Union Preacher: How one soldier provided me a ministry experience

William Irelan with his eye patch from a bullet at Missionary Ridge.  Founder of Central Park Christian Church and Central Avenue Christian Church (now Northland)
William Irelan with his eye patch from a bullet at Missionary Ridge. Founder of Central Park Christian Church and Central Avenue Christian Church (now Northland)

It only seems fitting that on July 4th, we celebrate the temporal freedom provided for us by the sacrifice of the American Soldier and the eternal freedom given to us by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  Every so often the expression of both freedoms is pointed to in one man’s life.  This is the story of one such man.

At the start of the 1890’s, the south west area of Topeka was in need of a Christian Church. That observation was made by William Irelan (1837-1911) a recent newcomer to the Capital City. Willaim Irelan was born in Cedarville, Ohio on 25 July 1837. He was the first of seven children. Born just after the Restoration Movement of Churches began. It was Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Presbyterian trained clergy, who led a spiritual movement centered on unity and biblical dependence that gained a following that called themselves “disciples”. At the same time, Barton W. Stone’s, in a similar yet unrelated movement, had been followed by a group of dissenters from the Presbyterian Church calling themselves “Christians”. These two groups joined together on 31 Dec 1831 in Lexington, Kentucky starting the Restoration movement.

He attended the common school in Ohio and a select school in Burnettsville, Indiana [history] where he would teach upon graduation. After teaching for a few years, Irelan became principal of the Burnettsville school [history]. In 1861 he left Burnettsville for a teaching job in Minnesota at Belle Plain for a term. Belle Plain just wasn’t home however, and he returned to White Co, and Burnetsville until the Civil War began.

With the nation divided over the issue of succession and slavery, William Irelan joined the war at the age of 25. On 25 July 1862 he volunteered to serve the Union army at Burnettsville, Indiana. He was enrolled in the 12th Indiana Volunteers under the leadership of Capt George Bowman, a fellow educator who left his job as Monticello principal to raise a unit to join the war effort. [history] Irelan enlisted as a private in “D” company, he marched out south to Kentucky 21 Aug 1862. For a little over a year, Irelan saw all facets of the Union effort. His unit was captured at Richmond (a month after enrolling), exchanged later, sent about guarding supply trains, and laying siege to southern cities like Vicksburg (3 weeks) and Jackson (1 week). Irelan was well liked in the company, and was promoted to Corpral as “he served with bravery in the Union ranks.”

On 25 Nov 1863, Bowman’s unit was called into action at the Battle of Missionary Ridge overlooking the Tennessee River near the Tennesse-Georgia line. The previous day, the Union Army was victorious at Lookout Mountain just south and west of Missionary Ridge. The Confederate army, under command of Gen. Bragg fled north and east the high ground on Missionary Ridge, allowing Gen. Hooker to join the Union assault orderd by Maj. Gen. Ulysees S. Grant.   As the Union Army charged up the hill toward the Confederate lines, Capt. Bowman was “severely wounded in the left thigh, and was carried off the field as dead.” [history 215]. William Irelan too was shot, the bullet passing through his right eye. [hamelle 131] Capt. Bowman, after two weeks in a Nashville Hospital, recovered from his ‘death’ and was sent home alongside Corporal Irelan. William was official discharged 6 Feb 1864 to return home to Monticello.

william irelan enlistment company d The year 1864 would be a busy one for William Irelan. Not only would he be discharged from the infantry with wounds from battle, but he would marry his wife, Clementine E. Buessing in Burnetsville, Indiana on 13 Oct 1864 and she would be his wife for the next 36 years. The Irelan’s would welcome 5 children into the world over the next several years: Clifford, Otto, Owen, Elmer, and daughters Elma, Irma.

Upon returning from the war and starting a family, Willaim decided to enter the ministry. Both he and Clemintine enrolled in Northwestern Christian Universtiy (now Butler University) in Indianapolis. The university was founded by the Disciples of Christ and was known for turning out ministers. Both William and Clementine graduated in 1872. William graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in 1872 and his Masters of Arts in 1875. [Brown churches 1904]

Prior to entering school, he made his return to the field of education where he took over the position previously vacated by Capt. Bowman as the School Principal of Monticello. For 2 years he remained in that position. In 1867, Irelan took the pasotrate at Burnettsville Christian Church, which he would occupy for 3 years (’67-’70), where he also served as the Co-examiner of White County Schools (‘66-’69). After serving in his home state of Indiana, Irelan packed up his family and move to East Fairfield, Ohio for 18 months. For the next few years he would bounce between ministry and education. On the education side he was revered. It was said that: “Few men in the country more popular or honored” and he was known for his work equipping and training teachers [Hamelle, 131]. His ministries included Wolcott, Indiana; a second stint at Bernettsville; Lawrence, Kansas; Eureka Springs; and Central Avenue Christian Church (now known as Northland Christian Church) from 1891-93. He ended his last pastorate in 1893, but was always involved in ministry. He was the Kansas Legislature’s Chaplain from 1897-98, where he served in the Capitol building, which was nearing completion of the dome during his tenure (Image of Dome). During his time as Chaplain of the Legislature, Irelan was appointed to draft the constitution for the Kansas State Missionary Societies Order of Operations in 1897.

It was during this stint in Topeka that William Irelan was foundational in the beginning of Central Park Christian Church. As he lived in Topeka, he realized the need for a church on the south west side of Topeka. William and Clementine financed the upstart Bible school until the church could start. He rented a room above Zanes Hall in 1896, furnished it and financed the undertaking until the church could get going. For years, Irelan would provide finances, leadership, stability, and oversight to the fledgling congregation, until he moved to Mexico to assist his daughter with her mission work in Monterey, Mexico.

Irelan would see the cornerstone of the stone building that sat at 16th and Buchanaan until the present structure was built.   He gave a speech on the morning of 12 April 1905, giving a history of the Church at the present location.

William Irelan died 9 Oct 1911 in Monterey, Mexico of paralysis (state Journal 10/11/1911 pg 7 col 2) He was buried in the Topeka Cemetery (photo) where his grave stone reads “SERGT. CO.D. 12 IND INF” a reminder of his days in the Union Army.

Just a soldier/preacher who made it possible for me, 110 years later to get my feet wet in ministry.  I wonder what he would say as he saw the church today?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s