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How a "Barbarian" Missionary Met "Heathen" Japanese Castaways

In August 1825, Cyrus Shepard had a dream.

In it, he was on a ship sailing towards the African coast, the hot wind blowing his hair back. He was wearing his neatly tailored double-breasted frock coat, the latest from France, for the occasion. From the bow of the ship, he spotted the “distant and neglected” continent in front of him and thought of all its possibilities and his “heart leaped within for joy.”

The vision of the ship and the ocean faded and he was now amidst children. They gathered around him anxiously to hear his every words. Just as he was about to speak though, he woke up.

For Shepard, it was clearly a message from God—a call to depart from the comforts of life in the small New England town and look to the world. But still, he had his doubts.

Cyrus Shepard was born in Acton, Massachusetts on August 14, 1798. From a young age, he knew he would be a scholar, not like the adventurous colleagues he had heard of who, at the first opportunity, headed to Boston to board the first available whaler or cargo ship to cross the oceans and discover far-off lands.

Instead of looking out to the high seas, he preferred to stay home and devote himself to cultivating his mind, but he also had “sinful” thoughts that often trickled into his mind. He wasn’t always the cloistered scholar with his nose in a book and also enjoyed the pleasures society had to offer and the latest men's fashion from Paris as he wrote in his journal:

It was my pride and vanity which kept me from God during those years in which the Spirit so clearly showed me my duty. I loved the party of pleasure and fashionable apparel, though condemned by my conscience in their indulgence. I often wept over my sins, and still clung to my idols. I desired to have religion, but I would have worldly gratification too.

On January 1, 1826, on the crest of the Second Great Awakening, the Methodists in the town of Marlborough set up a camp meeting and invited the townspeople to attend. No better time to renew the grace of god than the first day of the New Year. Despite the cold and the snow, Shepard, like hundreds of others gathered around a make-shift wooden stage listening to the preachers’ sermons. They stepped up on stage one after another without stop, each successive preacher, waving the Bible above his head, growing “increasingly sensational and impassioned,” while the crowd responded with equal verve.

Even when the sun set, the organizers set up torches and bonfires amidst the darkness of the woods that surrounded them. As the preachers continued ranting on stage about salvation and repentance, the grace of god, fires and brimstone for all sinners, “the crowd was driven into a kind of collective ecstasy.”

Shepard probably saw some of these ecstatic practices around him: Some in the crowd fell on the ground like a “log on the floor, earth or mud, and appear as dead—a practice known as “Slain in the Spirit.” Others jerked their backwards or forwards, or from side to side, so quickly that the features of the face could not be distinguished, still others rolled around in the snow while they “writhed and screamed as though they were being stabbed by hot pokers; others danced in “somber sequence of steps and retreats.” The preacher shouted over the noise trying to compete with the throngs of thousands of worshipers: men and women, rich and poor, blacks and whites, all laughing and singing from their breasts.

It was among this excitement that Shepard received the renewing grace of God: “The Spirit set forth, with a strength never before felt, the demands of the cause of God upon him.” From then on, instead of focusing on “worldly gratifications,” he looked more outwardly to others less fortunate than he, for “the world lieth in wickedness, and his heart yearned over their lamentable condition.” Souls needed saving whether they were “white or colored, bond or free.”

He packed up his bags and headed west to Oregon with Reverends Jason and Daniel Lee in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark knowing full well as he departed that it would be the last time he would see his ailing mother.

The mission was to preach to the Flathead tribe, among others, but in a strange twist of fate, he would also end up teaching to three Japanese shipwreck sailors, the first recorded Japanese ever to have landed in North America after a harrowing 14 months of drifting in the Pacific Ocean. To understand the type of ill-fated ships they sailed in, click to my other post here.

As a layman in the mission of Daniel and Jason Lee, Cyrus Shepard remains an enigmatic figure. But his achievements were notable: unofficially, he became the first teacher west of the Rockies and one of the first western teachers for the Japanese castaways at Fort Vancouver. He was in effect one of the first “western barbarians” to have regular contact with them—strictly prohibited by Japanese authorities at the time under the penalty of death.

The account of his travels across America and his role as a teacher to the three Japanese sailors are detailed in my book-in-progress OUT TO SEA: HOW A JAPANESE PEASANT BOY BECAME AN ENGLISH GENTLEMAN. A synopsis of the book can be found here.

Even when Shepard became seriously ill, afflicted with scrofulous (tuberculosis of the lymph nodes), and had his leg amputated in 1839, he sat up in bed and started knitting caps for the students. Even though there much to be done in building the settlement at Willamette Valley, he was not much good now in the fields with only one leg. Despite “the most excruciating pain, when at every breath it seemed to be impossible to refrain from screeching as loud as my strength would bear,” he continued to praise God up to the very end.

In January 1840, Shepard died leaving his wife and two young daughters.

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