This distinguished pioneer was born in Culpepper county, Virginia, in 1802. His ancestors were originally from Ireland, and many traits of the Irish character are yet traceable in his own. His parents seem to have been quite poor, and to have had no claim whatever to a place among "the first families" of his native State. Therefore his distinction is due to his own genius, and not to any extraordinary privileges obtained either by purchase or by inheritance.
In his youth he was sent for a short time to an academy, where he received a tolerable English education. In after life, while contending earnestly for the faith, against a host of opposers, he acquired, by his own efforts, a respectable knowledge of the Greek language. This, with the general information acquired by reading, is the extent of his education. It is not, therefore, on account of what he knows, but on account of what he is and what he does, that he is remarkable.
He embraced Christianity at an early age, and at first united with the Old Christian body, or Newlights, in Virginia. Among them he commenced preaching when quite young; but of his ministry east of the Alleghanies little is known.
Sometime between 1825 and 1830 he left Virginia, and made his way—on foot it is said—to Lebanon, Warren county, Ohio. There he prosecuted for some time the work of the ministry; and there, in the year 1830, he was married to Miss Martha Verbryke.
It appears that his conversion to the ancient gospel was effected in the following manner: when zealously opposing what he supposed to be heresy, he saw, in the " Christian Messenger," some articles on "The Plan of Salvation," written by Elder James E.Mathes of Alabama, and ably advocating the claims of the Reformation. There being no opposition to these articles from any other quarter, he determined to reply to them himself. Accordingly he wrote his "No. 1," which was published in the Messenger, accompanied by some editorial remarks, in which he found, to his surprise, that Elder Stone had taken sides against him, and in defense of the views of Elder Mathes. These editorial comments on his "No. 1" were so pointed and convincing that his "No. 2," though written, was never published; and in a short time both he and Elder Stone were preaching the faith which both had once sought to destroy.
In the Spring of 1832 he came to Indiana, locating at Milton, in Wayne county. For the support of his family he engaged in teaching a common-school; but for the good of his race he continued to preach the gospel on Lord's days, and at such other times as he had opportunity. Being charged with "Campbellism," the few meeting-houses were closed against him; but John O'Kane was not the man either to conceal his own light under a bushel, or to suffer it to be extinguished by the prescriptive efforts of those who "loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." Such pressure only made him the more luminous, and in a little while he became a burning and shining light—almost the only one at that time in Eastern Indiana. Commencing in his own little schoolhouse, he rapidly extended his appointments to others; and when no house could be obtained, he preached to multitudes of people in the open air.
Within the same year, 1832, he crossed over into Rush county, where he was employed for one year to co-operate with Elder John P. Thompson in doing the work of an evangelist. In this service he traversed the counties of Rush, Fayette, and Decatur; and his name is identified with many churches and reformatory movements which originated at that time in that portion of the State.
In January, 1833, he journeyed as far west as Indianapolis. On his arrival there he found the court-house occupied by the Legislature then in session; the "evangelical" churches closed their doors against him; and there was no place for holding a meeting, save in an old log-house on Market street, which the few persecuted saints had rented as a place of prayer. In this he began and preached on three evenings in succession, the house not accommodating one half the people who were anxious to hear the word. In the meantime the Legislature tendered him the use of the court-house on Saturday evening and on Lord's day. There he had an opportunity of speaking before judges and legislators, as well as many of the "common people;" and faithfully did he witness to both small and great, speaking none other things than those which the Lord and his apostles appointed for them to do. "The preaching," says one who heard it, "was so different from any that had ever been heard in Indianapolis before—so bold, so pointed, so convincing, so strongly enforced by the commanding voice, expressive eye, and fine oratory of brother O'Kane—that it seemed to carry every thing before it. All seemed spell-bound, and many were seen to tremble under his mighty appeals." This was a kind of Pentecostal occasion; for not only was a deep and lasting impression made in the city—or rather town—but the representatives and strangers from the several counties, like the "devout men out of every nation" at Jerusalem, carried with them, on their return to their homes, some knowledge of the faith as it was once delivered to the saints.
