another missionary leave-taking story

My recent posts reminded me of the story of Marcus & Narcissa Whitman, missionaries to Walla Walla, WA in the 1840s. Some have been critical of their mission and methods. It seems to me their critics look at their efforts from the ‘wisdom’ and comfort of distance – a distance in years, the comfort of modern society. The Whitman’s gave their lives for Christ, giving the gospel to the natives of what what would become the Walla Walla area, and pouring out their lives and skills ministering to spiritual and physical needs of all who came their way. This is the story of their departure to the mission field.

The Whitmans did not spend a long time courting. When Dr. Whitman volunteered to the mission work, he was single. He heard that Narcissa had volunteered as well, but was not approved as there was no use for single women on that field. Whitman knew the family, was acquainted with Narcissa, heard of her willingness to go to the field, and so he proposed.


  • Marcus appointed January 7, 1835
  • Writes Narcissa for permission to stop by on his way to survey trip in the west.
  • Visits the weekend of Feb 22 and they are engaged.
  • Leaves the morning of Feb 23 for the west.
  • Returns about Dec 10, they have a few days together, he goes out searching for associates to volunteer for the field.
  • Finally gets Henry Spalding and wife to agree to come along, writes Narcissa on Feb 15 to plan for a wedding.
  • Since her father was to be ordained as a Presbyterian elder in a service on February 18, Narcissa chose that day.

“After her marriage in February 1836, Narcissa explained … ‘We had to make love [get engaged] somewhat abruptly and must do our courtship now we are married.’”[1]

Order of service:

  • Narcissa’s father is ordained.
  • A letter of dismissal is issued “to our sister Narcissa Prentiss who is destined to the Mission beyond the Rocky Mountains.”
  • Communion is served. Possibly Judge Prentiss would have served Narcissa and Marcus.
  • The marriage vows are said.
  • A sermon is preached. (Narcissa commented in a letter several years after that it was much appreciated.)
  • Congregation is led in this song, one often sung at the departure of missionaries:

Yes, my native land! I love thee;
All thy scenes I love them well;
Friends, connections, happy country,
Can I bid you all farewell?
Can I leave thee, can I leave thee,
Far in heathen lands to dwell?

Home! — thy joys are passing lovely —
Joys no stranger-heart can tell;
Happy home! — ‘tis sure I love thee!
Can I — can I say — Farewell?
Can I leave thee, can I leave thee,
Far in heathen lands to dwell?

“One by one members of the choir and congregation found their throats constricted with emotion and their cheeks dampened with tears. Only a few, including Narcissa sang the next stanza:

Yes! I hasten gladly,
From the scenes I love so well;
Far away, ye billows! bear me;
Lovely native land! — farewell!
Pleased I leave thee, pleased I leave thee,
Far in heathen lands to dwell.

“Muffled sobs could be heard by the time the last stanza was reached. The sentiment was too overpowering. Narcissa in her clear soprano voice … sang the last stanza as a solo — a dramatic event which all present that evening never forgot.

In the deserts let me labor,
On the mountains let me tell,
How he died — the blessed Saviour —
To redeem a world from hell!
Let me hasten, let me hasten,
Far in heathen lands to dwell.[2]

Narcissa Whitman left her home the next day and never saw her parents again.


These notes come from the book by Clifford M. Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon, a book I purchased at the site of their mission (and their deaths) in Walla Walla, WA. It is now a USA National Historic Site. I always find it ironic when you can find a clear presentation of the gospel available from government institutions. While we were there a number of years ago, a school group was also touring the site. It was quite interesting to eavesdrop on the US Park Rangers attempting to explain why the Whitman’s were in the Oregon country in the first place.


[1] Clifford M. Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon, p. 111

[2] Drury, pp. 161-2