Rev. W.W. Woods – Bringing The Gospel To Iowa City.

In other posts, we’ve introduced you to some of the early church planters who came to Iowa City in order to save souls and encourage those saints who were looking to have a church community like they had back east. Here’s a few stories you can check out –

1840 – North Presbyterian Church – Rev. Michael Hummer

1856 – German Evangelical Lutheran Church – Rev. Josias Ritter

1859 – German Lutheran Evangelical Church – Rev. Johann Friederich Doescher

1863 – Zion Lutheran Church – Rev. Henrich Wehrs

Now, allow me to introduce you to…

It was the early 1840’s – Iowa City was less than five years old and the first church in town – a Presbyterian Church – met in a local hotel. It was the Presbyterian church we mentioned earlier that began in 1840, calling Pastor Michael Hummer in 1841.

This listing of Iowa City churches in 1846 shows two Presbyterian churches – Old School and New School. In Iowa, these two branches co-existed until the 1870’s.

Well, just as it is today, dissension and division caused a church divide in the Presbyterian Church of Iowa, and by 1842, there were two Presbyterian churches in Iowa City – one that had a traditional reformed theology (Old School), and the other – a more modern, less formal belief system (New School). Over the next decade, the two churches became known as North Presbyterian (today’s Old Brick – see pic below/upper), and – you guessed it – the other (see pic below/lower), meeting in a small stone building, became known as South Presbyterian or Stone Church.

Actually, Stone Church‘s formal name was the First Constitutional Presbyterian Church of Iowa City, and it was located on the south side of Burlington Street, a half-block west of Clinton Street. Interestingly enough, the spire of this Presbyterian church was the home of Iowa City’s first church bell. Click here to read more about The Bells of Iowa City. But now, let me tell you about the pastor…

Sadly, we know very little about Rev. William W. Woods, other than the fact that he came to Iowa City around 1842, joining with three other Iowa pastors – William C. Rankin, Charles R. Fisk, and James A. Clark (we’ll talk about him later) in making up, what was to become the Des Moines Presbytery – which was affiliated with the American Home Missionary Society (AHMS). A short article about this Presbytery appeared in The Burlington Hawk-Eye in April, 1850 (below) and it mentions the first organizational meeting – held in Yellow Springs in April 1842. Today, Yellow Springs is Kossuth, Iowa in Des Moines County, and below is a sketch of the Yellow Springs Church as it looked in the 1850’s.

The American Home Missionary Society (AHMS) was formed in New York City in 1826 at a meeting of representatives of the Congregational, Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian and Associate Reformed churches. Its purpose was to raise money so that churches and Sunday schools could be started on the American frontier. The missionaries were “to follow the American emigrant, in all his migrations, and to plant the permanent institutions of the Christian faith wherever he builds his cabin.” It was also said that “the future of the West depends on the Home Missionary, and the future of our country depends upon the West.”

AHMS missionaries were “employed” or supported by the society, and hired on a yearly basis in response to a request for aid by a local church or on the recommendation of another AHMS agent. The ultimate goal was for these four denominations to work together, rather than separately, in assisting fledgling congregations in the West until they could become financially self-supporting. If you’re familiar with Laura Ingall Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books, her two characters – Rev. “Scotty” Stuart and Rev. Edwin Alden – were both AHMS missionaries.

It appears from early publications that Rev. William W. Woods, from the very beginning, was a mover-n-shaker in and around Iowa City. Below is a report that tells us about the effort to organize a Johnson County chapter of the American Bible Society in September of 1842. Besides Rev. W.W. Woods, take note of a few other recognizable names – like Rev. M. (Michael) Hummer, or Iowa City’s poppa – Chauncey Swan.

Other finds from early editions of The Iowa Capitol Reporter include an 1844 announcement (below left) of Rev. W.W. Woods preaching at the Iowa State House, and an 1845 advertisement (below right) promoting the new Iowa City newspaper – a Christian-themed publication called The Iowa Watchman – with regular columns written by Rev. Woods. And oh, by the way – guess who the editor is? Charles R. Fisk – one of our four 1842 founders of the Des Moines Presbytery that we mentioned earlier!

