“A son of the Forest” and “an intelligent son of Abraham”: Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith meet William Apess, 1832

By November 21, 2013

In June 1832, Orson Hyde and Samuel H. Smith arrived in Boston, Massachusetts to preach Mormonism to the people of what was then the fourth largest city in the United States. The previous year, a young Methodist woman had traveled from Boston to Kirtland, Ohio, been baptized a Mormon, and then returned to her Massachusetts home. That woman—Vienna Jacques—had prepared several of her friends and family members for the arrival of the itinerant missionaries, and Hyde and Smith gained several converts that summer, a number of whom came from the Bromfield Street Methodist Episcopal Church, to which Jacques had belonged prior to her conversion to Mormonism.[1]

On July 10, Hyde and Smith had a chance encounter with a Methodist preacher. Hyde’s journal entry that evening reads as follows:

July 10th, 1832: Wrote to Zion; sent 8 or 9 subscriptions for the “Star”. Gave Sister Vienna Fifteen dollars to pay over to Brother Whitney in Ohio, for the Star;  talked two or three hours with a Indian Missionary who was believing, or at least, willing to give the subject a candid hearing; of the Perqod Tribe; gave us an invitation to preach in his hall, and also to come and pay him a visit. We agreed to call and see him; quite an interesting time with him. In sitting down with an intelligent son of Abraham and conversing with him is something agreeable.

This “intelligent son of Abraham” was identified as one “Apes” in Smith’s diary, whose own entry adds further detail:

Brother [Hyde] had Some writing to do he wrote to Zion Sending the names of Some Subscribers for the Star gave viena & fifteen dollars reeived from Subscribers to carry to the Bishop in ??? viSited by a man by the name of ApeS an Indian of the Peyrd [Pequod] tribe he waS a Preacher though Some unbelieveing at first but became more belileveing & concluded to give the work a candid investigation & invited us to Preach in his hall [Franklin Hall] that hireed to preach in himsef & also invited uS to pay him a visit we concluded to go to Prividence & we told him that we would when we returned [2]

What neither Hyde nor Smith almost certainly did not realize was that the “Indian Missionary” with whom they conversed was on his way to becoming one of the foremost Native American evangelists and activists in antebellum America. In 1829, William Apes (who would later alter the spelling of his last name to Apess, by which he is more commonly known today) published A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apes, a Native of the Forest. Comprising a Notice of the Pequod Tribe of Indians (New York: 1829). It describes his childhood of neglect and abuse, his participation in the War of 1812, subsequent fall into alcoholism, eventual conversion to Methodism, his falling out with Methodist Episcopal leaders after being refused ordination, and his ordination in the Methodist Society (one of the more substantial schismatic groups that in 1830 joined together and formed the Methodist Protestant Church). In 1831, Apess reprinted a slightly-altered edition of  A Son of the Forest, and over the course of the next decade gained some notoriety, both for his participation in civil rights activism (he was arrested after helping organize and lead the Mashpee Revolt of 1833) and his continued prolificacy as an author (he authored four more volumes before passing away in 1839).[3]

There is also circumstantial evidence that Apess might have been familiar with Mormonism prior to his encounter with Mormon missionaries in 1832. Many early Mormon converts, of course, came from Methodist backgrounds. Three months prior to Apess’s meeting with Hyde and Smith, another preacher in the Methodist Protestant Church had been baptized in Mendon, New York. John P. Greene first read the Book of Mormon in July 1830, but remained uncommitted to joining the new church, following other Methodist dissidents into the MPC in early 1831. It is possible that Greene’s conversion to Mormonism might have been discussed among other Methodist Protestant preachers—the published minutes of their annual conference certainly suggest as much.[4]

There is even stronger evidence that Apess knew James Covel, who, like Apess, found something intriguing and appealing in the Mormon message, but who ultimately chose to “return to his former people and principles.” Covel was a prominent leader in the MPC, and was known to reach out to preachers of color. When Apess was denied ordination as an Elder in the Methodist Episcopal Church, he almost certainly looked to the Methodist Society intentionally. Nearly a decade earlier, when black Methodists in New York City were denied ordination in the MEC, they turned instead to leaders in the Methodist Society. On June 17, 1822, William Stilwell and James Covel laid hands on the heads of Abraham Thompson, James Varick and Leven Smith and ordained them “Elders in the church of God.”[5] In the Methodist Society, Apess found not only a racially progressive faith community, but also one that allowed him the freedom to travel and preach where he wanted.

