The abolitionists of Pekin and the formation of the Union League

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in February 2012 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

The abolitionists of Pekin and the formation of the Union League

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On Friday, Aug. 3, at 11 a.m., in the Pekin Public Library Community Room, the library will have a showing of two videos about Pekin’s first astronaut Lt. Commander (ret.) Scott Altman. The videos are a part of the library’s Illinois Bicentennial Series.

First will be a 35-minute video of Altman’s keynote address at an April 1996 meeting of the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce. Afterwards will be a showing of the footage of Altman’s recent induction into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Astronauts’ Hall of Fame, a video 20 minutes in length.

While the Bicentennial Series videos next week exemplify the astounding technological progress of the modern age, this week’s “From the Local History Room” column looks back to an important aspect of the push for moral and cultural progress in Illinois. This will we will take a trip back to the days of the slavery abolition movement, which made its mark in Pekin and Tazewell County, as it did in many other communities in the Northern States. The “Pekin Centenary 1849-1949” volume presents an enlightening narrative of that important time in our local history.

As we have seen from earlier columns in our Illinois Bicentennial Series, although Illinois was a “free” state, pro-slavery sentiment was predominant throughout southern and central Illinois. In our area, according to the Centenary (p.15), “Pekin was a pro-slave city for years. Some of the original settlers had been slave-owners themselves, and the overwhelming sentiment in Pekin was Democratic. Stephen A. Douglas, not Abraham Lincoln, was the local hero, although Lincoln was well-liked, and had some German following.

Lincoln, of course, was one of Illinois’ leading abolitionist attorneys and politicians, and in 1841 he argued and won a case before the Illinois Supreme Court that secured the freedom of “Black Nance,” a Pekin resident who was the former slave of Nathan Cromwell, whose wife Ann Eliza had chosen Pekin’s name. On Oct. 6, 1858, Lincoln and his fellow abolitionist politician, U.S. Senator Lyman Trumbull, came to Pekin and addressed a large crowd in the court house square. (Trumbull would later co-author the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing slavery.)

It was largely due to the influx of German immigrants into Pekin, many of whom had fled religious persecution in their home countries, that abolitionist sentiment began to flourish in our city. Many Baptists were abolitionists, and in 1853 a German congregation of Baptists organized in Pekin – the origin of Pekin’s Calvary Baptist Church.

Among Pekin’s abolitionist leaders, according to the Pekin Centenary, was Dr. Daniel Cheever, who engaged in Underground Railroad activities from his home at the corner of Capitol and Court streets (and whose farm near Delavan was a depot on the Underground Railroad), by which runaway slaves were helped to escape to Canada. Other early Pekin settlers active in the abolitionist movement were the brothers Samuel and Hugh Woodrow (Catherine Street was named for Samuel’s wife, and Amanda Street was named for Hugh’s). The Woodrows aided runaway slaves at their homes in the vanished village of Circleville south of Pekin.

With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Illinois cities such as Pekin and Peoria were divided between the pro-slavery element, who favored the Confederacy, and the abolitionist and pro-Union element. In the early days of the war, a secessionist organization calling itself the “Knights of the Golden Circle” (which was something of a precursor to the Ku Klux Klan) boldly worked in support of secession and slavery. The Centenary says the Knights were “aggressive and unprincipled,” and “those who believed in the Union spoke often in whispers in Pekin streets and were wary and often afraid.”

This detail from an 1877 “aerial view” map of Pekin shows the building, marked by the number 55, where the Union League was organized on June 25, 1862.

To counter the dominance of the Knights and promote the cause of the Union, a secret meeting was held on June 25, 1862, above Dr. Cheever’s office at 331 Court St., where 11 of Pekin’s early settlers formed the Union League to promote the cause of Union and abolition. The anti-slavery Germans of Pekin quickly became active in the League. Soon a chapter of the Union League was organized in Bloomington, and then an important chapter in Chicago, where John Medill, founding publisher of the Chicago Tribune, was a leading member.

Very soon the Union League had “swept the entire North and became a great and powerful instrument for propaganda and finance in support of the War” (Pekin Centenary, p.21). After the war, the League became a Republican Party social club, but would carry on its abolitionist legacy through support of civil rights for African Americans.

