An Extravagant Request

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
January 2010

On Saturday, April 14, 1838, Rev. Jason Lee stopped by the Whitmans’ mission. Lee was a Methodist missionary from the Willamette Valley. The Methodists had been the first to respond to the request for missionaries in the Pacific Northwest. Now Lee was on his way back to the States to drum up more support from the Methodist Missionary Society.

Lee spent five days with the Whitmans. He then headed off to the Spaldings’ mission at Lapwai (near modern day Spalding, Idaho). Lee’s visit inspired Whitman and Spalding to think bigger regarding their own mission stations. On April 21 Spalding drafted a joint letter to the American Board, the group which sponsored their missions.

“After a residence of nearly two years in this country, during which time we have spared no pains to acquaint ourselves with the character of the country, the character & condition of the native tribes, have made inquiries of gentlemen more or less acquainted with the country & natives, have traveled ourselves some thousands of miles, & received delegates from 8 or 10 different tribes, we have come to the settled conviction, that you can no longer suffer this great harvest field to remain unoccupied by laborers without inflicting an incalculable injury upon these immortal souls”

“To occupy these fields immediately, we ask as the least possible number which God & our conscienciences will admit us to name, for 30 ordained missionaries, 30 farmers, 30 school teachers, 10 physicians & 10 mechanics, with their wives”

They requested 220 people! The current number of staff was just 5: Dr. and Mrs. Whitman, Rev. and Mrs. Spalding, and Mr. Gray.

Dr. Whitman and colleagues had been sent out in 1836 to establish a single mission station. But after reaching the area, the group decided it would be better to set up two missions instead. For both sites to succeed they felt additional helpers would be necessary. In fact, Gray was already on his way back to the States to get more recruits. But he had left before Spalding and Whitman hatched their new, more extravagant plans. The letter addressed this issue:

“We expect that a good number of these laborers are now, or will soon be on their way with brother Gray. The remainder we shall look for without delay. Revd Jason Lee of the Willamette Mission, has just favored us with a visit, on his way to the States for more laborers...”

Spalding and Whitman were confident that they would receive a positive response from the American Board:

“You have only to make the request known & the men & money are at your command at once. Every christian will come up to the work at once…You may reply that though this is all true in theory, it is very far from being true in practice. Our answer is, we cannot take the defects of christians, as an excuse in this manner. The men & means must come, or yourselves, or those you represent must take the responsibility of withholding from these dying immortals the bread of life.”

But sometimes the view from those on the front line differs from the view of people back at headquarters.

This is part 15 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 2

Next: Greene Responds



Drury, Clifford M. Chapter 12 (pdf 1.7 mb) of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.

Whitman, Marcus, and Henry Harmon Spalding. April 21, 1838. Letter to Rev. David Greene of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Boston. Whitman Mission Collection.

Last updated: January 16, 2018

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