With details of their conversation lacking, we don’t know whether Apess might have discussed his passing familiarity with Greene or Covel; at some point, I hope to go back through surviving records of the Methodist Society and MPC and see if I can piece together any more discernible interactions they may have had. We are further left to wonder if Hyde and Smith would have tried harder to follow up following their visit to Providence had they been aware of Apess’s imminent rise to fame. Perhaps most frustrating of all, we’re left wondering what the details of their hours-long conversation included. But we can point to some provocative possibilities. Several historians have hinted at the broad similarities between the Book of Mormon‘s explanation for the origins of the American Indians and Apess’s own suppositions that he and other Native Americans were descendants of one of Israel’s lost tribes.[6] No one though, to my knowledge, has examined the somewhat striking similarities between Smith’s and Apess’s respective lives, religious conversions, and their larger corpus of writings. Such sustained analysis might help us gain some sense of why Apess “became more belileveing & concluded to give the work a candid investigation.” Perhaps Apess found in the message of the Book of Mormon a radical reorienting of America’s history and future “that envisioned not only the regeneration of the continent?s native population, but also the rise of a new sovereignty.” Such research might further clarify the ways in which the Book of Mormon spoke to both the era and culture in which it emerged and the larger Native American prophetic tradition it tapped into.[7]


[1] I am indebted to, and rely on for details here, Connell O’Donovan’s research on early Mormonism and Mormons in Boston, available on his website here.

[2] Transcriptions for both journals from Connell O’Donavan, “Early Boston Mormons and Missionaries, J to Z, 1831-1860,” available here.

[3] All biographical information is drawn from Barry O’Connell’s introduction in his edited collection of Apess’s complete writings. See O’Connell, ed., On Our Own Grown: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot (Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press: 1992).

[4] Those minutes noted that ?John P. Green having left the connexion in an irregular manner, therefore resolved, that we withdraw the hand of fellowship from him.? See ?Minutes of the Genesee Annual Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church,? Mutual Rights and Methodist Protestant, December 21, 1832, 401.

[5] Christopher Rush, A Short Account of the Rise and Progress of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in America, Written by Christopher Rush, Superintendent of the Connexion, with the Aid of George Collins: Also, a Concise View of Church Order or Government, from Scripture and from Some of the Best Authors on the Subject of Church Government, Relative to Episcopacy (New York: By the author, 1843), 84. Incidentally and bit ironically, one of James Covel’s sons—likely Samuel, but possibly James, Jr. (both were ordained preachers in the Methodist Episcopal Church)—tried to convince Apess to accept the decision of the MEC conference to refuse his ordination as an elder and instead accept his assignment as a deacon. According to Apess’s 1829 autobiography, a “Brother Covel, the preacher in charge” tried to convince him to accept the decision of the Methodist conference to refuse Apess ordination as an elder and instead accept a license as a deacon. Apess “informed them that it was my intention not to present the papers I had recieved to the Episcopal Methodists, as it was my intention to join the Methodist Society. They appeared somewhat surprised and endeavored to persuade me to remain where I was, that is, not to leave the church. I told them that my mind was fully made up—there was too much oppression for me in the old church, and that a disposition prevailed to keep the local preachers down.” See Apes, A Son of the Forest (1829), 111-112.

[6] See, for example, Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press), 317, n79.

[7] I have heard that an attempt at such an analysis is included in Jared Hickman’s (still forthcoming?) article on “The Book of Mormon as Amerindian Apocalypse.” Here’s to hoping that it is published soon.


Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Origins Race Theology


  1. This is so cool, Chris. Thanks for contextualizing these journal entries within the history of Methodism and Apess’ life and writings. It’s too bad that we don’t know more about that they talked about for those 2-3 hours. My guess is there was some fascinating BoM reception history being discussed. There are some parallels between Apess’ writings and the BoM, in particular the Hebraic origin of indigenous peoples and the recasting of American history. It’s definitely a subject worth investigating.

    Comment by David G. — November 21, 2013 @ 8:35 am

  2. Wonderful!

    I’ve been working off and on for a couple of years now on a story about a link between my family’s connection to the Baptist/Sabbatarian Baptist churches and their early membership in the Mormon Church. It’s a cool story, but teasing out and double checking some of the details from that period has been quite a project. Seeing your post here gives me renewed interest in finishing up the research and tracking down those elusive last details. Thank you.

    I was also happy to see a notice the other day about two large-scale digitalization projects, the Colonial North America project (CNA) and the Colonial Archives of North America project (CANA). As the title of the notice says, what a goldmine of information that will be.

    Comment by Amy T — November 21, 2013 @ 9:24 am

  3. Interesting questions Chris….I think Apess is an interesting character. A mix-blood who is caught between two worlds, Native and Euro-American, and his tribe is almost non-existent by the 1830s. He grows up “white” and embraces Christianity, and only after his downfall does he decide to embrace his Pequot identity, but i wonder how much he embraced his Indianness or was embraced by his tribe? Because i know by Euro-American standards of blood ancestry, Native is Native despite not knowing the religion, language, tradition, culture or going through the experiences. But through this and in part to other things he writes a reaction to Andrew Jackson’s U.S. federal Indian Policies by writing his book, A Son of the forest. Since he discusses the prejudices and racisms of Euro-Americans of the time. … I’m not surprised that Apess would be interested in talking with Joseph Smith era missionaries.

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — November 21, 2013 @ 11:08 am

  4. I came across the Apes entry in Samuel Smith’s journal a couple of months ago and flagged it as a topic for possible future research. I was hoping to find a later entry of their return visit – but alas, it doesn’t look like they ever went back to meet with him. 🙁

    Comment by Brenden — November 21, 2013 @ 11:32 am

  5. Thanks, everyone, for the comments.

    David, I’ll definitely be in touch if I pursue this any further.

    Amy, I’m glad my continued interest in ecclesiastical history inspired you. 🙂

    Thanks, Corey, for your thoughts. Somebody needs to write a good, scholarly biography of Apess that addresses your many points.

    I share your disappointment, Brenden. Because Apess was a traveling preacher, it might have been difficult for the Mormons to track him down even if they’d wanted to.

    Comment by Christopher — November 21, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

  6. Great stuff, Christopher. I wonder if the lack of comparative analyses between Smith and Apess points to the typically racialized frameworks in which we understand the two; it’d be fascinating how a closer comparison between the two might make us reconsider the ways that we understand these figures.

    Comment by Ben P — November 21, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

  7. Apess’s Son of the Forest is one of those books everyone should read. Apess uses his life story to craft a scathing jeremiad against the racism and hypocrisy of the whites of his day. One of the more interesting things he does is draw on the mythology of Native Americans being descendants of the Lost Tribes to assert that only Native Americans have retained “the original complexion of our common father, Adam.” Thus he not only redeems his skin color, but exalts it. In a later essay he also employs the image of a colored Jesus.

