February 25: John Roberts, Priest, 1949

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John Roberts & Shoshone Episcopal Mission, 1883-1885

About this Commemoration

John Roberts was a priest and mission worker among the Shoshone and Arapahoe in Wyoming where he worked tirelessly from his arrival in 1883 until his death in 1949.

Born and educated in Wales, Roberts served briefly in the Bahamas where he was ordained to the priesthood in 1878. Shortly thereafter, on a visit to New York, he contacted John Spalding, the missionary bishop of Wyoming and Colorado, asking for work among Native Americans. Bishop Spalding sent Roberts to serve in Colorado initially, but by 1883 he had made his way to Wyoming where he began work among the Shoshone and Arapahoe Indians in the area that is now the Wind River Reservation. Roberts learned the languages of both tribes and made extensive notes on vocabulary that have been invaluable to later generations of scholars.

Roberts shared his work with Laura Brown, a wealthy woman he had met while serving in the Bahamas. They married on the day of her arrival in Wyoming, Christmas Day 1884. Together they had six children, five of whom survived the harsh conditions, all of whom learned the native languages as well as English.

In 1887, after building trusting relationships with the people, the Shoshone chief granted land to Roberts on which to build a mission school for girls to complement the nearby government school for boys. In addition to the mission school, Roberts was responsible for starting congregations in nearly a dozen locations.

Unlike other missionaries who sought to change the culture and lifestyle of Native peoples as a sign of their conversion to the Christian faith, Roberts believed it was important to preserve the language, customs, and culture of the people. Roberts sought to honor and respect the ancient ways of the Native peoples while at the same time proclaiming the Gospel among them, inviting them to faith, establishing congregations, and serving their needs in the name of Jesus.


I    Creator God, we humbly thank thee that of thy goodness thou didst bring thy missionary John Roberts from his native shore that he might live and teach thy Gospel among the Shoshone and Arapahoe peoples in a spirit of respect and amity, and in their own tongue. Grant, we entreat thee, that like him we might proclaim the Good News of thy Christ with all those whom we meet, greeting them in friendship in the bonds of thy Holy Spirit; for thou art one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, living and true, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

II    Creator God, we thank you for bringing your missionary John Roberts from his native land to live and teach your Gospel in a spirit of respect and amity among the Shoshone and Arapahoe peoples in their own language; and we pray that we also may share the Good News of your Christ with all we meet as friends brought together by your Holy Spirit; for you are one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, living and true, to the ages of ages. Amen.


Deuteronomy 31:30–32:4,6b–12a

Acts 3:18–25

John 7:37–41a

Psalm 90:13–17

Preface of God the Holy Spirit

Text from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

Additional link: more information about John Roberts can be found at http://www.dyserth.com/html/rev_john_roberts.html

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9 thoughts on “February 25: John Roberts, Priest, 1949

  1. There is a problem with this sentence fragment : “In 1887, after building trusting relationships with the people, the Shoshone chief granted land to Roberts….” It sounds as if the chief had to build trusting relationships with the people before he (the chief) granted land to Roberts. I suggest, “…after Roberts had built trust with…” etc.

  2. Collect: ‘… in a spirit of respect and amity …’ amity? Is this the word that we want to use? A nice word, but …

    Bio. He needs a ‘He died in 1949.’statement.
    2nd paragraph: ‘on a visit to New York City’, not just ‘New York’, it is a big State. I doubt that he went to the Adirondacks.
    3rd and 5th paragraphs: ‘learned the native languages’ , ‘culture and lifestyle of Native people …’ and ‘’… ways of the Native peoples …”. HWHM has to pick one convention and stick with it. Instead of native/Native, perhaps the adjective ‘indigenous’ works better (ex: indigenous languages, indigenous people). In this bio the tribal names are used often 🙂 – but then native/Native is the default :(. The use of native/Native is not consistent throughout HWHM and that must be corrected.

  3. I dislike the word ‘lifestyle’ because it is empty of meaning.

    On issues such as native/Native/indigenous and the equally confusing and seemingly random use of Black/African-American: I suggest that the editors of HWHM construct for themselves a style book, like the Chicago Manual of Style, and come up with uniform usage rules. This would settle issues of nomenclature, issues of caps v. lower case, etc. In fact, I’d suggest they get a copy of the Chicago manual to use as a model. Most major newspapers have them also – WPost, NYTimes. I don’t know if these are available to the public.

    • The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (revised and expanded edition), edited by Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly (Times Books, 1999) is available to the public. Indeed, it sits on my desk — although it might be time for a new edition. La! How time flies when you’re having fun (and when you’re not!).

      As for the term “Native American” (note capitals and lack of hyphen), the editors note that it is rejected by some Indians because government programs extend it to others (Eskimos, Aleuts, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders) among them. Recommended: use “American Indian” for individuals and groups who prefer it and in proper names and general references; use “Native American” in specific references to individuals and groups who prefer it and in proper names that call for it.

