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Visitors to the beautiful Rocky Mountains of Banff, Alberta, will pass a mountain known to the Cree as “Waskahigan Watchi” or “house mountain.” It is one of the most photographed and painted mountains in the Canadian Rockies. Since 1858, it has been called Mount Rundle, named after a missionary who ministered to aboriginal people groups in the Iron (Cree) and Blackfoot Confederacies. When the explorer John Palliser came to the area, he was impressed that even a decade after the missionary had departed, there was still evidence of his evangelistic work among the local Indigenous community.

Robert Rundle (1811–1896) worked as a Methodist missionary in the area known as “Saskatchewan” which was larger than the province of the same name. He came from England to Western Canada in 1840 after only a few months of missionary training. Unlike the East India Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company had invited missionaries to the Canadian West, ostensibly to secure the HBC’s hold on the fur trade there.

When Rundle arrived in Fort Edmonton, he began an itinerant ministry, preaching the gospel and catechizing new disciples. Although the HBC wanted Rundle to focus on setting up institutions and buildings such as schools, Rundle focussed more on evangelism. His priority was the gospel in contrast to spreading ‘civilization.’

The missionary work was difficult. Not only was it challenging for an English-bred newcomer to adapt to frontier life, but the region was engulfed in a bloody war between the Cree and Blackfoot. Added to all of this, Roman Catholic missionaries spread false teaching that undermined Rundle’s preaching of the true gospel.

Maskepetoon, the great Cree chief had correspondence with Robert Rundle through the use of Cree syllabics. He asked Rundle to instruct his son in order to learn English. Rundle obliged and over time he did attempt to establish more permanent mission bases and a school. But in his eight years of missionary work he was not able to develop the institutions which the HBC preferred. It was left to some of Rundle’s converts and later missionaries to continue that work.

What kind of preaching would an Englishman offer in frontiers of Canada’s West?

By all accounts, Rundle preached biblically sound sermons on themes which aimed to present the need for conversion to faith in Jesus Christ.

For example, in his early ministry, in 1840, Rundle recorded:

1840, july 12-ln the afternoon I spoke to the Indians about the Last Judgment; about 30 attended & they were very attentive. In the evening I went to the village where the attendance was excellent; about 60 crowded into the dwelling house & I explained to them the good news of the Gospel. This has been an important day with me, the Lord has been with me & my spiritual enjoyment was great.[1]

Rundle recorded a scene after preaching from the gospel of John:

July 21st-This evening I addressed the Indians on the beginning of St. Johns Gospel; several appeared in great distress of mind & I believe 2 were wrought upon, one of the crying bitterly, a young woman who shortly left her husband, and a little girl, a sister of Flora’s. She at first ridiculed the advice of Flora when she told her of the good news but tonight she was found a weeping penitent at the feet of Jesus. Oh what a happy time for me; after the service I desired the penitents to come up, when 6 young females came & 7 others I believe were concerned. Flora was no longer a penitent seeking deliverance for she had found peace. Yes blessed be God she had found peace in the blood of Jesus. On Monday abt. 12oClock she said she followed my advice & she went out into the woods to pray to Jesus & her heart was opened. “Do you feel your sins are pardoned?” I asked. “Yes!” said she. “When I think of my Saviour my heart is glad.” “Would you be afraid to die tonight?” I asked. “No. When first I thought of death I was filled with fear but now the fear is taken away because I feel in my heart that I love Jesus & He loves me,” she answered. “I thought,” said she, “I loved my husband better than anything else & I loved him as myself & when he was absent my thoughts were continually of him, but now I love Christ better than anything else beside. He is constantly in my thoughts; even when I sit down to meals, I am thinking of Him.” Thus conviction & conversion are the same in every place. [2]

In the journals of Rundle, the editor notes a breakthrough in Rundle’s preaching:

In March, Rundle read a sermon in Cree for the first time. He has been consistently working on the Cree language from his first small triumphs of 1841 to the continuous copying of Sunday books and worship materials. With increasing frequency, the syllabics appeared in the Journal notes as people were named, hymns identified, and common phrases used. In addition his correspondence with Maskepetoon continued and while occasional notes passed to and from others, no other Indian was such a regular correspondent, indicating both the intelligence and initiative of Maskepetoon, and the degree of his interest in Rundle. [3]

Although Rundle had initial success in his preaching, baptising Maskepetoon’s sons as converted Christian believers, he was viewed as poorly suited for the rigours of pioneer missionary life. He had frequent migraines even with a bloody nose, which may have indicated post-concussion effects. He could be somewhat reckless, even climbing the mountain which was later named after him, in a dangerous whiteout blizzard.[4]

Rundle broke his arm falling from horseback and it never healed properly. He returned to England in 1848 never recovering the full use of his arm and never returning to Western Canada again.[5]

The legacy of Robert Rundle is of a man who earnestly desired to see sinners saved, who acted on that ambition, even if he lacked some of the natural qualities that would have made his career easier. Yet the house mountain and the mid-nineteenth century conversions among Cree, Blackfoot, and Nakoda are an enduring testimony to a simple gospel preacher and the sacrifices that he made.

 


[1] All quotations are taken from The Rundle journals1840–1848, intro. G. M. Hutchinson, ed. H. A. Dempsey (Calgary, 1977), 27.

[2] Journals, 29.

[3] Journals, Xliv.

[4] Journals, xli.

[5] Frits Pannekoek, “RUNDLE, ROBERT TERRILL,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 10, 2020.

 

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