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Display highlights the history of our conference

Posted: March 17 2023 at 03:26 PM
Author: Sally Gray, Laity, Disciples UMC in Mount Morris, Ill.

Bishop At Display

Sally Gray walks Bishop Dan Schwerin through the display she helped organize.

During the Laity Convocation 2023, one of the host churches, Disciples United Methodist Church (DUMC) in Mt. Morris, created a display about the rich history of the Rock River Conference that then became our Northern Illinois Conference. The church’s history team hoped to share with guests, many of whom had never been in Mt. Morris, how our early Methodist settlers, ministers, and circuit riders followed a path of discipleship as they moved west from Maryland, Ohio, and Kentucky into the frontier of northwest Illinois.  Supported by God’s grace and love, along with the focused and persistent work of resident minister Rev. Thomas S. Hitt and the Illinois Annual Conference, they formed a Methodist Society on a rolling prairie in 1837. The Society then formed Methodist Classes. In 1839, they founded the first institution of higher education in northern Illinois, and in 1840 helped establish the Rock River Annual Conference.

Historic Display

A section of the display organized by the DUMC history team.

DUMC history team’s chronologically ordered history exhibit included newspapers, articles, books, posters, photos, paintings, copies of seminary catalogues, and art. The first large poster boards showcased the Sesquicentennial Special Edition of the Northern Illinois Conference's United Methodist Reporter (Aug. 26, 1990). Its stories and photos featured the 150th anniversary parade and religious services in Mt. Morris celebrating the founding of the Rock River Annual Conference. The history of the church, seminary, and village was also shared.

Conference-related items on the display tables included a printed copy of the minutes from the first session of the Rock River Annual Conference and a preserved piece of the wooden shed where the event took place. Other conference items included a poster and booklet from the Rock River Annual Conference’s centennial celebration in Mt. Morris and a copy of The Methodist Movement in Northern Illinois, authored by Dr. Almer M. Pennewill. The focus of the historical exhibit transitioned midway to explore the lives and times of the conference, its ministers, seminary, attendees, and graduates during the antebellum and American Civil War eras.

Log Cabins To Steeples

DS Brian Gilbert, Bishop Dan Schwerin, and DS Fabiola Grandon-Mayer pose with their gifted copies of Log Cabins to Steeples by J. Gordon Melton. The book, which was included in the historical display, chronicles in the United Methodist way in Northern Illinois.

The beautiful exhibit displayed highlights of the founding of the Methodist Society and Classes on nearby Illinois prairies in 1837, followed by the Rock River Seminary in 1839, and the Rock River Conference in 1840. It illustrated a path of discipleship taken by a vibrant and determined people led by and blessed with God’s grace. They shared Christ’s love and abiding strength through times of growth, trials, hardships, and pain, all the while developing lasting relationships over almost two centuries that continue to grow, change, and expand today.

The Founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Rock River Seminary, and the Rock River Conference in Mt. Morris, Illinois

Early Methodist settlers, ministers, and circuit riders followed a path of discipleship as they moved west from Maryland, Ohio, and Kentucky into the frontier of northwest Illinois. Supported by God’s grace and love, along with the focused and persistent work of resident minister Rev. Thomas S. Hitt and the Illinois Annual Conference, they formed a Methodist Society on a rolling prairie in 1827. The Society then formed Methodist Classes. In 1839, they founded the first institution of higher education in northern Illinois, and in 1840 helped establish the Rock River Annual Conference. In the process, they taught others about Jesus and grew in their own faith. They shared Christ and his love through the development of engaged, enduring relationships with countless people across the conference, state, and country.

Rev. Thomas S. Hitt  was a minister in the primarily Methodist settlement of Maryland Colony, now farmland and crossroads not far from present-day Mt. Morris. Rev. Hitt followed his brother and friends to the area in 1837. There he established a Methodist Class, typically a small group that met weekly and promoted shared Christian accountability, support, ongoing faith formation, and love amongst its members.  Rev. Hitt was assisted in his ministries by circuit riders Rev. James McKean and Rev. Barton Cartwright, who was later appointed by the Rock River Annual Conference to be the chaplain with the 92nd Illinois Regiment during the Civil War.

Colony residents desired a near-by institution of higher education in addition to their well-established grammar school. Rev. Hitt was sent by his congregants on horseback to the 1838 Illinois Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, Illinois, and was charged with convincing them to develop their grammar school into an institution of higher education.

A conference seminary site selection committee visited five sites in northern Illinois. In May of 1839, they chose the Maryland Colony proposal which included a 480 acre and $8000.00 pledge. On July 4th, the cornerstone was laid for a building atop the highest prairie hill. Classes began in November of 1840. Daniel J. Pickney served as principal of the Methodist Episcopal Rock River Seminary from 1842 to 1855. He had been educated at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, earned an M.A. degree in 1841, and taught at Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, New York. The seminary board included Rev. John Clark and attorney Grant Goodrich from Chicago. Goodrich later served on Northwestern University and Garrett Biblical Institute boards.

