Oklahoma: the Rev. Willie King, his wife, Lena, and daughter Ruth. The First Seminole Indian Baptist Church was established on the Dania Reservation in 1936 and represented the first church allowed on the reservations. Rev. King began to build a congregation of converts and taught himself the Mikasuki language to better serve the people.

Revivals became popular social events, and with the arrival in 1943 of Oklahoma Creek missionary Rev. Stanley Smith, unprecedented conversions took place. Not only did Tribal leaders travel long distances with their people to attend these events, but Rev. Smith carried his ministry on the road to distant camps and villages throughout the Seminole communities. He drew large crowds to the porch at Roberts General Store in Immokalee on several occasions and then followed the people to their homes deep within the swamplands of the Everglades with his message.

With the opening of the Tamiami Trail across the Everglades, the economy, environment and lifestyle of the Seminole people began to change forever. In order to sustain their families, many of the elders made seasonal migrations with them to the tourist centers along the coastline and sought agricultural work on the farms and ranches that began to dot the landscape of South Florida. It was a confusing time for the Seminole leaders with life around them changing rapidly, and the strong desire to preserve their culture seemed to be threatened.

Many of the traditional Tribal leaders saw new hope in accepting Christianity, which broadened their relationship with their Creator and offered the hope of salvation through Jesus Christ. The strength and conviction of these leaders had sustained the survival of their people, their traditional customs and staunch independence in the past. With the conversion of the leaders, their followers found new hope for continued survival.

Traditional religious leaders like Josie and Ingraham Billie became Christian leaders and persuaded many of their people to follow them to the reservation that had been established at Big Cypress. The Big Cypress Baptist Church (now called Big Cypress First Baptist Church) opened in 1948 with Josie Billie as the assistant pastor, and in 1949, he was licensed to preach by the Southern Baptists at the age of 62. Sometime later, his brother Ingraham Billie embraced Christianity and brought a large following with him to the reservation. In 1964, Ingraham Billie laid the foundation for Big Cypress New Testament Baptist Church, preaching in a chickee. Two years later, his son Rev. Frank Billie officially established New Testament Church. Both churches are still active in Big Cypress today.

The Christian influence moved quickly through the Creek Seminole elders in Brighton and then received strong reinforcement from converts like Jack Smith Sr., Leona Smith, Joe Henry Tiger, John Josh, Toby Johns and Joe Johns, to name a few.

The Florida Baptists’ Home Mission Board appointed Genus and Carolyn Crenshaw as missionaries to the Florida Indians in 1951. Under their leadership, a Baptist church was maintained on each of the three Seminole reservations (Hollywood, Brighton and Big Cypress) as well as a mission on the Tamiami Trail and three other locations.

Many of the leaders throughout the Tribal communities embraced Christianity and worked tirelessly to serve their people. Faith and prayer played an important role in the survival of the Seminoles as they adapted to physical, social and economic changes while fighting against assimilation, establishing sovereignty, drafting a constitution and creating a governing body that would ensure the future of their culture.

The churches brought strength to their members, and in turn, the members brought strength to the churches. With the power of faith, communities adapted to change and new leaders came forward to serve the people. There are too many individuals to mention, but their devotion was limitless and a few examples will follow.

Men like Rev. Bill Osceola dedicated their lives to Tribal service in the name of the Lord. While maintaining his congregation in Hollywood, he did missionary service in Big Cypress. He would camp out for days, enlisting the assistance of anyone that came along to help him lay cement blocks and set rafters for the Big Cypress New Testament Baptist Church.

Howard Micco spent his life doing God’s work and served as pastor of the Trail Baptist Church, Big Cypress Baptist Church and First Indian Baptist Church of Brighton. Through baptism, he brought people to the Lord, and officiating at their funerals, he guided them to their final destination in God’s Kingdom.

Pastor Frank Billie tended to his flock at the Big Cypress New Testament Baptist Church while serving in the Tribal government and carried on missionary work to spread the Gospel. He was joined by his wife, Eddie Cypress Billie, Deacon Joe Osceola and his wife, Martha, in organizing annual missionary trips for his congregation to Oklahoma. In addition, he coordinated monthly “all day sings” throughout the Christian communities with the assistance of his fellow pastors. He always found time to visit the small groups of believers living in Immokalee, Tampa and remote campsites along the Tamiami Trail.

Women played an important role in the churches as well as their families. They cooked for the church gatherings, cleaned the buildings, taught in the Sunday schools, sang in the choirs, organized food and clothing drives for the needy and did community service to the elderly and sick. In many instances, they comprised the majority of the congregation, and their strength and devotion kept the churches alive during difficult times.

Rev. Wonder Johns was recently named Pastor Emeritus of the First Indian Baptist Church of Brighton, and following his conversion to Christianity, he dedicated his life to service for the Lord. A descendant of Creek Indians from Georgia and Alabama, he was born in St. Lucie County in 1934.

