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An Early Miami Valley Missionary

This article appeared in Dayton Daily News on March 6, 1932



By  Howard Burba


     For more than 75 years there has slept beneath a little mound in the cemetery at Eaton one of the first Christian ministers to carry the gospel into the wilds of the Miami Valley.  “Father Finley,” as history records him, laid down life’s labors among those he served, though not until long years after he had seen his followers of many tribes pushed on toward the land of the setting sun.

     Pioneer history presents no more peculiar character than “Father Finley.”  The Protestant church has never given to the world a servant more devoted to its cause.  Humanity has contributed few counterparts in the matter of actual sacrifice for the betterment of the world.  That this strange man was endowed with supernatural gifts, which manifested themselves in his ability to forego the dangers and hardships of a primitive era, is attested by the fragments of reference to him scattered all through the early history of the Miami Valley.

     Just where and how he became possessed of the soubriquet, “Father Finley,” there is no record.  But that is the name by which he quickly became known when, desiring to extend his field of service and to carry the gospel of Christianity in strange and unknown places he gave up his appointments in the crude hillside churches of eastern Ohio and made his way into what was then the northwest territory.  Chillicothe was the hub around which human activities revolved in Ohio at that time, so it was at Chillicothe his father first showed up, clad in the garb of a woodsman and, like the prophet of old, carrying his staff in his hand.   

     It required a residence of but a few weeks for the elder Finley to impress himself upon the residents of Chillicothe as a man of great energy of character, of burning zeal, of magnetic argumentative powers and the ability to organize and lead.  His greatest joy was in officiating at “camp meetings,” and since that form of worship was in high favor at the time, he was not long in achieving fame.  His ability to sway the masses and to calm the rage of ruffians and unbelievers soon won him the respect and admiration of the entire community.  All of those traits were passed on to the son.

     Stories of the wilderness to the northwest interested the boy.  Tales of the struggle that was being staged by the white man to wrest the rich acres of the Great Miami valley from the redskins, claimed his rapt attention.  He believed there was a better way to settle the controversy than through the medium of flintlock rifle and tomahawk.

     In describing “Father Finley,” an early Ohio historian, Henry Howe, declares that “he was formed on a generous scale, and when he threw his strong, sympathetic spirit into the service of Christianity there was enough of him to make one of the biggest sort of Christians.  He was short, but strongly built, with a heavy sonorous voice that went to the utmost verge of many a camp-meeting, stirring the emotions of multitudes of their inmost depths.  He was frank, simple as a child, outspoken, fearless in denunciation of wrong, and when rowdies disturbed any meeting in which he was engaged he was quick and effective in muscular demonstrations.”

     The Finleys, from which the subject of this sketch descended, were Pennsylvania Presbyterians.  James’ father, Robert W. Finley, was graduated at Princeton, studied for the ministry, and then sent as a missionary into the settlements of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, preaching and planting churches in destitute places.  Here he married Rebecca Bradley, and a year after, in 1781, James was born.

     At the time of his birth the horrors of warfare were at their height.  Not only this but a political war was raging, one that also wrote with blood page after page of pioneer history.  The Tories, urged by the British, were trying to exterminate the Whigs.  All of Finley’s mother’s brothers were killed in this deadly strife.  One fell at Gates’ defeat; another was murdered by four Tories at his own door—shot with his own rifle.  Another died on a prison ship.  His father and congregation were waylaid and shot at on their way to church; one member was killed by a shot through his window while he was at prayer.  His father received a ball through the clothing about his breast as he stepped out of his own door.

     A Tory major of the neighborhood by strategem collected all of the wives of the Whigs in one house and hanged them by the neck until they were almost dead in a vain attempt to extort from them the places of their husbands concealment.  At the close of the war he returned to the neighborhood, when the sons of the women he had abused took him out to a swamp and gave him 20 lashes on the bare back for each of the women he had hanged.  Then they tarred and feathered him, ducked him in the swamp and threatened that if he did not leave the country in a month they would draw every drop of Tory blood out of his body.

