Thomas Henderson: Pastor, Teacher of Indian Youth

Little did he know that from among these young Native boys, God would raise up gospel preachers and at least five chiefs of the Choctaw Nation.
A Choctaw academy - Thomas Henderson

A Choctaw academy circa 1840

We pray this story will encourage anyone working with Native American youth. You never know how God may use the lives of the young students you are teaching…

In the April 2013 issue of this paper, we looked at the life and ministry of Peter Folsom, a Chief of the Choctaw Nation, and the first Choctaw Baptist preacher (The Bashful Baptist Who Waxed Bold…).

Now let us take a look at the man whom God used in the conversion and training of young Peter Folsom when Peter was still in his teens. That man was Thomas Henderson, a faithful Baptist pastor and teacher of Native boys.

Thomas Henderson: Saved and Called to Preach

Thomas Henderson: Pastor, Teacher of Indian Youth, Choctaw Academy

Pastor Thomas Henderson, 1781-1846

Thomas Henderson (1781-1846) was converted to Christ and ordained as a Baptist minister in Virginia. By 1810 (age 29) he had moved his young family to Boone County, Kentucky.

Thomas Henderson joined the Bullittsburg Baptist Church and “…was invited by the church to labor in conjunction with her other ministers.”1

Thomas Henderson: A Seasoned and Useful Minister, Used of God in Spiritual Awakening

Thomas Henderson preached among the churches of the Elkhorn Association and was an instrumental part of a spiritual awakening known as “…the great ingathering of 1811.”ibid During this spiritual awakening, “One hundred and seventy persons were added to the membership of Bullittsburg Church…”ibid The Bullittsburg Baptist Church’s history records,

“The year 1811 was ushered in with remarkable demonstrations of the Spirit’s presence and power in this church. Indications of a revival spirit were manifested during the closing months of the previous year. The church had been vigilant and faithful in the maintenance of discipline. The membership was aroused to a more earnest spirit of prayer, faith and self-examination, and sinners were awakened with a very great concern for their personal salvation.”ibid

Note: The Bullittsburg Baptist Church held to the Philadelphia Baptist Confession of 1742, thus strongly embracing the doctrines of grace (Unconditional Election, etc.).

Henderson Begins Teaching Native Youth

At age 38, Thomas Henderson began his work at the Choctaw Academy, where he would teach and preach for 23 years of his life.

“In May of this year (1812) Elder Thomas Henderson, whose brief ministry in this and neighboring churches has been profitable to the cause, and who was ‘esteemed very highly in love for his works sake’, removed to another part of the State, and subsequently became connected with the Choctaw Academy in Scott County, Kentucky, where his labors were useful both as a minister and an instructor of the Indian youth.”ibid

Thomas Henderson educated these Native boys as thoroughly as the white men taught their own.

He cared greatly for the boys at his Choctaw Academy, and he called them his “sons”.

This was the first Native school to teach above the elementary level, and the school was sponsored by Baptist churches. Thomas Henderson penned the following words in a report sent to Washington concerning the Choctaw Academy and Missionary Station around January, 1826:

“The boys are all lively and cheerful, peaceable and well disposed, easily governed and ambitious to excel. I have not had occasion to chastise any of them yet, nor indeed, but seldom to call any to account for misconduct. My method is when occasion requires it, in the most determined and solemn manner talk to the offender in the presence of the whole school calling them my sons, and in the most tender and affectionate manner point out the evil consequences resulting from bad conduct and a disregard to order; and the benefits resulting from good behavior…In some lectures I have seen tears flow freely…The improvements they have made have far exceeded my most sanguine (optimistic) expectations…”2

The Fruit Of This Small Choctaw Academy

As Pastor of the Great Crossings Baptist Church near the Choctaw Academy, Thomas Henderson had a profound gospel influence on his Native American pupils. Little did he know that from among these young boys, God would raise up gospel preachers and at least five chiefs of the Choctaw Nation.

Peter Folsom was trained at the Choctaw Academy

One of Henderson’s pupils was a seventeen-year-old Choctaw boy named Peter Folsom. Peter would grow up to become the first Choctaw Baptist preacher and a chief of the Choctaw Nation. He would see 2,000 converted to Christ and baptized. He would start four Choctaw churches during his ministry. (See The Baptist Arrow, issue 11 “The Bashful Baptist Who Waxed Bold…”).

Alfred Wade was trained at the Choctaw Academy

At least four more of Henderson’s Choctaw students would grow up to become chiefs of the Choctaw nation. One of these students was Alfred Wade. After years of faithful service, Wade’s epitaph read,

“Ex-Governor (Chief) of the Choctaw Nation. He having emigrated to this country, finding it a rude wilderness, destitute of all the marks of civilization. The deceased happily lived to see the efforts of his zeal, energy and sole ambition crowned with success by supplying his people with schools, churches, and all that is desired by Christian men. With the blessings of a grateful people his eventful and benevolent career closed March 13, 1878, at the age of 68 years.”3

Encouragement In Native American Mission Work

Many times the work seems slow and there is little visible fruit. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether the truth is touching the hearts of the hearers. But we must remain faithful as Thomas Henderson did. Only time and eternity will tell how mightily God may use these young lives for His glory!

A Call for Seasoned Preachers

Before he ever departed to work in Native American missions, Thomas Henderson was being used of God in his local church for spiritual awakening and the conversion of souls. Perhaps today God would call seasoned and useful preachers like Thomas Henderson to go forth from their established churches and invest their lives in Native American missions. Dear preacher, may God be calling you? – J. D. B.

Bibliography:

  1. “History of Bullittsburg Church”, by Kirtley, Robert A.  1872, pp. 15-18.
  2. “Chronicles of Oklahoma”, Vol. 6, No. 4, December, 1928, “The Choctaw Academy”. Foreman, Carolyn Thomas, p. 459.
  3. Epitaph on the Tomb of Hon. A. (Alfred) Wade. Wadesville Cemetery, LeFlore County, Oklahoma.

Special thanks to Anthony Lewis, descendant of Thomas Henderson, for contributing the historical materials for this article.