William Apess, born among the Pequot of Massachusetts, was the first Native American Methodist exhorter in New England and the first Native American licensed to preach by American Methodists. He is also credited as the first Native American to write and publish an autobiography. That book, A Son of the Forest, was published in 1829 then re-edited and re-released with a considerable appendix in 1831. A briefer version of the story was included in his 1833 publication, Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe. A major focus of both is on his early conversion to Christianity and on his calling and experiences as a Methodist exhorter, and, later, preacher. Many of his writings, including the appendix to the latter volume, An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man, challenge the white supremacy and racism common in his day.
William Apess was born on January 31, 1798, in Colrain, Massachusetts. Early in his life he was abandoned by his parents, raised by abusive grandparents, and became a ward of the town. The town put him under indenture to three different white families. During this time, he received some formal education and attended various religious services, but found himself most drawn to the Methodists, in part because they were despised by higher class people who had shown disdain for him and his Native relatives.
While with the Methodists,Apess experienced conversion at age 15. He wrote, “I felt convinced that Christ died for all mankind – that age, sect, color, country, or situation make no difference. I felt an assurance that I was included in the plan of redemption with all my brethren” (A Son of the Forest, p. 41).
But his sense of assurance did not last long. Persuaded to join the war effort (the War of 1812), he ended up serving at the Battle of Châteguay (near Montreal), and found himself deeply impacted by the whole experience, and soon deeply affected by alcohol as well. His period of spiritual despond would continue for four years until he made it home in 1817.
About a year after his return home, he began to discern a call to preach and began exhorting. He traveled as a day laborer, a shoemaker, and occasional preacher throughout southern Connecticut, living wherever he could find work. This way of life was common for many day laborers at that time. Married in December 1821 to Mary Wood, in 1825 Apess moved his growing family to Providence, RI, where one of his sisters was living. While there, he became a class leader, was granted a license to exhort from the Methodist Episcopal Church, and felt called to become a missionary. Supporting himself and his family by selling religious books, Apess, traveled throughout New England (including Rhode Island, Boston, and eastern New York), holding meetings and exhorting.
In April 1827 Apess attended the regional conference in Albany, NY and applied for a preacher’s license. The clergy session denied him the license, claiming they did not know enough about his character. Apess questioned their logic. How he could be known well enough to receive an exhorter’s license but not well enough to receive a license to preach? In his writings, he implies that something other than his character was the issue.
Disillusioned and disappointed, he decided to leave the Methodist Episcopal Church to join the newly forming and more democratic Methodist Society, soon to become the Methodist Protestant Church (1828). After becoming known among the Methodist Protestants, he was licensed as a local preacher in 1829.
Missionary and Advocate
Beginning in 1831, Apess was assigned by the Boston Methodist Protestant conference as a missionary to the Pequot Indians in southern Connecticut. He served as a missionary and preacher, traveling among the Pequot in southeastern Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.
In 1833, he made a visit to the Mashpee, a Christian Indian community on Cape Cod - a visit that would change the direction of his life.
Among the Mashpee, he became involved in their long-standing struggle against overseers who had been imposed upon the Native community by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Harvard College appointed its pastor who refused to let the Mashpee (who built the chapel) use the facility for their services, and the overseers both controlled the land and exploited its natural resources for personal profit.
Apess worked with two others to write a declaration in July 1833 forbidding any further export of fur or timber by the white overlords. And in January 1834, he addressed the legislature of the Commonwealth on behalf of the Mashpee to dismiss the overseers, dismiss the pastor, support the creation of a system of self-governance, and repeal other discriminatory laws affecting them. In his address, he enumerated many offenses of the overlords against the Mashpee people, decrying their cruelty and the long history of abrogating basic rights guaranteed in the Constitution. The petition asserted, “That we as a tribe will rule our selves, and have the right so to do for all men are born free and Equal says the Constitution of the Country.” In response, Massachusetts released some of its control over their lands, supported the creation of local self-governance, and, while not dismissing him, ordered the Harvard-appointed preacher to grant the Mashpee, with Apess as their chosen pastor, the right to use the chapel they had built. In 1835, Apess published his account of the incident in Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Marshpee Tribe; or, The Pretended Riot Explained.
Apess continued to serve among the Mashpee as these matters were being resolved, then moved to Boston. During these years, he lost his first wife, Mary, but continued to write extensively, including his greatest political work, Eulogy on King Philip, which he delivered twice as a public address in 1836. In it, Apess offered a view of American history not as a triumph of pious British colonists, but as an ongoing struggle in which America as it had become had two founders of at least equal note: George Washington and Metacomet of the Wampanoag, more commonly known among whites as King Philip. This address drew more attention to him as a lecturer. By the end of the year, he had withdrawn from the ministry to launch a new career on the public lecture circuit around the Boston area.
A financial panic in 1837 combined with lawsuits and escalating debts led him to move to New York City, where he hoped to make a new start with his new wife, Elizabeth. And he did. He was able to resume his livelihood as lecturer until his death in April 1839 from what may have been a stroke.
Pequot by family, Methodist Protestant by choice, missionary, preacher, prophet, and lecturer by calling, William Apess was a leader among Methodists and Native Americans alike. He was bold to proclaim the gospel of Jesus and to call Americans to follow their own Constitution, if not their Lord, to reject white supremacy and the racial discrimination and recognize the full humanity and full rights of all people in this land.
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