Which now brings us to…

(JP-041) Here’s a rare postal cover – dated November 15, 1847 – sent from Rev. W.W. Woods in Iowa City to Rev Badger or Rev. Charles Hall (AHMS Office) in New York City.

As one of the missionary “employees” of the American Home Missionary Society, Rev. W.W. Woods had been assigned to Iowa City, and on a regular basis, I’m sure that the good Reverend reported in to the head office in New York City. This letter – written on November 15, 1847 – gives AHMS a brief update on Woods’ last year of ministry in Iowa.

Obviously, when Rev. W.W. Woods letter reached the AHMS office in New York City, it was marked – “Entered,” followed by a note on the letter’s contents – Rev. W.W. Woods Iowa City, Iowa.  Nov. 15, 1847 – Report – Relates to future aid in his support. Relates also to Rev. James A. Clark and Thompson Bird.

Along the way, we’ll give you some additional insight based on supporting documents we’ve found. Enjoy!

Iowa City Nov (no date)  th 1847 Direct (to) Badger or Rev. Charles Hall

We believe Rev. Woods must have written his letter prior to November 15th, but forgot to fill in the date before mailing it on the 15th. The letter is written to Rev. Badger and Rev. Hall – as they were the two administrative secretaries for the American Home Missionary Society (AHMS) in New York City at the time.

Dear Brethren.

I have been spared to close the labors of another year. Nothing of unusual interest has transpired. Attention to the means of grace is respectful and growing still more so. There are a few in the congregation who seem to have some serious concern for their future welfare. Oh, that the tide of worldliness may not roll in upon them so as to chase away their fears, & cheat them of eternal life.

Written as a true pastor who cares for his flock, the AHMS report (below) shows us Rev. Woods’ Iowa City ministry details from 1845 through 1847. It looks like The Stone Church we mentioned earlier has now been completed on Burlington Street.

By the request of the Presbytery, Brethren Thompson Bird, late of Indiana, is now occupying Marion and Poke (Polk) Counties in this State of Iowa as a missionary. A request for a commission for him has doubtless been presented you by Bro Reed (Julius A. Reed – one of Iowa’s earliest pioneer preachers). He will need his whole support for the first year from your society, as those counties are (become) densely populated, they will come to his help by another year. He wishes his commission divided to my care (in) Iowa City. Bro Bird is a systematic feeling minister and I think cannot fail to interest people wherever he labors.

Next in Rev. Woods’ letter, he mentions his new friend – Rev. Thompson Bird – who came west from Indiana into Iowa (1847), and is now working in Polk & Marion Counties (see map above). Though Des Moines will eventually become the state capital (1857), in the late 1840’s, Polk County is far west country, and certainly a ground-floor opportunity for Bird. The AHMS reports from 1846-1847 show Bird’s success in Indiana, but points out that he is, indeed, removed so far that he has “no ministerial brethren within 70 miles.”

Records indicate that Rev. Bird not only stuck it out in Des Moines, but went on to make one big impression here in Iowa. One biographer states…

A distinctive place should be given Rev. Thompson Bird, or Father Bird, as he was familiarly and most reverently called, known and loved by everybody. He came here in 1847 as a missionary preacher of the Presbyterian Church. His field was the southern half of the state, traversing it generally on foot, preaching in the cabins of pioneers, sharing their frugal hospitality, their joys and sorrows. It was not uncommon for him to walk twenty miles to preach in some new settlement, and at one time he walked to Cedar Rapids, over one hundred and thirty miles, with blistered feet, to attend a meeting of the synod of the church. He organized churches wherever he went, probably a greater number than any other person in the state.

I have been regularly requested to continue my labors in Iowa City. At a church meeting held for that purpose, two hundred & seventy five dollars will be needed from your society in addition to one hundred and twenty five dollars from the people. If you can grant this request you will confer on them a lasting favor. They already feel under great obligation for the assistance you have already afforded them.

