Remembering Meta, Part Two, by Frank Bellizzi

A Girl and Her Dreams

On September 3, 1944, a few days before her eighty-first birthday, Meta Chestnutt Sager looked back on her remarkable life and composed a long letter for her great-niece, Eva Heiliger.

“So now to your questions,” she wrote. Responding to some of what Eva had asked about—Heiliger’s letter to her great aunt does not survive—Meta explained what motivated her to move west in 1889. “I think the real thing that sent me to Indian Territory was a poem in the old North Carolina Reader. I now recall only a few lines:

‘They made her grave too cold and damp

For a soul so warm and true,

And she has gone to the Lake

of the Dismal Swamp

Where all night long by a firefly camp

She paddles her white canoe.

Her firefly lamp I soon shall see,

Her paddle I soon shall hear

__ __ __ __ __ __’”

Meta Chestnutt Sager letter to Eva Heiliger, 1944.

Meta Chestnutt Sager letter to Eva Heiliger, 1944. Meta Chestnutt Sager Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society Research Division. Compliments of Oklahoma Historical Society. Photo by Frank Bellizzi.

Meta continued, “I can recall no more. The Lake of the Dismal Swamp is on the border between N.C. and Va., and there was a legend that a young man was in love with an Indian maiden who had died.”[1] The poem that Sager referred to was a ballad composed at Norfolk, Virginia, by the Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852). And she explained the significance of the ballad for her life story.

My purpose in coming to Indian Territory 54 years ago was to found a school and develop it into a real College, coeducational, for that is God’s plan for the human family, in which Indians and whites should have equal opportunities.  . . . I came neither land hunting nor man hunting. I had a definite self appointed mission: found a school and teach the Bible. I could have married many times over, as I could have before leaving N.C, but I told them all that I did not come out West ‘man-hunting’ that there were plenty of them where I had come from.[2]

What seems clear enough is that at a very early age, Meta Chestnutt combined the Christian faith that she had inherited, and to which she made a life-long commitment, with the romantic idea of teaching Indian children.

Her religious outlook and convictions were shaped by the Christian Churches affiliated with the Disciples of Christ in and around Lenoir County, North Carolina, her first home. In fact, Chestnutt’s maternal grandfather, Wiley Nobles, was a leader among the earliest Disciples in North Carolina and was “a friend of Alexander Campbell.”[3]

When Bethel Christian Church, Meta’s home congregation, was founded in December 1870, Almeda and Isaac Chestnutt, her mother and brother, were listed among the charter members. In 1873, three years after the Bethel church began, her sister Mary was baptized. Finally, at age twelve, Meta herself, the youngest of the children, was baptized at Bethel on August 11, 1876.[4] Isaac, her only brother and the oldest of the children, served as a preacher in the movement until he died in 1907. At the time of his death, S. W. Sumrell, a fellow Disciple, described Isaac Chestnutt as “one of our best men and one of our finest preachers . . . a kind father, and a good and true husband.”[5]

Like a Joseph of her generation, Meta Chestnutt was born into a family of faith. And, she dreamed dreams that pointed towards a different life in an unknown place, a future filled with unexpected challenges and joys.

[1] Meta Chestnutt Sager to Eva Heiliger, September 3, 1944, Meta Chestnutt Sager Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.

[2] Ibid.

[3] This quotation is taken from the funeral address that Mrs. Sager wrote for herself. See Eva Heiliger, Born to Meet Adversity (and Rise Above It), 197. The unpublished book typescript is located in Box 1, Folders 6 and 7, Meta Chestnutt Sager Collection, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.

[4] Charles Crossfield Ware, Hookerton History (Wilson, NC: 1960), 8-10.

[5] Charles Crossfield Ware, North Carolina Disciples (St. Louis: Christian Board of Publication, 1927), 295. Ware quotes the obituary by Sumrell in its entirety. According to him, the piece was originally published in the August 8, 1907 edition of the Carolina Evangel. See Ware, 298, n. 5.

Carisse Mickey Berryhill, PhD, is Associate Dean for Archives and Collections at Abilene Christian University’s Brown Library. Berryhill holds advanced degrees in English, library science, and church history. She does research in rhetoric in the Stone-Campbell religious reform movement of the 19th Century and its 18th Century Scottish roots. At ACU she directs the university archives and leads the acquisition of print, archival, and digital collections related to the Stone-Campbell movement. She currently serves as chair of the Corporation Board of Restoration Quarterly.

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CHARIS hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. The website is intended to support education for Christian life and community through contemporary discussions and historical sources that variously witness to the gifts (“charis”) of God among Churches of Christ, especially their plea for visible unity among Christians through ongoing renewal and restoration of Scriptural beliefs and practices among God’s people.

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