• bible sitting next to a teapot

    Whitman Mission

    National Historic Site Washington

On Faith Alone

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
March 2010

It was a warm Ohio summer day in 1838. John Griffin was sitting in the meeting room of the Oberlin Missionary Society when the course of his life abruptly changed. The speaker was giving a report on the missionary efforts in the Oregon Country. The Whitmans and Spaldings were specifically mentioned. Griffin, a newly ordained minister, decided he wanted to be part of that story. Also living in Oberlin were Mr. and Mrs. Asahel Munger. The Mungers were members of a religious colony which had been established just five years earlier. Griffin persuaded the Mungers to join him on his quest.

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (American Board) was the group that sponsored the Whitmans and the Spaldings. The Mungers and Griffin approached them first for support in their venture. But the American Board declined; the board had just sent out additional missionaries to the Oregon Country. The group wasn’t deterred. There was more than one missionary society or church group. The Mungers then approached the Congregational Church in Oberlin, Ohio, for support, but they too declined. Finally, the Congregational Association of North Litchfield, Connecticut, agreed to give the Mungers and Griffin funds to cover their journey. They were elated. They figured that if they could just reach the Oregon Country, a way would be found to create a self-supporting mission. Faith alone would see them through. On their way through St. Louis, Griffin found himself a bride, Miss Desire C. Smith. Providence seemed to be shining on them.

The optimism of the Griffins and Mungers was not shared by the missionaries who were already in the Oregon Country. After the arrival of the Griffins and Mungers in September 1839, letters flew:

Rev. Spalding told the American Board [letter dated October 2, 1839]:

“We shall probably furnish them with labor enough for their support this winter. But I am sure they cannot succeed in their proposed self supporting Mission.”

Mrs. Sarah Smith wrote to missionary colleagues at Tshimakain (near modern day Spokane) [letter dated December 18, 1839]:

“What is best for us to do about giving to Mrs. Griffin? What they can do I know not, or how they can get things to make them comfortable I know not, unless some one gives them. I would give with all my heart if it is right. Mr. Smith, Mr. Hall & others say that they have come in opposition to the Amr. Board & ought not to be assisted. But the poor woman has come without a sheet or pillow case, & how they will get them I don’t know. Mrs. Spalding while I was there gave her three broken plates… & enough wide striped cotton to make a pair of sheets. If husband will consent I shall give her some things… ”

These concerns were well founded. Their dream of an independent, self-supporting mission never happened. The Griffins tried, but almost died in the attempt due to harsh weather. Unfortunately, Mr. Munger went insane. In March of 1841, Dr. Whitman described the situation for the American Board:

“He [Munger] has become an unsafe man to remain about the Mission as he hold himself as the representative of the church & often having revelations… [he] only allows me to stay in the mission house for a time when he is to take it in some way from me.”

Other inspired couples traveled to the Oregon Country to establish self-supporting missions, but they didn’t succeed either.

These independent missionaries, those who came without the support of a larger organization, were just one of the many types of people who stopped by the Whitmans’ mission. Many travelers needed help; some caused problems.

This is part 22 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 2

Next: Stirring-up Trouble

 

Sources

Drury, Clifford M. Chapter 14 (pdf 1.2 kb) and Chapter 15 (pdf 920 kb) of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.

Did You Know?

painting of mission with wagon in front

The Whitmans’ mission was important to early Oregon Trail travelers. Those who were sick, tired, or hungry or who needed a wagon fixed would make the side trip to the mission. Some would spend the winter with the Whitmans before continuing on to the Willamette Valley.