The logical successor to Superintendent Maile was Rev. H. Bross, D.D., the General Missionary of the state and superintendent of the Black Hills region. His long service as stated clerk of the association had kept him in touch with all the churches of the state.
At the request of the writer, Dr. Bross has furnished a brief account of some missionary experiences while he was general missionary. These serve as a valuable illustration of the pioneer work in the state in comparatively recent times. Dr. Bross writes;
"LINCOLN, July 6, 1904.
"After a pastorate of nearly eleven years at Crete, extending from August 1, 1873, to February 1, 1884, during which time the church increased from a membership of fourteen to 185, and the present house of worship was built, I entered upon general missionary work in northern Nebraska with headquarters at Norfolk.
"At that time we had comparatively few churches in the North Platte region, and efforts were made at once to extend the work; The churches at Wisner, Pierce, West Cedar Valley, and other points which were nearly extinct were revived and strengthened. Special meetings were held in Dixon county, out of which the churches of Newcastle and Daily Branch grew, also a church at Martinsburg now nearly extinct. The churches at Gloversville and Park, in Antelope county also grew out of this work. Ainsworth had been organized but was nearly extinct; it was revived and Long Pine added. The churches in Holt county were also gathered the following summer.
REV. HARMON BROSS, SUPERINTENDENT
"During the session of the legislature in 1885 the counties of northwestern Nebraska were organized and a great tide of settlement poured into that region. In the early spring I made an exploring expedition into that region, visiting the new towns of Gordon, Rushville, Hay Springs, and Chadron.
"With the first train into Chadron, August, 1885, I went to begin permanent work. I made headquarters at Chadron and soon had a gospel tabernacle ready for church and Sunday school. On Sunday, September 13, 1885, the three churches of Rushville, Hay Springs, and Chadron were recognized by council, Rev. M. L. Holt of Neligh being delegate from that church, and Mrs. Bross from the church at Norfolk, where we were then living.
"Houses of worship were soon built at these three points; but later at Rushville, when the Methodists, Baptists, the United Presbyterians, the German Methodists, and the regular Presbyterians all crowded in, it did not seem wise to continue further expenditure of home missionary money, and that point was given up. With the extension of the railroad in the spring of 1886, church work was established at Crawford, where we now have a thriving church with a good brick house of worship and parsonage all paid for. The church at Chadron has also just come to self-support; has a good house of worship and parsonage free of debt.
"September 29, 1887, the Northwestern Association was organized at Chadron, and later Chadron Academy was established. The work then extended into the Black Hills and into Wyoming and I was made superintendent of that region in connection with my north Nebraska work.
"The extension of the Burlington road into northwestern Nebraska and the Black Hills in 1888-89 opened another large region, and population began pouring in. With Hemingford in Box Butte county as a center, preaching points
had been established throughout the county, and the church at Hemingford was organized in 1886. Then followed Hyannis and Reno and these formed the nucleus of a large group of churches since gathered in the sandhills.
"The aim had been to have our churches organized in groups, so that they might support each other and have fellowship among themselves. With this in view, we passed from Ainsworth 150 miles west before attempting the organization of another church. These churches have proved very efficient and fruitful in their influence for good, and in developing Christian character among young people who have made themselves strong for good work. The church at Chadron has made a good history in this respect. The young people who have gone from there to college, and have become teachers, Christian business men, home keepers, will date their first impulses for the higher life to influences emanating from the church and academy. One of our most influential international Y. M. C. A. workers was converted in that church and started on his career of usefulness. The community of churches in the Black Hills and in central Wyoming owe their existence and their strength largely to their close contact with this work in northwest Nebraska.
"An interesting feature in the extension of this work was the use of Gospel tabernacles in the beginning: The success of the one at Chadron was suggestive of what might be done in other places, and in a short time the general missionary had at his disposal six canvas roofs which might be used for gospel tabernacles at various places. One of these had been purchased at Chadron by the Sunday school of Farmington, Connecticut; another was bought by money given by the Sunday school at Milburn, Illinois, and four were donated by the firm of J. V. Farwell & Co., Chicago.
REV. HARMON BROSS, SUPERINTENDENT
"At each place the use of a lot was secured, a collection taken to furnish sufficient lumber for the walls of the temporary building, and this was covered with the heavy ducking. No windows were needed, and one small door allowed entrance to the unique structure. In this way the church and Sunday school had a home at once with regular hours for service and a distinct place in the life of the community.
"One of these tabernacles, that at Buffalo Gap, was used for eighteen months. When the one which had been used at Lusk for some time was not needed there, it was brought down to Ravenna and sheltered that church in its early history.
"In December, 1889, when Rev. J. L. Maile discontinued his work as superintendent, the writer was appointed superintendent of the state work with headquarters at Lincoln. When he entered upon his work as general missionary February 1, 1884, the denomination had 148 churches in the state with a total membership of 4,042, with 6,390 in Sunday school. There are now 203 churches with membership of 15,212; and 16,719 in our Sunday schools.
