Our little corner of Illinois has deep Methodist roots.
One of the first permanent settlers north of Peoria was Jesse Walker, a Methodist preacher who established a mission along the Fox River north of its mouth on the Illinois River in 1825.
Walker established the Fox River Mission in Section 15 of modern Mission Township, LaSalle County (T35N, R5E) on land purchased from the Potowatomi Tribe, on behalf of the Methodist Church. When the Illinois General Assembly approved allowing counties to establish the township form of government in 1850 and names were chosen for each, Mission was named after Walker’s enterprise a quarter of a century earlier.
The purpose of the mission was to teach the local Native Americans a variety of skills, including farming; educate Native American children at a mission-run school; and, of course, to spread the Gospel according to Methodist teachings.
In his 1825 report, Walker reported to the Rock River Conference of the Methodist Church in Illinois that he had established the mission, after some confusion about the proper location, and that it included a large, two story house, built of hewn logs, measuring 50×30 feet. The house was divided into apartments for the mission staff (which mostly consisted of Walker’s extended family). The mission campus also included a blacksmith shop, a poultry house, a spring house and “other conveniences.”
Walker’s son-in-law, James Walker, arrived in the Fox Valley that same year and brought with him a horse-powered corn grinding mill. Soon after, however, James Walker moved on to the DuPage River where he established a new settlement, first called Walker’s Grove, and later renamed Plainfield.
Jesse Walker reported that by 1826, the mission had 40 acres of land under cultivation, seven acres in pasture, and one acre planted in garden crops to provide food for the staff. The cost of the venture was $2,034, of which the U.S. Government had pledged to pay two-thirds, since the mission staff promised to use their blacksmith to service the needs of the local Native Americans.
But the mission turned out to be neither a financial nor a spiritual success. American Indians were always difficult to convert to Christianity, at least one source reporting that Native Americans thought the concept of original sin ridiculous. And while the government had pledged to subsidize the new mission—it would have been a relatively cheap way to provide services to local tribes required under various treaties—Walker and the Methodists learned the hard lesson that it’s best to get cash in hand when the government makes promises and not rely on anyone’s good will or intentions. The Methodists, in fact, never did get the money they were promised.
By 1829, when Galena merchant James Stoddard sent a small wagon train loaded with lead to Chicago from the mines located around the bustling northwestern Illinois town (the train crossed the Fox River at the mission, drawn by the promise of blacksmithing services there) they found the mission abandoned.
While Walker and the other Methodists in the Rock River Conference gave the mission up as a bad idea, they continued to spread the Gospel according to Methodism to the new settlers beginning to flood into northern Illinois. Another Methodist preacher, Stephen R. Beggs, settled at James Walker’s growing hamlet on the DuPage River.
In 1832, when the Black Hawk War broke out, settlers up and down the Fox River Valley fled their homes for safety. Those in the southern part of today’s Kendall County line ran south to Ottawa, where a fort was under construction. Those in the northern part of the modern county’s boundaries first fled to Walker’s Grove where they congregated at Beggs’ farm. The panicked pioneers tore down some of Beggs’ sheds and fences and built a rude fort designed to scare off any Indian attackers. And, indeed, it was pretty much a bluff, because as Beggs later recalled, while there were some 125 frightened refugees there, they only had four guns among them, “some of which,” he added, didn’t work.
The war proved to be brief and the next year, 1833, was dubbed “The Year of the Early Spring.” The prairie dried out and the grass greened up early, allowing a pent-up wave of settlers to begin flooding into the Fox Valley.
Many of those early pioneers were Methodists, and Jesse Walker and Stephen Beggs lost no time in establishing Methodist meetings at several settlers’ cabins up and down the Fox Valley, the two of them servicing their respective circuits. Beggs, who established the first Methodist class at Walker’s Grove in 1829, was receptive when Daniel and Sarah Pearce and their extended family, who had settled at what eventually became Oswego in 1833, asked for a class to be established there. That year, the Oswego Class joined new classes at Ottawa and Princeton. By 1835, when the Rev. William Royal was the circuit rider, his route took him from Oswego northwest to Belvedere, south to Princeton, and back through Mission Township in LaSalle County as he visited the 19 charges in his circuit.
The Methodist class meeting at the Pearce cabin eventually became a full-fledged congregation of the Methodist-Episcopal Church. The congregation began building a church in Oswego in 1848, finishing the building in 1850. It is today known as the Little White School Museum, and still stands on the site where those early Methodists erected it. The church was finally considered free of debt and eligible to be dedicated in 1854. The congregation met in the building until 1913,when they decided to merge with the German Methodists a few blocks away.
It was during the mid-19th Century that another group of Methodist farmers, this time from Germany called Albright Methodists, began settling on the prairie east of Oswego. They built their first church about 1850 on a low-lying parcel just west of modern Roth Road. The church and cemetery were moved east to Roth Road in 1861. Eventually, this congregation became known as the Prairie Church.
Meanwhile in Oswego, a group of Albright Methodists, members of the Prairie Church, were beginning to wish they had their own church in town so they didn’t have to drive three miles out in the country every Sunday. In 1860, the group began meeting in a stone building at the corner of Washington and Madison called the French Castle.
The French Castle, built as a large home by some of Oswego’s early French-Canadian residents (thus the name) at Washington and Madison streets, had been used by the village’s Presbyterians until 1857 when they moved to their new church at Madison and Douglas streets.
The vacant building proved a suitable home for the new congregation.
The Oswego congregation continued to grow, as more Germans immigrated to the area, along with Pennsylvania Germans, both drawn by the large population of German-speakers already in the area. Sermons and funerals at the new church were preached in German while the Methodist-Episcopal Church served the village’s English language population.
The town Methodists eventually built a new church in 1894 after tearing the old building down. So that year, Oswego boasted two Methodist churches, one German and one American, with services in English in the Methodist-Episcopal Church and services in German at the Albright Methodists’ new building.
The German Methodists hired a single preacher who ministered to a circuit of four congregations that included the one in town, the Prairie Church, and the Lantz Church and the Copenhagen Church, both just over the line in Will County’s Wheatland Township. The four-church circuit was served by a single pastor, based in Oswego. The Copenhagen and Lantz congregations eventually merged, creating a new congregation called the Salem Church.
In 1870, Oswego had boasted Baptist, Lutheran, German Evangelical, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist-Episcopal churches. But as the years passed, some of those congregations gradually dissolved. The Baptists were first to go, and their congregants spread themselves among the remaining churches. The Lutherans were next, with most of them joining their fellow
German-speakers at the Evangelical Church. The congregation at the Methodist-Episcopal Church—now the Little White School Museum—dissolved in 1913, and its members mostly transferred to the Evangelical Church. Possibly prompted by that union, services started being held in English in January of that year.
Finally, when the Congregational Church was destroyed by fire in 1920, its congregation also decided to join the Evangelical Church’s congregation, and a new church community, the Federated Church, was created. It’s a name by which some long-time Oswego residents still call the church.
The Federated Church became affiliated with the Evangelical United Brethren denomination in 1947. It changed its name to the Church of the Good Shepherd EUB in 1957 in honor of the church building’s iconic stained glass window that faces Washington Street. In 1968, the EUB and Methodists merged, and the Church of the Good Shepherd added “United Methodist” to its name.
Today, the landmark Church of the Good Shepherd United Methodist is the direct descendant of those pioneer Methodists who gathered in Daniel Pearce’s log cabin in 1833 to establish the first Oswego Methodist Class and went on to build the historic Little White School Museum, and to play such an important part in Oswego area history.