Cyrus Byington (picture attached to this blog) was a scholar and a missionary to the American Indian Tribe known as the Choctaw Nation. He was born at Stockbridge, in Berkshire County, Massachusetts; on March 11, 1793. He was one of nine children and was born into humble circumstances. His father was a well-respected and industrious tanner and small time farmer. Therefore, Cyrus’ early education was limited. Cyrus’ early education was limited by the necessity of him working and a lack of funds.
Cyrus was finally taken into the family of Mr. Joseph Woodbridge of Stockbridge from whom he received some instruction in Latin and Greek, and with whom he afterward studied law. In 1814, he passed the bar exam and practiced a few years with success in Stockbridge and Sheffield, Mass (at 21).
Cyrus’ father was a moral man but was not a religious one. At some point in his adulthood Mr. Byington became, as he expressed it, “a subject of divine grace.” At that moment he decided to give up the practice of law and devote himself to becoming a missionary. With this goal in mind he entered theological school at Andover, Massachusetts, where he studied Hebrew and theology, and was licensed to preach, in September of 1819 (he was then 26 years old). His hope was to go to the Armenians in Turkey. But Providence had prepared for him another and an even more labor intensive field.
As he waited on an assignment, he preached in various churches in Massachusetts, awaiting some missionary opportunity. Toward the close of the summer of 1819, a company of approximately twenty-five people left Hampshire County, Massachusetts, under the direction of the American Board of Missions, to go by land to the Choctaw nation of Mississippi. They passed through Stockbridge in September, and were provided with a letter from the Board, asking Mr. Byington to take charge of them, and pilot them to their destination. He was ready at a few hours’ notice.
They journeyed by land to Pittsburgh, where they procured flatboats, and floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to a point near the mouth of the Yalobusha River, where a land journey of 200 miles brought them to their destination.
Cyrus Byington spent 50 years in missionary service. At the age of 41 he published his first draft of The Choctaw Grammar book. The Choctaw language was previously only a spoken language. It was an arduous and laborious task, for the language has an extremely difficult construction. The sole purpose of his work with the Choctaw language was to make it possible to translate the Bible into Choctaw. When he died in 1868; he was working on the 7th revision of his Choctaw Grammar book, and he had translated the first five books of the Old Testament (called the Pentateuch) and large portions of the New Testament.
What do you think caused Cyrus to accept Jesus Christ into his heart, to leave the practice of law, to give up his income, and then to go to a remote Native American nation? What prompted Cyrus to learn a language that previously had never been in written form, then come up with a grammar scheme that fit the language, and then to begin to write it down? Cyrus Byington was motivated by a love for the Word of God and he was convinced that when someone read the Bible their lives had the potential to be changed!
Cyrus Byington didn’t just sit in a room and translate the Choctaw language. He started a school for Native American children. He started a church that would reach the people with the Gospel message. In one of his classes he had a little boy named Alfred. He taught Alfred how to read and write in both Choctaw and in English. Eventually, Alfred gave his heart over to Jesus Christ. The Choctaws were eventually forced along the Trail of Tears with members of the Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole tribes. Alfred was 21 when he traveled the Trail of Tears with his dad Jon. It was on the Trail of Tears that he would meet A-Ho-Yo-Te-Ma (her name means “to give forth.”) and they would be married shortly after they settled in the Indian territory. Cyrus Byington moved his family to the Indian territory shortly after the Native people arrived.
How do I know this? Because Alfred Wade is my grandfather. Alfred became the first Governor or Chief of the Choctaw Nation in the Indian Territory. He was known for his love of children, his zeal for the Lord, and his desire to build schools and churches. This was all possible because one person cared enough about the calling God had for them to throw off everything that hindered and venture into the unknown. Learning and dictating the grammar of the Choctaw language did not bring Cyrus any worldwide renown or make him a millionaire. One person writes that it involved a tremendous amount of unprofitable labor. What people cannot say is that the work wasn’t valuable, because it changed the world for one man who was able to change the world for so many others. Cyrus Byington had such a tremendous impact on Alfred’s life that he named his first son, Cyrus Byington Wade. All of this came about because Cyrus decided that devoting himself completely to the Bible was worth it.