Canada’s Christian Heritage Web Site
“I would freely spend my life among them for Jesus’ sake.”
On November 18,1808, William Case confided to his diary, “O, if I could but speak their language I would freely spend my life among them for Jesus’ sake.” It was a decisive moment. The young Methodist circuit rider had just preached to a number of tribal chiefs gathered in council with government authorities at Stoney Creek in Upper Canada (Ontario). That expression of his yearnings proved to be a prophecy of his future and the articulation of a divine calling.
There were several such turning points in Case’s life. He was born during the American Revolution and grew up in the tidewater area of Swansea, Massachusetts, where the family probably attended Hornbine Baptist Church near their farm. His uncle, Isaac Case, became a Baptist preacher in Maine, with some missionary forays into New Brunswick. William received a good education and did some teaching as a young man. Around 1800, the family moved to Chatham, New York, just east of Albany. There, in the boisterous atmosphere of frontier life he faced some new temptations. As John Carroll, his biographer, delicately stated it, “his amiable heart and handsome person exposed him to some dangers from which he did only wholly escape.” It was there, too, that he heard the gospel from Methodist preachers. Grace prevailed, and Case’s life found new hope and direction. Years later, Case simply stated “I was converted in February, 1803.” He was then twenty-three years of age. Soon, he volunteered for missionary service in far-off Upper Canada. Except for five years on New York state circuits, he remained in Canada for the rest of his life.
Another turning point came as the result of a letter he sent in 1810 to his Methodist bishop, Francis Asbury. It was a report of a deep and widespread revival on his circuit in the south-western part of Upper Canada. Asbury deemed it worthy to send to England, where it was published in the Methodist Magazine. From then on, Case ceased writing in his personal diary and wrote an increasing number of reports for the Methodist press, becoming a religious journalist.
A third crucial event came at a camp meeting near Ancaster in 1823. Among those who responded to the gospel invitation were a brother and sister of mixed Ojibwa-white race, Mary and PETER JONES. Case, who had often visited in the home of their father, saw the import of that moment and cried, “Glory to God, there stands a son of Augustus Jones of the Grand River, amongst the converts; now is the door opened for the work of conversion among his nation!” And he was right. He realized that indigenous missionaries who understood native culture and spoke native languages must accomplish the mission to native peoples. His role would be that of administrator, coach, and encourager. He would also supervise the translation of scriptures and hymns into native languages, not an easy task considering that these tongues had scarcely been written down. Peter Jones, meanwhile, would become the vanguard of a team of some sixteen native evangelists who would have a powerful impact chiefly on the many Ojibwa tribes scattered from Kingston to Lake Superior. These peoples were then at a low point, crippled by disease, despair, and alcohol following the recent invasion of white settlers.
During the 1820s and 1830s, over a thousand native converts were baptized. Many tribal groups requested that teachers be sent to them. In response, Case led several fund-raising tours to cities in the eastern United States. The Americans were enchanted with the testimonies, scripture recitations, and singing of the new Ojibwa Christians in Case’s entourage. They responded with money, clothing, and other supplies, and many wanted to “adopt” the children by paying for their education. Such was the case with Adam Steinhauer of Philadelphia, who offered the support ten-year-old Sowengisik if he adopted the European name of his deceased son, Henry. HENRY BIRD STEINHAUER, as the lad became known, proved a brilliant scholar (even learning Hebrew); teacher; and ordained Methodist preacher and led mission work on the prairies.
Case, meanwhile, was greatly respected by his fellow ministers. He was appointed to many responsible positions, including presiding elder (district superintendent) and the secretary of the conference. In 1828, when the Canadian church separated from its American parent body and formed the Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada, Case was elected to its top position of general superintendent for four years. But he is most remembered for his work as the superintendent of Indian missions.
Case had a sweet singing voice with which he often captivated audiences. He loved the camp meeting songs and the hymns of Charles Wesley. “The Garden Hymn” became a sort of signature song for him, a verse of which he often used as an invitation:
Amen, amen, my soul replies,
I’m bound to meet you in the skies,
And claim my mansion there:
Now here’s my heart, and here’s my hand,
To meet you that heavenly land,
Where we shall part no more.
Case was forty-nine when he finally married. Earlier, he had recruited Hetty Hubbard and ELIZA Barnes from Massachusetts to work as missionaries with the Indian women. A rivalry developed between the two women that was partially relieved when Case married Hetty. Alas, two years later she died, leaving a six-month-old daughter. ELIZA became Case’s second wife and partner until his death in 1855.
What proved to be Case’s final year was a significant one for them. With the permission of the conference, they travelled across the province renewing acquaintances with those to whom they had ministered for half a century. Case was invited to deliver a Jubilee sermon to the conference in celebration of his fifty years of ministry. ELIZA and William posed for a photographer in Belleville for a portrait that became widely circulated. In October 1855, William Case died as a result of injuries received when he was thrown from his horse. He was buried, as he had wished, in the Indian cemetery on the Alderville Reserve, north of Cobourg.