By John Marshall
JEFFERSON CITY—According to the writer of Ecclesiastes, “A cord of three strands is not easily broken” (4:12b). John Mason Peck, James Ely Welch and John Berry Meachum proved to be a threefold cord observed that did not break. Their lives yielded many fascinating stories.
James Ely Welch
Years ago I traveled to Warrenton to find James Ely Welch’s grave. The burial plot of several of his family, including his two wives, was easy to find.
I was horrified to see no marker on the grave between the two ladies. My immediate conclusion was, James Ely Welch, the great Baptist missionary to Missouri, lies forgotten in an unmarked grave.
Deciding this needed to be remedied, I made plans to raise money for a grave marker. In the nick of time, I found out Welch, who died representing Missouri at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, was never brought back to Missouri. He is buried in New Jersey, across the river from Philadelphia.
On our vacation one year, my family and I took time to visit his grave. I was relieved to see it is marked by a beautiful obelisk. Rest in peace, James Ely Welch. You are not forgotten in Missouri.
Welch fathered four children. The youngest, a son named Aikman, served as Missouri’s attorney general during the Civil War.
John Mason Peck
In 1847 a group of Christians who had immigrated from Holland saw a black baptismal service in the Mississippi River. They decided to learn more about this practice. Their search led them to John Mason Peck, who used the Bible to explain to them believer’s baptism by immersion. Fifteen of them were eventually baptized by Peck.
In 1849 these Hollanders joined with German immigrants to found First German Baptist Church of St. Louis. Morning services were conducted in German, evenings in English. In World War I, due to prejudice against Germany, the church’s name was changed to St. Louis Park.
Welch and Peck together
In the beginning days of Peck and Welch’s school, one of their pupils was a son of Sacajawea, Lewis and Clark’s Native American guide. Clark paid tuition for the boy.
Lovers of American lore are forever indebted to the Baptist missionaries Peck and Welch because they were responsible for giving us the only known portrait of Daniel Boone.
When Peck and Welch arrived in St. Louis, Boone was still alive, and living nearby. The missionaries were awestruck by this pioneer who had already reached mythic status in American legends.
Boone, who was frail and in his eighties, had never allowed a likeness of himself to be done. In 1820 the noted artist Chester Harding came to Missouri from Boston. Immediately the missionaries commissioned Harding to do a portrait of Boone, who was 85, just months before his death.
Boone, who was staying at his daughter’s home in Marthasville (Warren County), consented to having the portrait done. Throughout the painting sessions, Welch stood next to Boone and held up the feeble frontiersman’s head.
Fifty-six years later, the Harding picture was challenged as being bogus, a likeness of someone other than Boone. To verify the authenticity of the portrait, an aged Welch, now in his eighties, was called on. With his own hand he wrote a statement verifying the portrait, and saying he had helped hold Boone erect during the sitting.
John Berry Meachum
In 1847 the state of Missouri did a horrible thing. It passed a law prohibiting blacks from learning to read or write.
Rather than submit to what they deemed an unjust law, Peck and Meachum continued operating their school under the guise of it being a Sunday School. The sheriff soon raided the school, arrested a teacher, and closed the school.
Undaunted, Meachum, who was already a successful riverman, immediately used a steamboat on which he established what would become his nationally famous “Freedom School.” He anchored the boat in the middle of the Mississippi River, which was outside the jurisdiction of Missouri.
Students were transported to the school for classes each morning and then returned to their homes each evening. Thus, the education of St. Louis blacks continued unmolested. The library Meachum put on the steamboat was the first free public library in St. Louis.
During the 1840s and 1850s hundreds of children attended this floating freedom school. The most famous was James Milton Turner, who became the first United States black diplomat. President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him Ambassador to Liberia in 1881. Turner was also a founder of Lincoln University in Jefferson City.
In 1974 the St. Louis Public Library, in Meachum’s honor, named a branch at 3701 Grandel Square the John Berry Meachum Library.