    It’s worth pointing out that although this brief encounter with Samuel Smith and Orson Hyde was likely Apess’s only direct contact with Mormons, he seems to have had at least an indirect influence on the early Mormon tradition. “Son of the forest” was a phrase Apess used an alternative to the terms “Indian” and “savage,” which he regarded as bigoted and inaccurate labels. Apess didn’t invent the phrase “son of the forest,” but he did popularize it. The phrase appeared only sporadically in pre-1829 Euro-American literature but became quite popular thereafter. One of the places we frequently run into it is in early Mormon books and periodicals. Ironically, Apess’s romantic label became an inaccurate stereotype almost the moment it was published. He published his book in 1829, and in 1830 it became US federal policy to “remove” all the “forest” Indians of the eastern US to the plains and prairies of the western frontier. By the time Mormons and other Euro-Americans widely adopted the phrase as a label for all natives, it no longer applied to most of the tribes and bands they were in contact with.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — November 21, 2013 @ 6:55 pm

  8. Thanks, Ben. I think you’re probably correct.

    Chris, thanks so much for that additional insight. In what contexts and when did early Mormons use the “son of the forest” identifier for Native peoples?

    Comment by Christopher — November 21, 2013 @ 7:32 pm

  9. Man! what prominent historical figure from the nineteenth century did not at some point have an encounter with Mormon missionaries? We’re everywhere!

    Great find, Chris! This is really great stuff!!

    Comment by Stan — November 21, 2013 @ 9:18 pm

  10. One of the earliest uses was W. W. Phelps in the October 1835 Messenger and Advocate, endorsing the US government’s policy of removal and peace-keeping: “I love to behold the seed of Joseph gathering home for better days and I love to see the saints preparing to meet the Lord, when he comes in his glory. I rejoice while the United States’ army is penetrating into the western wilds to make treaties with the rude sons of the forest.”

    The phrase later appeared a couple times in Times and Seasons editorials (perhaps by John Taylor) criticizing Protestant missions and federal Indian policy. For instance, this one from 1845: “What is the reason that the United Sates hand of charity, so liberally bestowed upon the sons of the forest, has constantly withered the Indians away?”

    It also appeared in the 1845 proclamation of the twelve to the kings of the world, amidst an endorsement of Mormon participation in the civilizing mission: “The sons and daughters of Zion will soon be required to devote a portion of their time in instructing the children of the forest; for they must be educated and instructed in all the arts of civil life, as well as in the gospel. They must be clothed, fed, and instructed in the principles and practice of virtue, modesty, temperance, cleanliness, industry, mechanical arts, manners, customs, dress, music, and all other things which are calculated in their nature to refine, purify, exalt, and glorify them as the sons and daughters of the royal house of Israel and of Joseph, who are making ready for the coming of the bridegroom.”

    The phrase recurs again in a few later sermons, such as an 1855 talk by Orson Pratt in which he said, “It is for this object?namely, the salvation and redemption of the poor, lost, degraded sons of the forest?that God has given the Urim and Thummim, and caused to be translated one of the most glorious sacred records, or histories that was ever introduced into the world by mortal man.”

    Comment by Christopher Smith — November 21, 2013 @ 9:49 pm

  11. In Mormon sources, “sons of the forest” was usually used to mark natives as uncivilized. Apess would have admitted the natives were “untutored,” but for him the “son of the forest” was a romantic figure (the “noble primitive”); the white concept of civilization was specious and the imposition of it on natives was destructive; and the whites were at least as much in need of moral reformation as any native.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — November 21, 2013 @ 10:08 pm

  12. Thanks, Chris! Fascinating.

    And thanks, Stan.

    Comment by Christopher — November 21, 2013 @ 11:42 pm

  13. Chris, this is great. What a fascinating context! Your expertise in early Methodism is a huge asset to Mormon studies. Just sayin’.

    For those interested, here is a digitized copy of Christopher Rush’s book.

    Also, here’s an ngram graph of “son of the forest” in it’s different forms. It looks like “son of the forest” was a lot more common than “Son of the Forest.”

    Comment by Tod Robbins — November 22, 2013 @ 9:25 am

  14. This is really good stuff, Christopher, and Christopher!

    And Tod, Poisson distribution. Cool.

    Comment by wvs — November 22, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

  15. Cool, Tod. Always nice to put numbers to an observation like that. Thanks!

    Comment by Christopher Smith — November 22, 2013 @ 5:01 pm


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