The 11 founding members of the Union League were the Rev. James W. N. Vernon, Methodist minister at Pekin; Richard Northcroft Cullom, former Illinois state senator; Dr. Daniel A. Cheever, abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor; Charles Turner, Tazewell County state’s attorney; Henry Pratt, Delavan Township supervisor; Alexander Small, Deer Creek Township supervisor; George H. Harlow, Tazewell County circuit clerk; Jonathan Merriam, stock farmer who became a colonel in the Union army; Hart Montgomery, Pekin postmaster; John W. Glassgow, justice of the peace; and Levi F. Garrett, Pekin grocery store owner and baker.

The building where these 11 men gathered in June 1862 was later the location of the Smith Bank and Perlman Furniture in downtown Pekin. Perlman Furniture burned down in 1968 and a few years later Pekin National Bank was built on the site. Plaques commemorating the Union League’s founding are displayed inside and on the outside of the bank building.

A historical plaque on the outside wall of Pekin National Bank at the corner of Court and Capitol streets in downtown Pekin marks the site where the Union League of America was founded. IMAGE COURTESY OF ILLINOIS STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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Frontier injustice: the Mormon War in Illinois

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In looking back over more than two centuries of history in Illinois, numerous instances can be found in which religious faith – and in particular, Christianity – has motivated Illinoisans to try to make positive changes in the world.

Among the most notable examples are the social progress movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the drive to abolish slavery, as well as efforts to alleviate the plight of the poor and improve working conditions, to establish schools, to provide care for the sick, and to right the wrongs of social inequity and injustice. Even the Alcohol Prohibition movement, now generally held to have been wrongheaded, arose from the desire of Methodist and Baptist Protestants to address serious social evils associated with the abuse of alcohol.

Despite the many positive contributions of religious faith, there has also been a dark side to religion, and that holds true in Illinois history as well. This week we turn our attention to one of the blackest episodes in Illinois’ early history: an eruption of religious controversy and persecution that culminated in the violence of the Mormon War of 1844-1846.

To understand how it happened that a religious war broke out among Illinois’ pioneer settlers, first one must review the life of Joseph Smith (1805-1844), founding prophet of the Mormon church. One possible resource (perhaps surprisingly) in the Local History Room is Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County.” Though Tazewell County was not the location of the Mormon War, nor was our county directly involved in it, the first part of Chapman’s book is a general history of Illinois that includes a 14-page account of the Mormon controversy and the Mormon War (pages 104-118). Chapman’s account has an anti-Mormon point of view, but is also critical of the Mormons’ enemies.

Chapman’s account begins with the origins of the Mormon religion in western New York in the late 1820s, during a time of unusual religious enthusiasm in America known as the Second Great Awakening. Properly known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, among non-Mormons the religion is commonly known as “Mormonism” and its followers called “Mormons” – so named from their own sacred scriptures, the Book of Mormon (first published in 1830), that for the Latter-day Saints is a companion or supplement to the Protestant Christian Bible. Joseph Smith claimed to have translated the book from golden plates inscribed with a form of the Egyptian language. According to Smith, an angel named Moroni had revealed the golden plates to him in 1823, and the transcription and translation of the plates was completed in 1829.

On April 6, 1830, in Palmyra, N.Y., Smith and his followers formally organized themselves as “the Church of Christ,” preaching that God had chosen them to restore and purify Christianity, which, they said, had lost the true teachings of Jesus Christ. Almost immediately Smith and his church encountered opposition and resistance from orthodox Christians and others who believed Smith was a charlatan. With a real threat of mob violence looming, later in 1830 Smith pronounced a revelation that he and his New York followers should relocate to Kirtland, Ohio, to join Sidney Rigdon’s group of Mormon converts there.

For most of the years from Jan. 1831 to Jan. 1838, Smith presided over his church from his headquarters in Kirtland. Meanwhile, Smith’s associate Oliver Cowdery, whom he had sent west to find the right location for the establishment of “New Jerusalem” on earth, informed the church that God had chosen Jackson County, Mo., as the site of the New Jerusalem. After seeing the area in person in July 1831, Smith agreed, declaring that Zion’s “center place” was Independence, Mo. Thus, throughout the 1830s the church had two main branches, one in Ohio and the other in Missouri.

