Monday, June 29, 2015

The Standard of King Immanuel: Meta Chestnutt's Mission to Indian Territory

Meta Chestnutt, c. 1888
Meta Chestnutt’s first night in Indian Territory was not what she had imagined it would be. Perched on top of a trunk during the wee hours of the morning, she stared down at the floor of her room.

Her “room” was actually a lean-to attached to the side of a makeshift hotel in an upstart rag town they called Oklahoma City, then only a few months old. A hole in the wall served as a window. Beneath the floor, a wolf had given birth to a litter of seven pups. Earlier that evening, a few of the leading men of the town, including the mayor and the marshal, had tried to evict the new mother and her babies. But all such attempts had been angrily rejected. Afterwards, no one above or beneath the floor got much sleep as mama wolf yipped and howled through the night. 

The next day, September 6, 1889, W. J. Erwin, a former U. S. marshal who had served in Texas, accompanied by his daughter, Grace, picked up a load of lumber in Oklahoma City. Then, they picked up their new school teacher recently arrived by train from North Carolina. Young Grace and “Miss Meta,” as they came to call her, climbed onto the lumber stacked on the wagon and rode the many hours to Silver City, Chickasaw Nation, a trip that included a crossing of the Canadian River swollen to its banks by recent rains. 

It was no doubt during that trip that Meta discovered what the lumber was for. Mr. Erwin would build on the side of his house another lean-to. This one would be Meta’s living quarters not for one night, but for the next seven years. Little did she realize that during those years, when dry spells came, for weeks on end she would eat nothing except corn meal moistened with a bit of milk.

Two days after she arrived in Silver City, on her twenty-sixth birthday Meta Chestnutt began teaching. The tiny community had prepared for her as best they could. Fifty years later, Meta described that first schoolhouse they had waiting for her. It was built, she said, 

by a few cowmen and some of the “nesters” down near Silver City cemetery. It was a frame building 24 by 36 feet, with a log rolled up to the door for a step. Rough cottonwood lumber was nailed up for seats and desks. Three twelve-inch boards four feet long were nailed together for a blackboard and painted black. Pieces of chalk were chipped from a large lump and served as crayons with which to “cipher.” 

W. J. and Annie Erwin and children. Meta Chestnutt, back right.
Meta began by announcing, “The first thing we will learn today is the ‘Golden Rule.’ We will memorize it and then we will begin to learn how to live it.” At that point, she had only seven students. Before the first school year was over, there were thirty-seven. 

This was the beginning of thirty years of teaching and school administration, first at Silver City, and later at Minco, I.T. Through it all, the conviction that sustained her was that she had come to Indian Territory by the will of God; that her work was not merely educational, but missionary and redemptive. She once wrote that her goal was “to fix firmly the standard of King Immanuel.” But the mission was not hers alone. This was church work. “Our battle,” she continued, “has been a fierce one all along the line, and our burden a heavy one, but the Lord has blessed us in all our fiery trials. Our little band has grown from two to fifty or sixty. Some zealous brethren belong to our band now. It is a glorious sight to see whole families coming to service, one in Christ Jesus. At our regular Lord’s day service our attendance sometimes runs to seventy-five, and our Bible readings on Lord’s day night are well attended."

About four or five times a year, the congregation would hear the sermons of visiting preachers like R. W. Officer, J. H. Hardin, Volney Johnson, and D. T. Broadus. On Sundays when they had no preacher, Meta would “teach the Bible” and “spread the Lord’s table.” In time, the church of Christ that met in the schoolhouse at Minco, I.T., would grow to well over one hundred in attendance.

Over three decades, Meta taught some 2,500 students, and provided a Christian example for them and their families. Many of her students became Christians. Several went on to become political and business leaders in the new State of Oklahoma. In recognition of her life's work, in 1939, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

In short, Meta Chestnutt, who died at Chickasha, Oklahoma in 1948, was one of the most successful bi-vocational missionaries in the history of the Stone-Campbell Movement.

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