     In 1786 the Finley family moved to the Redstone country, near the headwaters of the Potomac, where he preached for two years.  But Kentucky was the land of promise in those days, and in the fall of 1788 they embarked with a party of others on the Ohio and arrived at Maysville.  From there Rev. Finley removed his family to Washington, Ky., for the winter.

     James, then a lad of 7, saw for the first time that great adventurer, Simon Kenton.  The depredations of the Indians became so great in the community that the Finleys moved on, settling at this time at Caney Ridge.   Here Finley preached to two congregations and started a high school, the first of its kind in Kentucky.  In the spring of 1796 he emigrated to the Scioto valley, locating at Chillicothe.  He was a factor in shaping the destinies of that early settlement.

     The elder Finlely opened an academy here, and the son, later to be known as “Father Finley,” studied English, Greek, Latin and mathematics.  He also studied medicine, and in the fall of 1800 took his degree, though with no intention of practicing.  “My recreation,” he once told a friend, “was with a gun in the woods, and I passed several months in the forest surveying forest lands for Thomas Worthington, afterwards a governor of Ohio.”

     Having passed the winter of 1800-01 in hunting he was so enamored with outdoor life that he decided to make hunting his future activity.  He met and married Hannah Strane.  How he got on he related in after years when he wrote an extended biography.

     “My father having bought land in what is now Highland county, “ he wrote, “ I resolved to move on it and take possession.  This section of the country was then a dense wilderness, with only here and there a human habitation.  My father-in-law, being dissatisfied with his daughter’s choice, did not even allow her to take her clothes so we started out without any patrimony to make our fortunes in the woods.

     “With the aid of my brother, John, I built a cabin in the forest, my nearest neighbor being three miles off.  Into this we moved without horse or cow, bed or bedding, bag or baggage.  We gathered up leaves and dried them in the sun, then, picking out all of the sticks, we put them into a bed tick.  For a bedstead, we drove forks into the ground, and laid sticks across, over which we placed the bark.  On this we placed our bed of leaves and had comfortable lodging.

     “The next thing was to procure something to eat.  Of meat we had an abundance, supplied by the rifle, but we wanted some bread.  I cut and split 100 rails for a bushel of potatoes, which I carried home on my back, a distance of six miles.  At the same place I worked a day for a hen and three chickens, which I put into my hunting shirt bosom and carried home as a great prize.

     “Our cabin was covered with bark and lined and floored with the same material.  One end of the cabin was left open for a fireplace.  In this we lived comfortably all summer.  Having no horse or plow, I went into a plum grove near the house and with my axe grubbed and cleared off an acre and a half, in which I dug holes with my hoe and planted my corn without any fence around it.

     “I cultivated this patch as well as I could with my hoe, and Providence blessing my labor with a good crop of over 100 bushels.  Besides, during the summer, with the help of my wife, I put up a neat cabin and finished it for our winter lodging.  For the purpose of making my cabin warm I put my corn in the loft, so now if we could not get bread we had always as good a substitute—hominy.  We had also plenty of bear meat and venison, and no couple on earth lived happier or more contented.  Our Indian friends often called and stayed all night, and I paid them in return occasional visits.

     “About Christmas we had a turkey-hunt.  At that season of the year they were very fat and we killed them in great abundance.  To preserve them, we cleaned them, cut them in two, and after salting them in troughs we hung them up to dry.  They served a valuable purpose to cook along with our bear and venison meat.

     “The nearest mill was 30 miles away, so we seldom had corn ground.  Another difficulty was to get salt, which sold enormously high, usually about $4 for 50 pounds.  In backwoods currency it would require four buckskins, or one large bear skin, or 16 coon skins, to make the purchase.  Often we would pack a load of kettels on our horse to the Scioto salt licks, now the site of Jackson, and there boil the water and procure out meager supply of salt.

     “Those who lived then enjoyed life with a great zest.  We had not then sickly, hysterical wives with poor, puny, sickly, dying children, and no dyspeptic men constantly swallowing the nostrums of quacks.  When we became sick unto death we died at once, and did not keep the neighborhood in constant state of alarm for several weeks by daily bulletins of our dying.  Our young women were beautiful without rouge, color de rose, meen fun, or any other cosmetic.”