Alarmed by the influx of Mormon converts moving into Kirtland, in early 1832 a mob of Ohioans attacked Smith and Rigdon, tarring and feathering them and nearly beating them to death. Afterwards, Smith moved to Missouri for a while and developed the church organization there. The Mormon newcomers in Missouri frequently suffered violent opposition, so the Missouri Mormons began to use force to defend themselves. This led to a clash in July 1833 between armed bands in which a Mormon and two non-Mormons were killed, and the non-Mormons then drove all the Mormons out of Jackson County.

In Kirtland, Ohio, Smith’s authority in the church was challenged in late 1837 when Cowdery publicly accused him of carrying on a sexual affair with his serving girl Fanny Alger. Smith and his church also faced financial scandals due to lingering debts from the building of the Kirtland Temple and the collapse of a church-sponsored bank that Smith had encouraged his followers to invest in. In Jan. 1838, a warrant was issued for Smith’s arrest on charges of bank fraud. Smith and Rigdon then left Kirtland and moved to Missouri.

In Missouri, Smith consolidated his authority over the church, which he renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At this time, the church excommunicated Cowdery and several other of the church’s early leaders. At the same time animosity between the Mormons and non-Mormons and ex-Mormons grew even more fierce. This animosity broke out in open hostilities during the Mormon War of 1838, in which non- and ex-Mormons and Mormons attacked and burned each other’s farms and towns.

At the Battle of Crooked River on Oct. 24, 1838, the forces of the Latter-day Saints attacked the Missouri State Militia, which they had mistaken for a band of anti-Mormon vigilantes. This led Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs to issue an executive order directing that all Mormons be “exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.” A few days later, a group of state militiamen massacred 17 Mormons at Haun’s Mill in Caldwell County. With the church facing expulsion, Brigham Young (1801-1877), president of the church’s Quorum of Twelve Apostles (and later to become the church’s second president in succession to Smith), organized the relocation of Mormon refugees to Illinois and Iowa. Smith, Rigdon, and other Mormons were arrested and charged with treason, but on April 6, 1839, they escaped from jail and fled to Illinois.

Before long, much the same story that had played out in Ohio and Missouri repeated itself in Illinois. Smith established his headquarters at Commerce, a town on the Mississippi River in Hancock County. In April 1840, Smith renamed the town “Nauvoo,” from the Hebrew word nawu (“beautiful”) from Isaiah 52:7. Nauvoo was granted a city charter on Dec. 16, 1840, which took effect Feb. 1, 1841, making Nauvoo the sixth incorporated city in Illinois. The city’s first mayor was a prominent Mormon convert named John C. Bennett, quartermaster general of the Illinois State Militia. Bennett and Smith together headed the Nauvoo Legion, an autonomous corps of 2,000 state militia riflemen. By 1844, Nauvoo had 12,000 inhabitants – the second largest city in Illinois.

This daguerrotype shows the original Mormon Temple of Nauvoo, Ill., at the time of the Mormon Exodus in 1846. Arsonists burned down the abandoned temple in 1848, but it was rebuilt and rededicated in 2002.

Though Illinoisans at first were sympathetic to the Mormon refugees’ plight, many non-Mormons near Nauvoo soon began to view the growing political power of Smith and his followers as a threat. Smith’s supreme status in his church made him effectively immune to Missouri’s attempts to extradite him on treason charges, and enabled him to mobilize his followers as the deciding voting bloc in a state in which the Democrat and Whig parties were equal in strength. The Mormon bloc thus decided elections by voting for candidates as directed by the church’s leaders.

During Smith’s time in Nauvoo, he introduced new teachings and practices, including the practice of proxy baptism (“baptism for the dead”) – the belief that motivates Latter-day Saints to conduct extensive genealogical research (for which the Mormons are best known today). Smith also espoused a theocratic political ideology which he called theodemocracy, and he began to have political ambitions of his own. In Dec. 1843, Smith petitioned Congress to have Nauvoo made an independent territory, but the petition was ignored. Then, on Jan. 29, 1844, Smith announced he was running as an independent for President of the United States of America.