      As for the terms “black” and “African-American” (note capitals and hyphens), the editors suggest determining the term preferred by the group or person being described; when no preference is known, the writer should choose. Use “black” when the reference is not only to people of African descent but also to those whose immediate roots are in the Caribbean or South America.

      Where do these leave HWHM? Be consistent.

  4. John Roberts, Priest, 1949
    OVERALL: I love the minsitry of John Roberts that is described here, and I think the commemoration is well worth including in our calendar. I have reservations about details in the way it is presented.
    TITLE: Not to rehash what has been said about titles on previous occasions, “Priest” (followed by no further descriptions) suggests he didn’t do anything but get himself ordained.
    Para. 1: This sounds like a good title to me: “Priest and Mission Worker.” Or, “Priest and Mission Worker among the xyz” (whatever style you adopt).
    Para. 2: Don’t we have a birth year? The length of his ministry is astonishing, but we have no idea what age he died, in 1949. Place names (e.g., place of birth, place of death) are also in short supply.
    : Why he was in the Bahamas when ordained, and what work was he doing there prior to ordination? Don’t we know?
    : Any idea what drew him to work in the western states?
    Para. 3: The words, “a wealthy woman he had met while serving in the Bahamas” struck me as oddly interested in her money for no apparent reason in the subsequent narrative. It almost makes it sound as if he married her for her money, although that’s not overtly stated or implied, either.
    Para. 4: “… granted land to Roberts on which to build” – Did he build it? If so, “on which he built” would say it.
    : The same goes for the words, “Roberts was responsible for starting congregations.” It would be more informative to know that “Roberts started nearly a dozen congregations” than to know only that he was charged with the task. If he “started” them, I’d imagine he worked with them afterwards, too; that is no small task and it would be good to know.
    : Sorry to sound so nitpicky today, but “in nearly a dozen locations” goes without saying. (Who would put all twelve in the same location?)
    Para. 5: The “unlike other missionaries” disparages anonymous “others” for no good reason. The sentence could credit Roberts just as well if it began at “Roberts believed it was important….”
    : Unnecessary verbs camouflage important verbs: is it that he “sought to honor and respect,” or did he actually “honor and respect”? “Sought” puts a hedge between the statement and the real action. (Well, he TRIED to honor and respect.)
    : There is redundancy in what one sentence says about preserving the language, customs, and culture, and what the next sentence says about his high regard for the ancient ways. The two could be combined. (“Roberts believed it was important to preserve, honor and respect the language, customs, culture and ancient ways of the [Native peoples,]” [or other terminology] “while at the same time proclaiming… etc.” (If it were combined, the entire first sentence could be dropped, as it would be covered in the new sentence.)
    COLLECT: Contains “Creator God” as invocation; thanksgiving for getting Roberts to move and work where he did.
    : NOTE: The two verbs “to live and teach” don’t work well as an ensemble. “To live in a spirit of respect and amity among the Shoshone and Arapahoe people, and to teach your Gospel in their own language,” would work better.
    : After invocation and thanksgiving, comes a petition that mixes ideas. (A) We pray that we, also, may share the Good News of your Christ with all we meet; (B) as friends brought together by your Holy Spirit.
    : There is no “so that” clause, and a “so that” may be precisely what is needed to salvage this wording. Keeping (A) as it is, continue with (B) altered to something like: “so that we may be brought together by your Holy Spirit as friends united in Christ,” or “…united in Christ’s love.”
    : Besides the wording, the prayer is a little shallow, saying nothing beyond a performance review and hope of friendly relations.
    THE READINGS: I don’t “get” these selections. I can’t see how they fit with John Roberts’ ministry, except that they mention accidental details that might be associated with his ministry setting, but with no particular focus – things like desert, eagle, tribes, a little about teaching and evangelism, but nothing consistent through the set, and nothing that I think would mean a lot to a congregation (including me) upon hearing it in the context of this commemoration’s liturgy. I won’t analyze it to death, but there’s a lot of remonstration in the Deuteronomy passage and also in the Psalm 90 context (about abandoning YHWH and resorting to false Gods), too much of which is being hidden by selectively leaving verses out of the passages as prescribed. The epistle reading echoes the cry to repentance, and the gospel seems to start out in a promising way but it doesn’t carry enough meaningful context to make a lot of sense as a whole in this connection. I just think this slate of readings gets an F and should be re-thought.

  5. The collect would suit better if Roberts had gone to Kansas or Iowa—it meanders in too many directions. I’d leave out ‘from his native land’ as not particularly significant. I’d also drop ‘in a spirit of respect and amity’ but restore what I think is the intent by adding ‘and culture’ to ‘in their own language’. I’d delete ‘as friends’ because it’s not clear what is meant—I assume it means ‘by becoming friends’ rather than ‘with our friends’, but I don’t think we need to specify, it’s enough to pray that we share the gospel. I’d also think again about the ‘for’ in ‘for you are one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit etc’ and replace it with the more traditional ‘in the name of’. To the theologically minded, ‘for’ raises questions that distract from the commemoration.

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