Soon after the seminary’s founding, the village was named Mt. Morris after Methodist Bishop Thomas Morris and was laid out by the seminary adjacent to its campus. Street names included Seminary, Wesley, McKendrie Avenue, and later Hitt Street, which is also Route 64. The village, founded in 1841, was incorporated in 1848.

The co-educational Rock River Seminary (RRS) drew students from throughout northern Illinois and parts of Indiana, Wisconsin, and Iowa. There was no other institution of higher education available for northern Illinois and area students until Northwestern University and Garrett Biblical Institute opened in 1855. The seminary closed in 1877 primarily due to loss of financial support and students, who now had more educational options available closer to Chicago. The Church of the Brethren bought the seminary and opened Mt. Morris College. Severely damaged by a great fire in 1931, it soon merged with Manchester College in Indiana. Copies of the 1848, 1849, and 1858 Rock River Seminary Catalogues were included in the exhibit.

The Methodist congregation of Mt. Morris first met in the lower level of the original Old Sandstone building. In 1855, the church moved to the larger, new building and occupied part of the east end of its first two floors. There it also served as the seminary chapel where students worshipped daily and twice on Sunday. The Rock River Annual Conference rotated the church’s ministers frequently to allow more of them to attend seminary classes as they were able prior to transferring.

The church built a new building in 1877 on McKendrie Avenue, named after Bishop McKendree, and moved into it following the closure of the seminary. Much later, in 1975, Mt. Morris’s United Methodist Church and the Disciples of Christ Christian church merged, forming the Disciples United Methodist Church. It continues to meet on the corner of Hitt and Maple Streets, not far from the old Methodist Society founded on a prairie almost two centuries ago.  Documents and photos about the merger were shared in the display.

The focus of the historical exhibit transitioned mid-way to explore the lives and times of the conference, its ministers, seminary, attendees, and graduates during the ante-bellum and American Civil War eras. The display shared a statement from the 1999 work of Phillip Stone, a Methodist historian and  self-described ‘Wofford College South Carolina Methodist and Activist’.  South Carolina’s Wofford College was associated with the Methodist Church from its beginning in 1851. Its history, available on the Wofford College website, reflects a very different story from that of Rock River Seminary. The college is still in the process of exploring and writing about its history “in response to contemporary questions concerning its founding generation”, and in hopes for a promising future.

The first chapter of its history states that the college “had faltered but not fallen during the Civil War, and its survival was a testament to the United Methodist Church and the love it engendered in its faculty and the community.”

The Rock River Conference encompassed northern Illinois, the “Land of Lincoln”, and before that, the land of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates held throughout Illinois to influence the outcome of the 1858 Illinois Senate election. The debates were recorded word for word by Chicago Press and Tribune reporter Robert R. Hitt, son of Rev. Thomas S. Hitt. Robert was a Rock River Seminary alumnus who later represented Mt. Morris and the surrounding area in the U. S. Congress. Lincoln would not begin debating if “Hitt” were not present. A photo and story of Hitt and the debates were on display in the exhibit.

Rock River Conference Historical Society President Pennewell wrote that the most notable event of the  1860-1870 decade was the Civil War. It had a very serious effect upon the Rock River Conference. He also shared from the minutes of the Rock River Annual Conference’s Committee on the State of the Union for 1861, stating it was a powerful document. “As Christians, as Christian ministers, we can only say that this rebellion must be subdued, the constitution must be maintained, the laws must be enforced, the Union must and will be preserved.” The following resolution was noted: “Resolved that it is the duty of all to stand by our government in this hour of trial and that we pledge it our active sympathies and support.” The above excerpts from the Conference minutes were included in the exhibit.

Many men throughout the Rock River Conference actively supported the war effort. Twenty-two-year-old John King had finished “speaking his piece in the exhibition” at the seminary and returned to work in his family’s fields. He and his friends soon responded to President Lincoln’s call for volunteers. King was a diarist whose daily entries were later edited by his great-granddaughter Claire E. Swedberg and published by Stackpole Books in 1999. In Three Years with the 92nd Illinois: The Civil War Diary of John M. King, the young man shares his thankfulness that a chaplain had been assigned to the 92nd.  “A better man for the position than Chaplain B. H. Cartwright of the Methodist Rock River Conference would be hard to find.”

King told of Cartwright’s continued presence with the troops through numerous battles including Franklin and Chickamauga. Chaplain Cartwright assisted with stretchers, aided the wounded, prayed with the dying, and provided services for the dead, most of whom were friends and comrades. The soldiers helped him build a small, log church in one of their winter camps for prayer and worship services. “The men assisted whether they were Christian or not and loved the chaplain. Even the fellows who could never utter a full sentence without a string of oaths assisted the chaplain in the church building and never cussed in his direct presence”. Cartwright was one of the circuit riders mentioned earlier who assisted Rev. Hitt in establishing the Methodist Society in Maryland Colony. King’s photograph and book were included in the exhibit.