“I remember those pesky missionaries coming to our camp all the time, but it wasn’t until the ‘40s that I warmed up to Willie King and could talk to him,” Rev. Johns said. “He was living in a house in Okeechobee and would come visit our chickees in the woods. When I was 14 or 15, I decided I wanted change in my life. The missionary told me about the boarding school at the Qualla Boundary of the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina. That is where I found Christ, along with several of my cousins.”

“After two years, I transferred to Oklahoma to finish school, married and then did a tour of duty in the U. S. Army. I always held my faith above all things wherever I went. We returned to Brighton in 1972 and I went to work for the Tribe, but my real job was working for the Lord. I continued my Bible studies and became pastor of the First Seminole Baptist Church in Hollywood. They say that I made history when I became the first Indian moderator for the Big Lake Baptist Association. With God guiding my footsteps, I was also the first Indian to be on the State Nominating Committee of the Florida Baptist Convention.”

Congregations were inspired by the religious devotion of their membership. The Bible passage Matthew 18:20 says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” This described many of the church gatherings and provided strength for struggling congregations and inspiration for their lay pastors and deacons who formed the backbone of the Seminole Christian faith. Devotional meetings were held wherever the people gathered together in churches, chickees, sheds, private homes and campsites, under the shelter of the cypress trees or vacant land in the woods.

Members of the congregation improvised whenever necessary to shape their worship services. With little or no education, they struggled to read and interpret the Bible passages and learn the words to the hymns. They sang without music or relied upon volunteers with instruments. Frank J. Billie played the accordion by ear. Joe Osceola started taking guitar lessons when he was in his late 40s, and Jonah Cypress is a familiar figure with his guitar wherever he attends services. Many of the Tribal entertainers like Paul Buster Sr. got their start participating in church worship and continue their praise in song.

While most of the gospel songs are in English, many of the elders learned the Creek translations, and a few of the hymns have Mikasuki words. Tribal elders vividly remember when they became Christians, and some of their fondest memories include the old hymns. Over the years, no religious gathering was complete until Eddie Billie, Betty Osceola, Howard Micco, Sadie Billie, Martha Osceola, Lucy John, Keno King or scores of others led the group in native harmony.

Christianity has found its place in the culture of the Seminole Tribe. It isn’t just a part of their recent historical heritage, but is an integral part of the daily life and operations of many of its members.

From the day that a few members of the Snake Clan first accepted Jesus Christ nearly a century ago, it has become a portion of their family heritage. The power of Christianity traveled from Ada Tiger to her daughter Betty Mae Tiger Jumper, a religious and political leader, educator, writer and humanitarian. Her son Moses Jumper Jr. is a lay pastor and has coordinated youth and recreation programs for the Seminole Tribe as well as the Big Cypress First Seminole Baptist Church. His son Josh Jumper has furthered his education with Christian studies, organized youth groups and recently became a licensed pastor.

Christianity hasn’t just become a part of Tribal history, but is a part of its present and future. Reservation churches are continuing to grow and are offering youth programs to enhance the education of Christian values.

When Rev. Stanley Smith held a revival in Immokalee on the porch of Roberts General Store in the 1940s, he planted a seed which the elders prayed would grow and flourish. Those elders began a missionary effort in the 1960s and traveled from Brighton, Big Cypress and Hollywood to keep it alive. It has now grown into the Immokalee First Seminole Baptist Church, which celebrated its second anniversary with a revival during the 2012 Easter season.

Former Chairman Mitchell Cypress initiated the Seminole Tribe Intercessory Prayer Gatherings under the coordination of Pastor Wonder Johns. Rotating between the reservations, the meetings take place every few months and bring worshipers from all across Seminole Country in support of their Tribal leaders and members.

Revivals continue to draw Native American religious leaders from Oklahoma and gospel entertainers to large gatherings in support of the communities.

Reflecting on a lifetime of Christian service, Pastor Wonder Johns said, “Sometimes people ask me why I spend so much time in church and traveling between the reservations spreading God’s word. I don’t expect recognition; I do it for the Lord. From the day I became a Christian, I never looked back, and my reward will be when I finally go to meet my Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Pastor Johns made his final journey to receive that reward on June 10, when he followed the Christian trail taken by many Tribal spiritual leaders before him. During his lifetime, he broadened that pathway and created a map for the next generation of Tribal Christians to follow.

One thought on “In God we trust: Seminoles and Christianity

  1. The cornerstone of memorial chapel from the rockefeller hall 1885 at Bacone college predates ten tribe judaic christian faith somewhat beyond the current white lies about native history. It would stand to reason many of the slaves who took refuge in Florida would have been beleivers. The only Christian people on the trail of tears were Seminole. It would seem the forked tongue appellation of western europeans continues to this day. My ancestors were partially Choctaw and Cherokee-Turners from Mississippi and Alabama, I was in Army basic training with one in 1968 who was Afro-american, quite dusky. In a nation of liers and liars, murderers and theives (USA) who re-create everything in their own image, to their own destruction, as the scripture says-Truth has fallen to the ground. JR

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