Most scandalous, however, and perhaps the main thing that turned non-Mormons against the Latter-day Saints, was Smith’s doctrine of polygamy, which he introduced to some of the church’s leading men in 1841. (The Latter-day Saints officially renounced polygamy in 1890.) When Nauvoo Mayor Bennett was caught in adultery, he claimed Smith approved of “spiritual wifery” (as Bennett called it) and practiced it himself. Due to the scandal, Bennett was expelled from Nauvoo in the summer of 1842, and Smith himself then took the reins as Nauvoo’s mayor.

In the spring of 1844, just a few months into Smith’s presidential campaign, the Mormon church suffered a schism over the doctrine of polygamy. Several of Smith’s close associates broke away and organized what they called the True Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The breakaway group was headed by William Law, who along with Robert Foster accused Smith of proposing marriage with their wives. Law and his colleagues founded an anti-Mormon paper, the Nauvoo Expositor, in which they vehemently denounced Smith as a “fallen prophet,” condemning his theology as polytheistic, and calling for the revocation of Nauvoo’s city charter.

In reaction, the Nauvoo city council, acting with Smith’s agreement, declared the Expositor to be a “public nuisance,” ordering the Nauvoo Legion to destroy the paper’s press – an unconstitutional act beyond the authority of the mayor and council of Nauvoo. The Legion executed the order on June 10, 1844, also destroying all copies of the newspaper they could find. This action caused so great an uproar in the area that Smith declared martial law on June 18 and mobilized the Nauvoo Legion. In answer, officials in Carthage mobilized their detachment of the state militia, and Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford came from Springfield, saying he would raise an even larger militia unless Smith and the Nauvoo city council surrendered on charges of inciting a riot.

Smith briefly fled to Missouri (where he was still wanted for treason), but soon returned and on June 23, with his brother Hyrum, surrendered to Gov. Ford at Carthage on treason charges. Four days later, an armed mob of about 200 men attacked the Carthage Jail. Hyrum Smith was shot and killed almost instantly, while Joseph Smith, defending himself with a pistol that his follower Cyrus Wheelock had previously smuggled into the jail, managed to wound three of his assailants before being struck by several gunshots and then fell from a second-storey window to the ground, where his murderers shot him several more times as he lay dying. Five men were charged with his murder, but all were acquitted.

Anti-Mormon sentiment grew even more inflamed after Smith’s assassination, leading to the outbreak of the Mormon War in Illinois in October 1844. The “war” consisted of an active campaign of harassment and violence intended to pressure the Mormons to leave Illinois. It began with an illegal gathering of anti-Mormon residents of Carthage and Warsaw, who plotted to hunt down and murder or drive all the Mormons out of Hancock County or Illinois. Gov. Ford sent a militia to disperse the anti-Mormons, but many of his militiamen instead joined the anti-Mormons’ “wolf hunt.” Mormons in the countryside fled for protection to Nauvoo, whose city charter was revoked by the Illinois General Assembly on Jan. 29, 1845, one year to the day after Smith had launched his presidential campaign.

From 1844 to 1846, vigilante anti-Mormons in the area continued to harass the Mormons and to agitate for their expulsion from the state, burning the homes and farms of the Mormons, who counterattacked and burned anti-Mormon farms in retaliation. Consequently, in the winter of 1845-46 the Mormons, under Brigham Young’s leadership, resolved to leave Illinois and set to work on plans to seek a safe haven in western regions of the U.S., led along the Mormon Trail and other routes to Utah. The majority of Nauvoo’s Mormons had left Illinois en masse by the spring of 1846. The Mormon War concluded with the so-called Battle of Nauvoo, in which a force of 1,000 anti-Mormons besieged the town’s remnant of defenders on Sept. 10, 1846. After about a week of fighting, the Mormons surrendered on Sept. 16 and agreed to be deported to Missouri.

Thus ended the so-called Mormon War, in which the “frontier justice” of Illinois’ pioneer days frequently mutated into frontier injustice.

In the aftermath of the Mormon Exodus, as it is called, the Mormons’ abandoned temple in Nauvoo was destroyed by arsonists in 1848. By the early 1900s, Nauvoo had become a small city with a majority Catholic population. In recent times, however, the Latter-day Saints reestablished a presence in Nauvoo, rebuilding and rededicating their Temple in 2002.

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The religious faith of Pekin’s pioneers

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in May 2015 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

The religious faith of Pekin’s pioneers

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

This week we’ll take a closer look at the form and expression of religious faith during Pekin’s earliest times, spotlighting the origin of Pekin’s first Methodist Christians.

