Bingham Avenue in Sault Sainte Marie is lined with stately two- and three-story homes, with steep roofs to shed the heavy snows that come off Lake Superior and the River every winter. Following the avenue towards the downtown district, businesses, office buildings, and a couple of churches occupy the land that was once fields of hay and livestock. The Chippewa County Courthouse now stands on the spot where in 1829 a mission building was built by the first Baptist missionary to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – Abel Bingham.
Since the mid-1600s, Catholic missionaries, often traveling with the French fur traders and voyageurs established missions at various outposts in the Upper Peninsula. Names of streets and cities – Marquette, Baraga, St. Ignace – serve as constant reminders of the French Catholic history of the area. French Jesuits named the river that connects Lakes Superior and Huron, Sainte Marie, after the Virgin Mary, and the voyageurs called the falls and rapids, “Sault Sainte Marie,” Falls of St. Mary. Yet the heroic Baptist from upstate New York is neglected, even in books dedicated to Baptist History.
Abel Bingham was born in Enfield, New Hampshire, on May 9th, 1786. His mother died when he was six, and in 1798, his father moved the family to Jay, New York. The same year, Elder Solomon Brown, a Baptist minister moved to Jay, formed a congregation and began worship services. Although he was “seriously impressed on the subject of religion” at the age of nine, it was not until he was twenty-two that he was constrained, under the ministry of Pastor Brown, “to seek a Savior, instead of seeking salvation from punishment.” He was baptized and joined the church in 1808. In 1809, Abel Bingham married the pastor’s daughter, Hannah O. Brown.
The War of 1812 disrupted Bingham’s plans to join his father-in-law in Caledonia, New York. Abel was one of three sergeants in his militia company to be called into service in 1813 to fight along the Canadian front. The other two sergeants paid a bounty to be excused, but Abel answered, “I will go.” He fought valiantly and was commissioned as a lieutenant. During one fierce British attack across the Saranac River, Bingham was wounded in the forehead and thought to be dead. His head wound had fractured his skull, rendering him unconscious, but he regained consciousness in a nearby house, and with a bandaged head, he returned to the battle! Bingham valued his military service, saying, “It made an excellent school of discipline.”
The war over, the Binghams moved to Caledonia and purchased a farm. But Abel’s thoughts were more and more occupied with the ministry, especially missionary work. He had a special burden for the Seneca Indians on the Tonawanda Reservation near Buffalo. As he prayed over this burden, friends told him of an opening on that reservation.
Bingham served on the Tonawanda Reservation near Buffalo, New York, for six years, during which he and Hanna buried two children. In spite of vehement, and at times violent, opposition from traditional chief Red Jacket, Bingham and his wife persevered to establish a school and church with the assistance of Chief Little Beard and his Christian party. In 1827, Bingham requested to speak privately with the aging Chief Red Jacket. Bingham’s diary records the following:
“One day, in the summer of 1827, I met Red Jacket on the street, and, after the usual salutations, informed him I wished to converse on the subject of religion. With his usual adroitness, he intimated I was moving in an ordinary circle, having charge of only a small mission, while he was a principal chief of the Seneca Nation, had traveled extensively, visited many cities, been six times to Washington, and also visited Europe, leaving me to infer that he could not receive instruction from me. I said, I do not wish to talk with you about Washington, but of your soul, death, judgment and eternity. I know you are a great man in your nation, and you have a great mind, but you are an old man (now sixty), and must soon die. I thought I could speak with you on this subject, and not offend you.”
At the conclusion of the conversation, Chief Red Jacket replied: “My son, I am truly thankful for the very friendly talk we have had at this time; it has made a solemn impression on my mind.”
Sensing that his ministry at Tonawanda was concluded, Abel looked to the mission board for a new assignment. In July 1828 Abel Bingham was appointed as “missionary to the Ojibway Indians of Lake Superior at Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan.”
Bingham’s missionary outreach in Michigan’s rugged Upper Peninsula was even more energetic that it had been in New York. The Binghams established a mission house that accommodated a boarding school and regular Christian services. Abel Bingham’s burden for the spiritual well-being of the Indians of the U.P. moved him to make regular journeys to spread the Gospel. He reached out to native bands on “Sugar Island, Garden River, Muskotasauging, Tequamenon, Whitefish Point, even extending his tours as far as Gooley's Bay, Grand Island and Marquette. In summer he traveled in his boat or canoe, and in winter on snowshoes, with his dog-train, carrying provisions and bedding; visiting each different band at least four times a year.” After one such journey Abel recorded:
“Arrived at home much fatigued; was absent twenty-seven days, preached fourteen discourses, camped sixteen nights in the woods, and was detained one day by severe weather.”
Abel Bingham left a lasting spiritual legacy when he and Hanna retired from mission work 1855, both aged seventy. Only the name Bingham Avenue survives as a memorial of the mission, but First Baptist Church, not far from the original mission traces its heritage to that first Baptist mission.