Elder O'Kane made two or three other visits to the capital prior to the following June, at which time the Church of Christ at that place was organized with some twenty members.
In January, 1833, he and Dr. R. T. Brown organized the Church of Christ at Connersville, Fayette county, to which place he soon after removed, and commenced the publication of a monthly religious paper called "The Christian Casket." While engaged in this enterprise he continued to preach the gospel throughout all Central and Eastern Indiana, occasionally making tours through portions of Ohio and Kentucky.
In 1837 he removed to Crawfordsville, Montgomery county, where he resided for several years, having the pastoral care of the church in that place, and preaching extensively in the western and southwestern portions of the State.
In 1848 he returned to Connersville, and for a twelve-month labored efficiently in fields with which he had made himself familiar in former years.
In 1849 he located at Indianapolis and engaged in the book and stationery business; still proclaiming the gospel, however, both in that city and in many distant parts of the State. Everywhere his labors were attended with the most encouraging results, and to all the disciples of Indiana his name was as familiar as household words.
About this time was conceived the project of establishing the Northwestern Christian University, to meet the educational wants of a great and rapidly increasing brotherhood. Into this enterprise Elder O'Kane entered heart and soul, and to him more than to any other individual its success is to be attributed; for he, more than any other, raised the money with which the magnificent building was erected, and with which the corps of instructors are sustained. In the Spring of 1851 he was appointed by the Board of Directors as a general agent and stock solicitor; in which capacity he visited almost every nook and corner of the State, gathering, for the institution, a rich pecuniary harvest, and at the same time disseminating the good seed of the kingdom to meet the demands of other great and good enterprises in future times.
In 1859 he removed to Independence, Missouri, where he has since resided, and where he is now separated from his friends and brethren in Indiana by a wall of fire. Consequently they have but little knowledge of his ministerial operations in the Southwest; yet they occasionally hear of his affairs—that he is a true patriot, and that he remains " steadfast, immovable," in the work of the Lord.
It is to be regretted that, owing to the unhappy condition of the country, more ample materials for this sketch cannot be obtained. Unquestionably the subject of it was one of the most noted reformers of Indiana; and his history, if given in full, would be replete with good works, remarkable incidents, and anecdotes of the choicest kind. As for himself, he needs no historian to perpetuate his memory. He has made his mark upon the age; his name is familiar to many a devout father, who will transmit it, in connection with fact and anecdote, to his children; and thus he will be held in remembrance even to the third and fourth generations, though not a stone should be raised or a line written.
Elder O'Kane is physically, as well as mentally and morally, a fine specimen of the genus homo. He is six feet and one inch high, very straight and slender. His fine head, covered with raven locks, sits with an air of majesty on his square shoulders; and beneath his high, over-arching forehead, sparkle eyes remarkably black and piercing. He walks with an easy, don't-care gait, seemingly criticising, and inwardly laughing at every thing around him. He is certainly more like Democritus than Heraclitus—a laughing rather than a weeping philosopher.
If his personal appearance is singular and upon the whole prepossessing, his character is eccentric and, take it all in all, worthy of imitation. A Phillips would find in it almost as many antitheses and yet as much consistency as he found in the character of Napoleon.
Perhaps the most striking trait is his wit, and the anecdotes of John O'Kane, alone, would fill a volume. His witticisms are usually mixed with the severest sarcasm, or pointed with the bitterest irony. The following are a few inferior specimens:
With a swaggering air an orthodox preacher once refused to debate with him, at the same time observing that he would gladly discuss the doctrinal issues with Alexander Campbell or some of the great leaders of the Reformation. Fixing his keen eyes upon him, and pointing his long finger at him in the style of Randolph, O'Kane replied: "You—you debate with Alexander Campbell! Why if one of his ideas should get into your head, it would explode like a bomb shell."