While the first European settlers to come to Tazewell County were Catholic Christians, following the establishment in 1824 of the settlement that would become Pekin, Methodism was the first religion to formally establish its presence among Pekin’s pioneer settlers. Pekin’s “first family,” the Tharps, had become Methodists before leaving Ohio for Illinois. As we have noted before, Pekin’s first preaching service took place in 1826, when Jacob Tharp invited Rev. Jesse Walker, a Methodist circuit-rider, to preach in Tharp’s log cabin.

In his 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” pages 580-594, Charles C. Chapman provides an account of the history and progress of religion in Pekin, beginning with Rev. Walker’s preaching service. After Walker, a certain Rev. Lord ministered to Pekin’s first settlers. It was in 1827 that the first Methodist society, consisting of about eight or 10 members, was formed in Pekin by Smith L. Robinson. After Lord, Rev. John Sinclair arrived in 1831. Sinclair and Rev. Zadock Hall formally organized a Methodist Episcopal Church in Pekin, and Hall in turn was succeeded in 1834 by the church’s first regular installed minister, Rev. John Thomas Mitchell (1810-1863), a 24-year-old deacon who was active throughout northern and central Illinois.

In this detail from a page of 1831 Methodist Church records chronicles that year’s ministerial activities of Rev. John T. Mitchell in Illinois. In 1834, Mitchell became the first regular installed minister of the Methodist church in Pekin.

The following excerpts from Chapman’s account provide some colorful anecdotes from Mitchell’s time as Pekin’s Methodist minister.

“The Rev. John T. Mitchell followed Rev. Hall. He was a man of great power and eloquence, and eccentric to a great degree. His flights of oratory at times were truly sublime. He began his labors as the first regular installed minister, in 1834, in a little room, about twenty feet square, in the old barracks or stockades, which stood on the ground now occupied by the old frame residence of Joshua Wagenseller. . . .

“We will give one or two illustrations which, in themselves, will speak for the plain-tongued man of God, John T. Mitchell. One of his congregation, and a widow, who had but recently laid off her weeds, sold a cow and purchased what in those days was termed an elegant cloak, and she disposed of a brass preserving kettle and bought a bonnet (we presume a love of a one). This piece of wholesale extravagance had gone the rounds of the village, and loud were the censures for this wanton outlay, when to wear a bow or an artificial flower was equivilent (sic) to receiving sentence with the damned.

“Well, one Sunday morning when Father Mitchell was coming down on the pomps and vanities of the world, and earnestly hoping that none of his congregation would be guilty of putting on the flippery and flummery as worn by the worldings, just as his eloquence waxed warm on the subject of dress, in walked the widow with her new clothes, whereupon the sight of her was too much for him, and he said (pointing his finger directly at her,) ‘Yes, and there comes a woman with her cow upon her back and her brass kettle on her head.’ . . .

“In those days all the excitement the populace had, by way of breaking the monotony, was the landing of the steam-boats, and we are told that more always came on Sunday than any other day. Father Mitchell was exceedingly annoyed, from time to time, by many of his congregation jumping up and running to the river every time a boat whistled. Once, when the stampede began, Father Mitchell, with voice raised in tones of thunder, cried after them, ‘The wicked fleeth when no man pursueth.’ Whereupon a waggish fellow turned in the doorway, hat in hand, and, looking calmly at the divine, answered back, ‘and the righteous are as bold as a lion.’ . . .

“We think Father Mitchell must have been a firm believer in total depravity. There was a Universalist minister by the name of Carey, from Cincinnati (who was afterwards sent to Congress), came to Pekin and held a series of meetings in the two-story frame house directly opposite the old Foundry Church. This preacher, Carey, was brilliant and fluent of tongue, gathering about him, apparently, the whole village, to the disgust of Father Mitchell and his members. This was something new to them, it being the first time the broad-gauge religious track had struck Pekin, and many there were who were charmed with the doctrine. Still, some of the young men felt an innate sense of delicacy in openly and glaringly cutting old faithful Father Mitchell’s teachings, and they would walk about and reconnoitre until they would get to the corner of the building, and then stand and look around them for a few minutes, to see who was looking at them, and then like lightning dodge in. Father Mitchell, across the way, was of course taking in the full import of the scene, and feeling just a little bit of human chagrin at the boys leaving him for that glittering faith, he would walk up and down his church aisles, with his arms crossed behind his back, and as another and another would dodge in to hear Carey, he would say, very audibly, ‘there’s another one gone to hell.’”