In other words, things are going well. You send $275 and the church can do $125, and we’ll be good to go for 1848.

Do you remember those four original 1842 church planters we mentioned earlier? Well, Rev. James A. Clark – long-time AHMS pastor in Ft. Madison – seems to be in quite a wrestling match with his church – and now, the entire Des Moines Presbytery has been called in…

Our Presbytery meets on the first Thursday after first Sabbath in December at Yellow Springs church to examine charges preferred by the session of the Fort Madison church against the Rev. James Clark. You probably have never witnessed a case where there was so strong a disposition to remain on a field of labor where there were so many reasons why he should go away. There is not a member of Presbytery but what has addressed Bro Clark to leave & occupy a new field, yet he will not go. The course – it is now looking, will, I hope, finally settle the difficulty. I will communicate the results of the meeting.

An article in the March 12, 1846 edition of The Burlington Hawk-eye (below left) indicates that the problem has been going on for over a year now! Yikes! As the other article (below right) indicates, Rev. Clark has been in Ft. Madison since June 1838, but now – over nine years later, Clark is still fighting the war.

So, Rev. Woods closes his letter, and we are left not knowing how things turned out in Ft. Madison, but we’re guessing, based on the absence of Clark’s name in the AHMS reports that he finally moved on to greener fields elsewhere.

N.B. Please send me the amount due for the last quarter.

Yours, Wm. W. Woods

Sadly, we don’t know much about Rev. Woods beyond his time in Iowa City. Newspaper reports seem to indicate that he was here into the early 1850’s, but beyond that, the trail runs cold. Below, we see that the Des Moines Presbytery – still working alongside the American Home Missionary Society (AHMS), continued recruiting new pastors in Iowa well into the 1850’s. On the right, we find the closing statement to the AHMS Annual Report of 1847 – written by Rev. Milton Badger and Rev. Charles Hall back in New York City.

As for Iowa City’s New School Presbyterian Church (Stone Church), records indicate that the congregation dissolved in 1865, and the building was sold in 1866. For a time, the old Stone Church housed The State Historical Society of Iowa, but was razed sometime around 1905. In the 1870’s, the Old School Presbyterians and the New School synod began working on their differences, and by the 1880’s, had united into a single Iowa synod.

So, finally – here’s a big salute to Rev. William W. Woods and The Stone Presbyterian Church of Iowa City. Thanks for the memories!

DYK-May 24, 2023

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

A Glimpse of Iowa In 1846, J.B. Newhall, State Historical Society of Iowa, Reprint 1957, p 91

Yellow Spring Township, Des Moines County, Iowa, 1930, University of Iowa Libraries

Des Moines Presbytery, The Burlington Hawk-eye, April 25, 1850, p 2

Home Missionary Society, Nancy S. Cleaveland, Laura Ingalls Wilder A-Z,

Bible Society-1842, History of Johnson County, Iowa, 1873, pp 424-425

Rev W.W. Woods, The Iowa Capitol Reporter, June 29, 1844, p 3

Prospectus of The Iowa Watchman, The Iowa Capitol Reporter, May 17, 1845, p 4

Report of the American Home Missionary Society – Twenty-First & Twenty-Second Reports – 1847/1848, William Osborne, NYC, 1847 – pp 6, 15, 66, 68, 92-95, 1848 – pp 15, 56

Dr. Julius A. Reed, A State Builder, Rev. James L. Hill, Annals of Iowa, University of Iowa Library

Biography of Rev. Thompson Bird – Polk County, Iowa

Rev. James A. Clark, The Burlington Hawk-eye, March 12, 1846, p 2

Rev. James A. Clark -1838, The Burlington Hawk-eye, December 19, 1850, p 2

The Presbytery of Des Moines, The Iowa Capital Reporter, April 21, 1852, p 2

The Presbyterian Church In Iowa – 1837-1900, Joseph W. Hubbard, Synod of Iowa, p 355

Old Stone Church, C.R. Aurner, Leading Events in Johnson County, p 312

Rev Thompson “Father Bird” Bird, Find-A-Grave

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