On a certain occasion he was to preach in one of the many ill-constructed meeting houses with dark walls and very small windows. As he walked up the aisle, surveying every thing with a critical eye, he observed in an undertone to a brother that was with him: "Tell them to sing ‘Tis darkness here, but Jesus smiles.'"
At another time when preaching in an old rickety church, from the walls of which the plastering had fallen off in places, he solemnly exhorted his brethren not to neglect the Lord's house, at least while it was so low with erysipelas.
A certain adherent of one of the sects once met him, and, extending his hand, said, "Well, Brother John, I used to think you were an unprofitable servant, but I think differently now." "Indeed," replied O'Kane, shaking his hand warmly, "that is precisely what I used to think of you, brother, but I have never changed my mind."'
Just before he removed to Missouri, he fell in with one of those young preachers who, in the wisdom of their own conceits, urge the necessity of reforming the Reformation. "Brother O'Kane," said he, "the world will not stand still after A. Campbell dies. Luther performed a great work, but he left something for others to do. So did Wesley; so we think will Campbell; and if the Lord shall see proper to commit the direction of this Reformation to younger heads, be it so." "You young fellows lead this Reformation!" said O'Kane. "As well might one think of harnessing a lot of Shanghai chickens to a train of cars."
Another young preacher was once complaining of the too small remuneration received for his services. "If the brethren do not support me," said he, "I will go where I can be supported." ''When did you take the sopp, brother." inquired O'Kane, slyly alluding to the Scripture which says that after Judas had dipped the sop, Satan entered into him.
With all his wit and sarcasm an element of tenderness is strangely mingled, and the effect of the combination cannot be better described than in the words of a pious old brother who affirms that he has seen him "laughing out of one eye and the tears coming out of the other.''
With a dignified and apparently proud bearing he walks humbly before God, having never manifested a disposition to be greatest otherwise than by faithfully performing his duties as a servant.
Ordinarily approachable, and unreserved in conversation, he has the power to assume a stoical indifference to every thing around him, whenever it seems good in his sight.
It is in the pulpit that he exerts his principal influence in behalf of the gospel. His commanding person, his expressive eye, his clear, strong voice, and his free earnest gestures—all contribute to make him a most interesting and impressive speaker. He is well versed in the Scriptures, and familiar with all the dogmas incorporated into the several creeds, upon which instruments he sometimes lays a heavy hand. Yet after all, the effect is produced not so much by what he says as by the admirable manner in which he says it.
As already intimated he does not occupy a high rank as a scholar; and he is strongly disinclined to write for the benefit of the public. Hence his own editorial career was short, and his articles in other periodicals are but few.
In the course of his ministry he has been engaged in many public discussions, in all of which he has triumphantly vindicated the principles of the current Reformation. As a disputant he has but few superiors.
Next after his achievements as a public speaker he has accomplished most as an agent, or solicitor of funds for benevolent purposes; for which office his pleasing address and above all his nice and ready discernment of character eminently fit him. Where almost any other man could not have obtained a cent, he obtained dollars and even hundreds of dollars.
The tact which made him so successful in this employment, secured for himself also a more liberal support than that which fell to the lot of most pioneer preachers. Yet being a poor economist, and very careless in the management of pecuniary matters, he is in his old age one of the poor whom God hath chosen to be heirs of the kingdom.
Having remembered his Creator in the days of his youth, he has spent the Springtime and the Summer of his existence in the service of the Lord. Now that the Autumn of his days has come, and that his,
"way of life Is fallen in the sere and yellow leaf,"
the peaceable fruits of righteousness appear in rich profusion; and he has abundant reason to expect an exceeding great reward from Him whose "eyes are open upon all the ways of the children of men, to give to every one according to his ways and according to the fruit of his doings."
—Biographical Sketches of Pioneer Preachers Of Indiana, by Madison Evans, pages 331-339
Cabin Of Benjamin Roberts, Indianapolis, Indiana
Where John O'Kane Started The Church At Central