"Our yearly contributions then for home expenses were $45,248; now $160,287. Our benevolences then were, per annum, $8,722; now $21,827.
In his first report to the Home Missionary Society Superintendent Bross says:
"The western half of our state presents all the phases of work in a region where home missionary efforts have been in progress fifteen or sixteen years. . There are the same difficulties, the same opportunities, the same mighty incentives to aggressive work. It is as yet almost entire missionary ground. We have there only five self-supporting
churches, and but about thirty in all, including several German churches."1
Superintendent Stewart says in his report:
"In many places the people are entirely destitute of any religious services. The few Sunday schools that have been organized are but little better than none, as ignorance and infidelity prevail to a great extent. The scattered settlers in those new communities consist very largely of those classes that care nothing for Bible study, and those who have been members of Sunday schools have been so long without them that in many cases they are indifferent
In all that region (the western frontier) there are but few people who are competent for officers and teachers, and of these only a small number have consecration and Christian character sufficient to make the Sunday school a success."2
And yet that year Superintendent Stewart organized twenty-one schools.
The association of 1890 made a strong protest against opening the World's Fair on Sunday, and a stirring appeal for an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting the liquor traffic. A spirited address by the Rev. A. A. Cressman upon "Work among the Bohemian population of the state" called forth vigorous resolutions, endorsing the work already done, and expressing sympathy with those engaged in that service.
As we contrast this period with that of three decades preceding we find similar problems. The frontier has only been pushed to the western part of the state, and there the work is as truly pioneer as that in eastern Nebraska when Father Gaylord began work on the banks of the Missouri. In 1890 the State Missionary Society employed
1 Minutes, 1890, p. 31.
2 Minutes, 1890, p. 34.
REV. HARMON BROSS, SUPERINTENDENT
two general missionaries, Rev. G. J Powell and Rev. George E. Taylor., to supplement the work of the state superintendent.
At this time the American Home Missionary Society was beginning to reduce appropriations to Nebraska, and said
"Your churches should be made deeply to feel that whatever new work is undertaken must come from the savings of the old work, and an increase in the contributions to the cause."3
It is not always understood that as the eastern portion of the state has become self-supporting, a vast empire in the western portion has sprung into being; that this is pioneer soil, and being more sparsely settled than eastern Nebraska will remain a missionary field for some time to come, and that in eastern Nebraska there are parishes, once self-supporting, which on account of removals and changes find themselves once more on the home missionary list.
The missionary problem is always being solved, but each year new elements enter, and so it is ever with us.
This period is also remembered for the severe drouth which devastated homes, ruined the financial prospects of many, and was a staggering blow to the growth of the churches in the state. It was one of the elements then entering into the missionary problem.
In alluding to this severe experience and emergence into a brighter outlook Superintendent Bross says
"The cities and towns that contributed money; the farmers who shared their provisions with others; the coal men who donated trainload after trainload of coal, asking
in return only enough to pay the miner for his underground work; the railroads and express companies that transported, free, tons and tons of produce, goods, fuel, and seed, have added another chapter to the abundant testimony accumulated through the years, showing that we are, after all, one family and responsive to the same appeals for help. We gather this year in the presence of such abundant crops of all sorts that the transformation seems a miracle of Providence. In spite of losses and difficulties the year has been one of substantial progress."4
We are not surprised that at this time there should be an unusual number of changes in the churches, and that vigorous words should be uttered in favor of permanence in the pastoral office. But the hopeful spirit which pervaded the Fremont meeting of 1891 shows the vast recuperative forces resident in the state.
In the following year a carefully outlined plan for the development of Sunday school work was presented by Superintendent Stewart,5 and the whole work of the denomination began to be more thoroughly unified and systematically prosecuted.
The Fremont church, and the churches of the state as well, were called to mourn the loss of the inspiring presence and wise counsels of Rev. I. E. Heaton who was called to his eternal home September 17, 1893. One by one the early pioneers have disappeared. The memory of their devotion and heroism remains with us; their works do follow us;
"But, oh, for the touch of a vanished hand
And the sound of a voice that is still."
Mrs. Heaton passed to her reward August 8, 1905, aged ninety-three years. Dr. Geo. L. Miller of Omaha, one of the first trustees of the First Church, still remains with us, but there are not many who can tell of the first beginnings of pioneer work in the state. It is the second generation of workers who are now called pioneers. But all have partaken of the same spirit and are doing a noble work in the development of a Christian state.