Regarding Chapman’s comment on “total depravity,” it is unlikely that Rev. Mitchell, a Methodist, held to that doctrine. “Total depravity” is a Calvinist Protestant doctrine, whereas Methodism rejects Calvinism’s distinctive teachings on human salvation. Historically, however, Methodism has held to the orthodox Christian belief on the possibility of damnation, in opposition to the Universalist belief that all will be saved and no one will be finally damned – hence Mitchell’s displeasure with Carey’s preaching. (A biographical sketch of Rev. Mitchell was published in “Minutes of the Cincinnati Annual Conference of the Methodist Epicopal Church for the Year 1863,” pages 47-51.)

Chapman also provides an account of a memorable religious development in Pekin during the 1840s that the early settlers came to call the Sore-Throat Revival, when a frightening, deadly epidemic motivated many people to try to prepare their souls for Judgment Day, as these excerpts explain:

“The following persons composed the first choir: Samuel Rhoads, John W. Howard, James White, Daniel Creed, John M. Tinney, John Rhoads, and Henry Sweet, who acted as leader. This band of ‘ye singers’ met in Creed’s room for practice, and sometimes ‘took a hand,’ to pass the time until service. . . . This choir did valiant service in waiting on the sick during the fearful scourge and epidemic, called putrid sore throat, or black tongue, which swept over this part of the country during the winter of 1843 and 44. They paired off, night about, in watching the sick. But one evening Creed did not put in his appearance, and some of the boys suggested that he might be sick, and went to his room where they were wont to sing, but poor Daniel Creed had sung his last song on earth, and passed to the anthem choirs in the courts of Heaven, for they found him dead in his bed. The poor fellow had passed away in the loneliness of his own chamber, all alone, ‘to that bourne from whence no traveler returns.’ This fearful disease swept off, seemingly, half the village. The dead and the dying were in almost every house; men and women were aroused to a sudden sense of their obligations to their God, and with death apparently staring them in the face, they were crying out, ‘What shall we do to be saved?’ During this panic was started what was always afterwards termed the ‘sore-throat revival.’ Shops were shut, stores were closed, and all vocations for the time suspended, while the sick were nursed, the dead laid away, and the souls of the living presented to God for mercy. A pall hung over the infant town. A doom, at once dark, and deep, and solemn, seemed to settle over the citizens. Everybody joined the Church. Lucus Vanzant, the editor of the Pekin Gazette, . . . took sick early one night, and during the progress of the meeting, that same evening he sent his name down to the minister to be enrolled on the Church books. Vanzant got well.”

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Pekin’s seeds of faith

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in May 2012 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

Pekin’s seeds of faith

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Having taken an overview last week of the early development of the exercise of religious faith in Illinois, this week we’ll take a closer look at seeds of faith in Pekin’s early history.

The first white settlers in Pekin, the Tharps, arrived in 1824 and 1825. “The Tharps had become Methodists before they left Ohio, and so Jacob Tharp welcomed a circuit-riding Methodist minister, Reverend Jesse Walker, into his log cabin in 1826 to conduct Town Site’s first preaching service,” says the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial.

In his 1879 History of Tazewell County, page 580, Charles C. Chapman quotes from the diary of Jacob Tharp: “However, in the same season [1826], but I cannot now remember whether before or after Dillon and Hinkle’s goods arrived, the Methodists had established a mission or circuit for this part and range of the country. Religious services by that persuasion were first held at my friend’s, Gideon Hawley, on Sand Prairie, when I first met our preacher, Jesse Walker, and invited him to give us a discourse at the ‘Town Site.’ He thought it unnecessary, as no body but myself and family, and my son Jonathan and family, resided there, but I insisted and he complied. We had quite an audience. Pekin then giving promise of being something in the future. Some came to examine the site, some to do some trading, and some to look at the river and to fish, etc. The meeting was held in my house.”

From that seed grew Pekin’s first Methodist church, which met informally in members’ homes until the 1830s, following the 1829 arrival of “fiery, plainspoken Joseph Mitchel,” who was installed as the church’s first minister.

