Fresh off celebrating National Historic Preservation Month in May, and its 35th anniversary as a community museum, Oswego’s Little White School Museum stands as a monument to both education and the area’s pioneer churches.
The village’s Methodist Episcopal congregation held services in the trim white Greek Revival building at the corner of Jackson and Polk streets for more than 50 years before its members decided to combine with the Congregationalists and others to form the Federated Church (now the Church of the Good Shepherd United Methodist).
Two years later, the Oswego School District bought the building for use as a one-room elementary school. Restoration efforts on the building wrapped up in 2002, and today it’s not only the community’s premier historical resource, but is also a monument to the area’s religious history.
The story of Methodist missionaries and ministers who helped establish the old M.E. Church follows the spread of settlement into northern Illinois.
The premier actor in early church records in our area was Jesse Walker, a committed preacher who awed Indians and whites alike with his energy.
Walker was ﬁrst named to a post on the Fox River in 1824, when his name was listed in church records as “Jesse Walker, missionary to the Pottawatomi Indians.”
Prior to this time, Walker had served as an Indian missionary to the Missouri Conference of the Methodist Church. In 1824, he was ordered north and told to post himself in “the settlements between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers and to the Indians in the vicinity of Fort Clark [Peoria].”
Walker had been introduced to missionary work by John Stewart, a Methodist who tried to preach the gospel to Ohio Wyandot Indians. Although his success was uncertain (Indians never did get the hang of Christianity, the concept of original sin being considered ridiculous by them), he did have considerable luck with whites in the area.
At the time, the whole country was going through a great period of religious fervor called the Great Awakening, and Walker was apparently among those who, thanks to Stewart, awoke.
After serving various posts in Illinois, Walker moved up the Illinois River to the mouth of the Fox River near the infant village of Ottawa. There, in 1824, he built his first mission to the Indians. But finding he had built the mission on U.S. government land and not Indian land, he moved it the next year to a spot 13 miles from the Fox River’s mouth.
“The soil is very good, timber plenty, and the spot well watered,” he reported. From that time on, the area would be known as Mission Grove, namesake for today’s Mission Township in LaSalle County.
The Fox River mission, which Walker named Salem, was probably typical of most frontier missions in the old Northwest Territory. It consisted of a large five-room house made of squared logs, a blacksmith shop, poultry house, spring house, and “other conveniences.”
Walker reported that he had 40 acres under cultivation, a one-acre garden, and seven acres of fenced pasture. The whole cost $2,400, two-thirds of which was to be paid for by the U.S. government in return for providing services to the local tribes. It was a debt never paid, however.
Walker’s son-in-law (who was also his nephew), James Walker, arrived soon after Jesse, and brought a horse-powered grist mill. The mill was used by Indians and by nearly all early Kendall County settlers.
By 1831, the DesPlaines Circuit had been formed, centered around the DesPlaines and DuPage rivers, and resulting in the settlement of Walker’s Grove (Plainfield), first by James Walker, and then by the energetic Jesse after his mission was closed down. The next year, just in time to miss the Black Hawk War, Jesse was posted to the Chicago Mission, and Stephen R. Beggs was posted to Walker’s Grove.
Nascent Methodist congregations were called classes, and Beggs’ circuit ranged from Walker’s Grove to Oswego and Chicago. At Oswego, the stop on Beggs’ circuit was Daniel Pearce’s cabin on the site of the Fox Bend Golf Course maintenance house on U.S. Route 34.
In 1835, population had grown enough for a separate Fox River circuit to be formed, with the Rev. William Royal appointed to ride it, serving 19 classes. Not until 1854 did Oswego give its name to a separate circuit.
In 1848 Methodists in Oswego decided to build their own meeting house, apparently finding an existing church that could be dismantled and moved to the village. The church was finished and opened in 1850, but not dedicated until 1854 when all its debts were satisfied.
In the meantime, an influx of German farmers had arrived on the Oswego prairie just east of the village. Most were Albright Methodists, also called German Evangelicals, and they soon built their own church on a site donated by local farmers. But finding the building located in a wetland, it was moved uphill to a site along modern Roth Road. As part of the move, the church fathers somehow persuaded Oswego Township to finance construction of a full basement for the building for use as a public school. Five days a week, public school classes were held in the basement classroom, while on Sundays the Gospel was preached in German on the main floor. In 1871, the congregation built a new church at the intersection of Roth and Wolf’s Crossing roads and the public school moved out of the basement into its own building, the Collins School.
German Evangelicals living in Oswego began their own congregation in 1860 instead of driving three miles out to the Oswego Prairie church, in 1861 moving to the old “Stone Castle” at Madison and Washington streets. They built a new church on the site in 1896 – today’s Church of the Good Shepherd. The Methodist-Episcopal congregation dissolved in 1913, they joined the German Evangelicals, and sermons began to be held in English.
When the Congregational Church burned down in 1920, they, too, joined the German and American Methodists, along with former members of the village’s Lutheran and Baptist churches, to form the Federated Church, which later became the Church of the Good Shepherd United Methodist.
Oswego’s Methodist roots run deep into its earliest history, a history we can all, no matter what creed we adhere to, appreciate.
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