The practical treatment of live questions is characteristic of the State Association. This was well illustrated in the Beatrice meeting of 1893, with these topics for discussion: "Morals involved in the coinage question," by Rev. W. P. Bennett; "Morals involved in the labor question," by Rev. Wilson Denney; "Morals involved in the immigration question," by Rev. John Power; "The evils resulting from short pastorates and how they may be remedied," by Rev. H. A. French; "Why are not more young men in the Sunday school?" by Rev. T. W. De Long; "More systematic and thorough instruction in Sunday school," by Rev. John Doane; "How to secure trained and efficient superintendents," by Rev. A. G. Washington; and "Are our churches doing their whole duty toward destitute places within their reach?" by Rev. C. W. Preston.
This meeting was selected at random from among the later meetings of the association, and the topics show, as do those of other meetings, that it is practical rather than doctrinal questions in which our churches are especially interested, although the doctrinal is not eliminated from the thought and life of western Congregationalism, and it only takes the occasion to bring it to the front. Life was real and earnest, and the churches of the state were, in the very struggle for existence, compelled to face stern every-day problems.
The drouth again blasted the crops and the hopes of the people. The state superintendent's report at the Crete meeting, 1895, had a more pitiful story of hardships and loss than the one some years before, but with it a glad refrain of thanksgiving on account of the practical and generous sympathy of the outside world.
"True to its genius and its history, Congregationalism did its work, not for itself but for the community. Carloads of coal and flour were wisely and carefully distributed in homes where the only condition was that of need. These offerings of clothing, provisions, and money came from all parts of the country, from Maine to California, and from North Dakota to Alabama . . . . These offerings were distributed in the counties of Antelope, Boyd, Brown, Custer, Dawson, Franklin, Frontier, Garfield, Grant, Harlan, Hayes, Hitchcock, Holt, Keya Paha, Knox, Lincoln, Loup, Merrick, Perkins, Phelps, Platte, Red Willow, Webster, Wheeler"; and adds Superintendent Bross, "I believe it will surprise you all, no matter how carefully you have been observing the changes among us, when I say that although the hardships of the year have been unparalleled in the history of our state, only four of our home missionaries have left the state during the year . . . . Of our vacant churches, correspondence is under way looking to the support of nearly all. There are only two or three that have been entirely without supply during the year."6
There is hopefulness also in the Sunday school report of Superintendent Stewart for the same year: "Our correspondents write that whole families come to Sunday school now who never could be induced to attend before. One lady
says, 'Men who were scoffers, and who made light of the lesson quarterlies, calling them almanacs, are now regular attendants upon the Sunday school and students of those same quarterlies.' This is certainly some compensation for the shortage in crops during the last three years. Possibly this is the purpose of God's providence in withholding the rain. . . 'Neither tribulation, nor distress, nor persecution, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor peril, nor sword, can separate them from the work that God has given them to do.' "7
In these later years we have had an abundance of rain; they have been "years of plenty," and the work of our Congregational Zion has been making steady progress.
The annual appropriations for missionary work have been gradually reduced, and the work steadily advanced, and yet we could wisely expend double what we receive.
The Committee on State of Religion, Dr. George W. Crofts, chairman, at the David City meeting, 1898, gave a happy expression to the outlook in Nebraska then. With an increase in figures quoted it is applicable to the outlook in 1905.
"As you open the gate of the year and look over the field of Congregational Nebraska, what do you see? You see our state superintendent, our apostles, going about as they did in early days, strengthening the churches, flying as compared with the means of transportation in those days, like the angel of the Apocalypse with the everlasting Gospel. You see 105 pastors and preachers shepherding their various flocks comprising the sum total of over 13,000 souls. You see these men, men of culture, men of consecra-
REV. HARMON BROSS, SUPERINTENDENT
tion, men of God, self-sacrificing, prayerful, faithful, and efficient. You see an army of over 15,000 Sunday school children being matured in the Christian faith. You see 6,000 Christian Endeavorers, not only being trained for active service in the cause of Christ, but doing service for Him that is telling on the spirituality and energy of the church for great good. You see our colleges and academies promoting Christian education, and presenting year by year a company of young men and women to the Master for His work in the world in every avenue of life: You see nearly a thousand born from above coming into the Church on confession of faith. You see increased benevolences. You see debts melting away like snow banks in spring. You see silvery streams of Congregational, Christian literature irrigating the moral soil of the state and making the desert with its sage-brush of sensuality bloom like a garden. You see all this activity and faithfulness. You see unity and peace and fraternity and fellowship, and that charity which edifieth. You see less restlessness and more contentment amongst pastors and people. You see a tendency toward longer pastorates, and hence a larger degree of confidence and forbearance, more of Christ and less of criticism. You see all these factors working harmoniously together, working as though impelled by a divine principle. And then you ask, 'What is the state of religion in Nebraska?'
"There is a dark side, but there is a bright side, and it is encouraging to look at it. Even the dark side is bright compared with what has been seen in the past history of the Church, in the times of Savonarola, of Luther, and of Wesley. Let us thank God and take courage."8
Nebraska is looking up and reaching out, ready to seize any new opportunity to extend more widely the Kingdom which is within it.