May 5: John Dunbar, Missionary to the Pawnee Indians

Serving Christ in a Difficult Field
by Rev. David T. Myers

Many Christians don’t realize that Christian Presbyterians made an active effort to evangelize  native Americans during the same years that countless American Christians were going out to the nations of the world.  But that was true, and often with little success from the standpoint of conversions.

John Dunbar was one such Presbyterian missionary.  Born in Palmer, Massachusetts in 1804, he attended Williams College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1832.  Then sensing a call to the ministry, he entered Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, graduating from it in 1834.  He was ordained on May 1, 1834 into the Presbyterian Church.

Five days later, on May 5, 1834, he accompanied the Rev. Samuel Parker, Rev. Samuel Allis on a missionary tour to the far west, stopping in St. Louis for a party of traders who were going to lead them over the Rocky Mountains.  John Dunbar felt called to the Nez Perces Indians, but the absence of these guides changed his mind and calling.  Hearing of a need for Christian missionaries among the Pawnee’s in what is now Nebraska, the latter two traveled to Bellevue, Nebraska to begin a twelve-year mission to the Pawnee Indian tribe.

The Pawnee’s, numbered between eight thousand to ten thousand in their villages, were all located within thirty miles of each other, around the Platte River, in eastern Nebraska.  They were a nomadic people, often spending their time either hunting or raiding.  Rev. Dunbar tried to mingle with them, going on four of their bi-annual buffalo hunts.  While the gospel went out faithfully, there were little results.  In fact, one history account states that there were no conversions at all.  They were friendly to the missionaries in their midst, but their Indian religion and lifestyle was all opposed to the message of grace.  They practiced polygamy.  Often the women were little more than slaves.

Rev. Dunbar went back to Massachusetts to print a 75 page booklet in their language.  He also married Esther Smith in 1837, and both of them  moved back to the Pawnee field where they lived and ministered until 1841.  Eventually this hardened people caused the missionaries to abandon the field, so that they moved to Missouri and then to Kansas.

John and Esther Dunbar went home to glory within a year apart in 1856 and 1857.  They both faithfully ministered in both word and life to this Indian tribe.

Words to Live By:  Success in the Lord’s work is often by the world measured in the number of conversions, but measured by the Lord Himself, it is found in faithfulness to the calling you have received.  And this missionary family were faithful to the calling to spread the good news of eternal life.

For Further Study : The Nebraska State Historical Society houses a small archival collection of the papers of the Rev. John Dunbar. Click here to view the finding aid (index) for that collection.

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