Eight of the Rock River Seminary alumni who responded to the call for more regiments and troops became Civil War generals. They represented many towns and cities throughout northern Illinois. Most notable was Maj. General John A. Rawlins, who attended the seminary for two years and returned to Galena. He became a lawyer, a neighbor of Ulysses S. Grant, and delivered an electrifying speech at a Galena recruitment meeting. According to author Ron Chernow in Grant, published by Penguin Books in 2017, Grant listened with rapt attention and later told a friend that Rawlins had “wiped away any residual doubts about pitching into the war effort.” Rawlins became Lt. General U.S. Grant’s Adjutant General, Chief of Staff, advisor, and served with him throughout the war. Photos and stories about all eight generals were displayed.

Rev. John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist minister, Sunday School reformer, author and editor was a minister at the Methodist Church in Galena. He delivered Galena’s farewell address to his friend Cpt. Ulysses S. Grant and his troops as they left for the war. Vincent was the minister in Mt. Morris in 1859 and opened his Sunday School classes to anyone in the village who wanted to attend. The classes were held on the seminary lawn on Saturday afternoons. He further refined and developed his “Palestine” classes, the study of the sacred history, geography, and culture of the people in Biblical towns. Vincent later chaired the Sunday School Department of the Methodist Episcopal Church, became a bishop, and eventually co-founded the Chautauqua movement, featuring family vacation learning in religion, culture, education and recreation. Chautauqua events were popular throughout especially rural America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Rock River Seminary graduates included two Illinois governors. John Lourie Beveridge was governor from 1873 until 1877. Beveridge attended Rock River Seminary from 1843-1845, taught in Tennessee, hated slavery, returned to Illinois, studied law, and practiced in Chicago until the war. He fought with the Illinois 8th and later the 17th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg and achieved the rank of Brigadier General. He then served as an Illinois State Senator and U.S. Congressman prior to his governorship. He married Helen Mar Judson, a Rock River Seminary graduate. She was the daughter of RRS trustee Rev. Philo Judson, who was a pastor of both the Mt. Morris Methodist Church and the Clark Street Methodist Church in Chicago. In 1852, he became business manager for the new Northwestern University.

Illinois Governor Shelby Moore Cullom attended Rock River Seminary and developed close friendships with classmate alumni Congressman Robert R. Hitt and Maj. General John A. Rawlins. He described his formative years at “old Mt. Morris Seminary as the pleasantest of my life.” Had he had other friends or gone elsewhere, “my whole future might have been entirely different.” He became an attorney and served Illinois for over 50 years in several offices, including the Illinois House of Representatives, the U. S. Congress and Senate, and as governor from 1877-1883.

Several alumni went on to become college and university presidents, including David H. Wheeler and Charles H. Fowler at Northwestern University. Samuel Fellows taught at Rock River Seminary and then became president of Cornell College in Iowa.

Helen Mar Judson Beveridge, Rock River Seminary graduate and daughter of Rev. Philo Judson, mentioned above, married John L. Beveridge in 1848. She taught children in Evanston in 1854 and was an advocate for higher education for women. She met with Rock River Seminary friend and alumnus William P. Jones, Jr., principal of Peoria’s Female Seminary. They discussed the possibility of founding a college for women. Jones and his financier bother John Wesley Jones opened North-Western Female College in Evanston in 1855. Other institutions for the education of women followed in Evanston, including the Evanston College for Ladies, chartered inn 1869, and the Women’s College of Northwestern in 1873. Helen Judson Beveridge became the First Lady of Illinois in 1873. She later chaired many charitable groups and was a patroness of the arts.

Rock River Seminary’s classes included music and art. Alexander Simplot attended RRS and was a friend of Major John A. Rawlins, Lt. General Grant’s Chief of Staff. Alexander taught school in Dubuque, Iowa, and sketched soldiers boarding the Alhambra enroute to the Civil War. He soon gained access to the Civil War battlefields by his relationship with Rawlins. He was one of America’s first war artists and correspondents. He joined the Bohemian Brigade and continued to enter the battlegrounds, quickly sketch scenes, and send them to prominent periodicals for publication. A copy of his Iowa Regiment at Fort Donelson, Feb. 1862 was featured in the exhibit. Simplot became ill early during the war and had to return home. His sketches are housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Liberty Walkup worked on his family’s farm near Mt. Morris as a shepherd. He joined the 92nd Illinois Infantry but became critically ill with measles and returned home. He eventually recovered and moved to Iowa, where he sold Bibles. He then attended Rock River Seminary, where he received a slight veteran’s discount. He studied art among other things, graduated, and was fascinated with the airbrush. An inventor, he refined the design and patented the improvements. He married Phoebe Johnson, also an artist, and they established the Illinois Art School in Rockford for teaching the use of the airbrush.


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