“. . . it was under Reverend Mitchel’s guidance,” explains the 1974 Sesquicentennial, “that Pekin’s first church building was erected in the 1830’s on the north side of Elizabeth between Capitol and Third Streets. In an attempt to raise funds for the proposed two-story building, Jacob Tharp returned to Ohio, where he managed to raise $100. Unfortunately, he spent $200 on the trip, so only the lower half of the building could be completed. The congregation fondly called the building the ‘little brick church,’ but in later years it became known as the ‘foundry church,’ apparently because of its proximity to such an establishment.”

The old First Methodist Episcopal Church of Pekin, shown here, was built in 1867 at the corner of Broadway Road and South Fourth Street. At that time the previous Methodist church’s bell, which had been looted from a Catholic monastery by Pekin soldiers during the Mexican War, was sold to St. Joseph’s Catholic Parish and installed in that church’s bell tower.

Several other Christian and non-Christian faiths also established a visible presence around this general period of time, including Catholicism, which had retained a presence in central Illinois since the days of the French missionary explorers.

“Early records indicate that Pekin residents sought a Catholic Church as early as 1839; and it is reported, but not authenticated, that a St. Stephen’s Chapel was built shortly thereafter,” says the Sesquicentennial. In fact, the structure (apparently made of logs) was dedicated to St. Lawrence, not St. Stephen. “Pekin: A Pictorial History” says that around 1850 the Catholics of Pekin moved to Flint’s Hall on lower Court Street, where the first regular Masses began to be offered by Father John C. Brady.

In 1863, Father Jerome A. Ryan of Peoria presided at the laying of the cornerstone of St. Stephen’s Chapel at the corner of Second and Susannah. That served as the original church for St. Joseph’s Parish, which served the English-speaking Catholics in town. (German-speaking Catholics would build their own Sacred Heart Church in 1872.) The original St. Joseph’s Church was replaced in 1904, and that church in turn was succeeded by the present structure in 1969.

Pekin’s old Methodist Church and the first St. Joseph Church were linked by a stolen Mexican convent church bell, as related in Chapman’s 1879 history, page 585:

“The bell, which for years was mounted in the tower of the old frame church, and which rung and toled (sic) alike in joy or sadness, for marriage or funeral, was presented to the Trustees of the Church by the following gentlemen: Samuel Rhoads, Colonel Frank L. Rhoads, William Tinney, and John M. Gill, and was captured by them when in Mexico, in the Mexican War. They took it from the tower of a Roman Catholic Monastery, at Vera Cruz, packed it in a flour barrel with straw, and brought it home with them to Pekin, and presented it the Methodist Church of this city, where it, with its old cracked chimes, made singular music for the masses in its ringing for service or fire. But the old bell wearied of Protestantism, and in the year 1867 was sold, with its full consent, to the English Roman Catholic Church of Pekin, where its peculiar tones may be heard at five in the morning, calling its devotees to the early mass. And thus the old bell has returned to its early faith and original creed.”

The late Lanson Pratt of Pekin collected this old photograph of the Mexican “Convent Bell” that was stolen by Pekin soldiers from a Mexican Catholic convent church during the Mexican War and brought sent by them to Pekin in 1847. The soldiers gave the bell to Pekin’s Methodist church, but when the Methodists built a new church in 1867, they sold the bell to the Catholic Church. The bell rang from the steeple of the St. Joseph Parish church until 1904,

The Mexican convent bell remained in use at St. Joseph’s Church until the construction of a new church in 1904. What became of it after 1904 is unclear. Local historian William H. Bates said in his 1916 “Souvenir of Early and Notable Events” that, “The bell is still in possession of St. Joseph’s Society,” and the 1949 Pekin Centenary said only that it is “now no longer in use.” A May 16, 1978 Pekin Daily Times article says it was stored for a while in the church attic at St. Joseph’s Parish, and Lanson Pratt’s nephew Edward Neumann of Delavan says the parish had talked of donating it to the State of Illinois. The 1978 Pekin Times article only says that “its current location could not be determined.”

Next week we’ll recall some of the stories of Pekin’s pioneer Methodist pastor, “fiery, plainspoken Joseph Mitchel.”

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