HENRYETTA, Okla. – Steve Randall, a Muscogee Creek from Shawnee, would go anywhere in the world for his faith. His Muscogee language Bible, however, brought it to him.
Following him as he drives state and county roads to Hickory Ground No. 2 Indian Baptist Church south of Henryetta, you pass houses, nearly all of them built within the last 30 years it seems. In between, the wooded acreage looks as it probably did when the first Muscogee language Bible first emerged, probably in 1887. Randall, a church deacon, trucks over worn out roads before he arrives at his intersection. Straight ahead is his country church, says the sign. You wonder how much further it could possibly be.
On a hill stands the church with its attached arbor for outdoor sermons. It’s surrounded by camp houses recalling days when visitors traveled long distances by wagon to hear the Gospel. This small church in McIntosh County doesn’t have a grand piano, shining steeple or polished brass door knockers. It’s white, plain, functional and in the woods.
He carries a copy of his Mvskoke Bible, a volume of the New Testament he published based on a version translated more than 100 years ago.
A retired welder from General Motors’ Oklahoma City plant, Randall formed the idea to reprint the Bible in the language of the Muscogee-Creek and Seminole people when he attended a Muscogee language class. Randall doesn’t speak the language but for some phrases and a handful of words, yet he remembers his parents and grandparents speaking it in the home to all the children.
“They spoke fluent Creek and talked to one another. They spoke to us in the Creek language also,” he said. “We understood what they were saying, but for some reason we didn’t pick it up.”
It’s a mystery Randall finds difficult to explain. Relatives have told him he spoke Creek as a child, but it became lost somewhere in the assimilation of Oklahoma’s Native people.
Many years later, around 2000, he found himself at Greenleaf Church in Okemah.
“The minister was bringing the morning message and I saw the young man following him in a Muscogee language bible. I thought if that young man had the desire to follow the message in the Creek language, then there’s a need for a Creek bible,” he said.
Those memories fueled his plan to take on the project.
Randall learned a few early versions of the Creek Bible New Testament had been printed. However, it was a woman named Ann Eliza Worchester Robertson who made the biggest leap. By the time of her death in 1905, Mrs. Robertson, a missionary at the old Tullahassee Mission, had nearly finished revising her translation of the New Testament for its fifth edition printing. She’d even worked on part of the Old Testament directly from Greek holy texts where she could. A woman of letters, she found antiquity Greek language had similarities to Creek, and it made sense to work from a more direct source than from the King James Version.
Eventually, the Tullahassee Mission was closed. Robertson was a frail woman and tended to be ill. During her periods of recuperation, she worked on her translation with the help of native speakers.
When Randall resumed her work in 2002, he began by retyping the translation with the help of his son, Monte Randall, to put it back in print. He streamlined the style by making changes such as converting all – not just some – of the chapters to Arabic numerals rather than Roman numerals. He was careful about approaching his work and any necessary revisions.
“Even though this lady translated it and I reprinted it, I don’t want to change God’s words. That’s my thought – to be as accurate as I can,” he said.
Randall remembers growing up in the independent Indian Baptist church.
“Back in my younger days, father would tell me to come inside (the church) and listen. The ministers were singing and talking in Creek. They would speak in Creek for most of the service and at the end, speak a little in English and go back to Creek,” he said. “Now, we speak English and a little bit of Creek spoken.”
Hickory Ground No. 2 Indian Baptist Church is not far from Hickory Ground No. 1 Indian Baptist Church. They both face east as a tradition of Indian churches. Another practice is the Fourth Sunday rotation, in which congregations call meeting every fourth Sunday. On other Sundays, members can travel to other Indian churches and visit.
It’s not unusual for members to travel up to 200 miles on a Sunday to visit other churches, Randall said.
If it was Fourth Sunday at Hickory Ground No. 2, you would walk into a small meeting hall where women are seated in pews to the right and men in pews to the left. The pews are turned so the sides face one another. At the far end, the pastor’s pulpit is raised on a platform with a row of chairs behind it for visiting preachers.
You would either find a seat in the back pews at the entrance reserved for non-believers and those in the faith who might consider themselves backsliders. A deacon carrying a carved stick guides visitors to the appropriate seat. That’s a custom straight from the Bible, Randall said, when Moses gave the 12 tribes of Israel each a rod. The one given to his brother Aaron later grew blossom and was interpreted as a sign from God.
All four sides face inward, and in the middle is the mercy bench, a small, unadorned bench for those spiritually called to repent and profess.
The deacons carry sticks, men and women are separated, the horns blown by deacons to call the congregation together, camp houses, the Fourth Sunday rotation – these symbols and practices are put to use in the Baptist faith, but Randall and others know that they have roots deep In Muscogee and Seminole ceremonial rites practiced before many of the tribes converted to Christianity.
By the time Randall was born, his family had long been members of the Indian Baptist Church. Muscogee-Creek language was the predominant language, and the congregation read from a New Testament that was written in their own tongue.
Work on the translation took eight years and has helped him to improve his ability to read in Muscogee. “After all this time, I’ve learned quite a bit,” he said. “From the beginning until now, with all the proofreading I’ve done, I’ve learned quite a bit. My vocabulary is getting broader.”
From that base he plans to continue practice speaking the language. Randall realizes that the Bible translation can be a useful tool helping others to learn their Native language, too.
“I feel if a lot of people would just read it, it would help them also,” he said. “The more you do something the more you’ll acquire that skill.”
His ultimate purpose for the work, however, is to lead others to the Indian Baptist Church and its teachings.
He formed the nonprofit Wiyo Publishing Co. with his wife, Suzanne, and his son, Monte, to finish the work. Wiyo Randall was his father’s name and means “flying squirrel.” He was an artist. Much like the satisfaction he found in welding the body of a car at the GM plant, Randall has found the same in publishing and making the Muscogee translation of the New Testament accessible to all Creek and Seminole people.
“It makes me want to do more,” he said. ”This is a good book, and I’ve tried my best with it but I can envision a better book.”
To purchase the Mvskoke Bible or to learn more about it, go online to www.mvskokebible.com or call (918) 704-3738. You may also contact Randall by mail at 11520 N. Harrison Road, Shawnee, OK 74804.