     He points out that about this time a great religious revival swept over that part of Kentucky.  A camp meeting was held at Cane Ridge, and with a neighbor he traveled all the way from Highland co. to that place to attend services.

     When he arrived on the camp grounds he found an awful scene.  A vast crowd was collected, estimated at 25,000.  The noise was like the roar of Niagara.  The vast sea of human beings were agitated as if by a storm.  He counted seven ministers all preaching at once from stumps, fallen trees and wagons.  Some were singing, others praying; some piteously crying for mercy and others shouting most vociferously.  He became weak at the sight, and fled to the woods.

     “After some time,” he wrote, “I returned to the scene of excitement.  I stepped up on a log where I could have a better view of the surging mass of humanity.  The scene that presented itself to my mind was indescribable.  At one time I saw at least 500 swept down in a moment as if a battery of 1000 guns had been opened upon them, and then immediately followed shrieks and shouts that rent the very heavens.

     “At times it seemed as if all the sins I had ever committed in my life were vividly brought up in array before my terrified imagination, and under their awful pressure I felt that I must die if I did not get relief.  Then it was I saw clearly through the thin veil of Universalism, and this refuge of lies was swept away by the Spirit of God.  Then fell the scales from my sun-blinded eyes.

     “The next night we started home and when we reached the Blue Lick knobs I broke down and told my companion that it we didn’t stop our wickedness the devil would get us both.  He climbed from his horse and we went into the woods to pray.  Finally he started shouting, and his shouts attracted a Swiss-German who had experienced religion.  He understood my friend’s case, and carried him to this house and put him on the bed.  He kneeled at the bedside and prayed for our salvation.  I thought I should die now with an excess of joy.  I cried, I shouted and so strangely did I appear that the Dutch family thought I was deranged.”

     Upon his arrival at this home Finley decided to join the Methodist church, and to become a circuit rider.  He sold the boots off of his feet to provision his family, then barefooted, his hair hanging in long waves about his shoulders, he started on his circuit.

     He was assigned to “Wild Creek Circuit, “ and the distance he had to travel to cover it was 475 miles.  As he journeyed through the wilderness his place of study was the forest and his text-book the Bible.  Eventually he was put in charge of the “Ohio District,” which included eight circuits and 10 traveling preachers.  Finley stated in after years that some of them labored for a salary of $25 a year.

     Four times a year he covered the circuit, and it was while on these visits that he became the good friend of the Indians in the Miami Valley, and often interceded for them in their quarrels with the settlers.  He became a familiar figure in every hamlet and fort in this part of the state; a ministering angel not alone to the spiritually weak, but to those physically distressed.  The Wyandot Indians were especially fond of him, and more than one bloody encounter was prevented when “Father Finley” was appealed to as arbiter.  His judgment was never questioned by the Indians; his good intentions and sincerity never doubted by the whites.

     It is recorded in the annals of the Methodist church that during “Father Finley’s” work among the settlers of the wilderness more than 5000 accepted his teaching and on by a brother to exhort.  Being made blessed, I suppose, I raised united with the denomination he represented.  Many churches of the present day in this part of the state can trace their founding to this backwoods missionary. 

     “Father Finley” was firm and courageous.  Hardened by rugged pioneer life, he often appeared to be blunt in his dealings.  But there was about him a kindliness that all men, both white and red, fully understood and quickly learned to love.  That he was not without a sense of humor, too, is indicated in this incident taken form his autobiography, written while he was serving as chaplain of the Ohio penitentiary, a position he held for four consecutive terms:

     “I was,” he wrote, “once called my voice to the highest pitch and struck the book-board with my hand.  At this a young man named Charles Hammond, who had considerable talent, became alarmed, and making his way to the door fled.  On my next round the sexton found in the pulpit a very neatly turned maul, with a slip of paper wrapped about the handle and directed to me.  It was from Hammond, and on the paper was this verse:

 “Thus saith the Lord, the preacher now

      Must warn the people all.

And if you cannot make them hear

     I’d have you use this maul.

Your hand, dear sir, is far too soft

     To batter on the wood;

Just take this maul, it is but small,

     And thunder on the board.

Lift up your voice, and loudly call

     On sinner all around,

And if you cannot make them hear,

     Take up this maul and POUND’”