Staircase to Heaven
The beginnings of Adventism among the Navajo
At midnight the dream came. She was camping in the vast desert with her husband and son on a night blacker than coal. Not a star twinkled in the dark expanse, that obsidian canvas that scared the moon away. As time passed in the unmeasurable way that it does in dreams, her eyes were drawn east toward the White man’s mission. There she saw a light engulfing the buildings, a light so overwhelmingly incandescent that she had to shield her eyes. As her vision adjusted, she discerned gleaming steps ascending from the mission and piercing the blackness on their ascent to the heavens. She looked to the sky to try to see where the stairs led, only to find that the limited range of her eyesight lost sight of the celestial transport that penetrated the inky heavens in awful majesty.
“Mr. Follett, I’m afraid you don’t have much time to live,” the doctor pronounced.
At these words Agnes Follett turned away, trying but failing to stop the tears from falling. She had only been married to Orno for a couple of years, and these were spent faithfully doing the Lord’s work in Kansas—she doing Bible and medical work, he canvassing and preaching. First Orno’s father fell ill. Then, while doing the very thing that God had called him to do, Orno began coughing and didn’t stop. A fever followed, then night sweats. Before her eyes her beloved husband began wasting away. Why would the Lord allow this?
When word spread in the Adventist community that Orno Follett had a severe case of tuberculosis, a family of some means offered to move the young couple to their land in the beautiful wilderness of New Mexico, certain that “God’s country” would have a healing effect on the infirmed minister. Orno and Agnes took the couple up on their gracious offer, moving West like so many thousands had done in the previous years. Sure enough, after a couple of months the “dead man walking” whom the physicians had given up on had completely mended.
A New Mission
With his renewed health Orno Follett took on a new mission. In New Mexico his attention was drawn to the Navajo, the largest Native American people group in the United States. The state and its neighbor Arizona hosted about three quarters of the Navajo population, mainly concentrated in the “Four Corners Region,” the only place in the United States where four states border one another.
In those days the approximately 40,000 Navajo did not receive government assistance, and so were often in dire straights in a world that had been turned upside down. Although the Navajo had frequent hostile interactions with outsiders before, the beginning of the end for their way of life was really in 1846 during the Mexican American War when the United States wrested Arizona and New Mexico from Spanish control. For the next 15 years the U.S. military led a steady campaign of encroachment into Navajo territory.
In the early 1860s during the American Civil War, various U.S. militias invaded Navajo land, slaughtering hundreds of Indians, razing their dwellings, and scorching the earth. By the summer of 1863 the last of the Navajo resistors had surrendered. In the spring of the next year the defeated and demoralized Indians were imprisoned in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, after a 300-mile trek on foot, known as the “Long Walk.” After several years of humiliating confinement, the Treaty of Bosque Redondo was signed on June 1, 1868, essentially creating a sovereign Navajo Nation in the people’s original homeland in the Four Corners.
Upon their return the Navajo discovered that everything had changed. The landscape was altered—with the forest clearances, river damming, mining, irrigation systems, farmland conversions—and animals such as the bison and elk that had provided meat and clothing were fast vanishing. This depressing new reality, along with the collective trauma of war, displacement, confinement, and no government subsidies, led large numbers of Native Americans to turn to the alcohol introduced by their oppressors. Alcoholism and poverty became endemic among the Navajo.
The Cottonwood Tree Prayer Meeting
When in 1916 Orno and Agnes Follett presented themselves to the leaders of the Southwestern Union Conference to become missionaries among the Navajo, they were considered as an answer to prayer. On the bank of the mighty San Juan River under the long branches of a cottonwood tree two years before, three leaders from the Western Colorado Conference, R.L. Benton, J.L. Humbert, and H.G. Musgrave, had knelt in their suits toward the vast Indian territory before them, pleading that God would “open the way for the third angel’s message to be proclaimed to these Indians.” The impromptu petition became legendary in the region as “The Cottonwood Tree Prayer Meeting.” But the Folletts had heard of it from Musgrave only after they made their decision to work among the Navajo. At that time Musgrave had exclaimed, “Our prayers have been answered!”1
Like the trio at the San Juan, the Folletts were convinced that “the Navajos are included among the ‘every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people’ who must hear the third angel’s message before Jesus can come to take the faithful home.”2 And so the missionary couple became students of the Navajo (or Dine, as they called themselves, meaning “The People”) occupying the 10-million-acre Four Corners reservation—then a territory larger than 10 of the 50 states—studying the culture and lifeways of this nation within a nation. Knowing that access to the Bible would be vital in their mission, Orno learned the Navajo language, then set out to translate portions of the New Testament into the tongue.
Orno was tasked by conference leaders with selecting a location for an Adventist mission to the Navajo, recommending a plot about 14 miles from Thoreau, New Mexico, a tiny desert trading center more than 7,000 feet above sea level. Once purchased, the missionaries initially christened the outreach center Alamo Indian Mission, alamo being the Spanish word for cottonwood. Orno noted that the initials A.I.M. “should inspire us to aim high in this work, determined by the help of God to level the great mountains of difficulty which confront us” and also “be a constant reminder of our dependence on prayer.” Geography won out when it came to nomenclature, however; since the mission was near a lake, it was finally named Lake Grove Indian Mission.
Because the Lake Grove Indian Mission could generate no money itself, the conference financed the fledgling enterprise while the Folletts petitioned church members in the union paper for funds. In response clothes were donated, and offerings were sent to pay for basic medical supplies and equipment. In 1918 a school and a medical clinic were established at Lake Grove.
The Follets and the Navajo quickly warmed to each other. The missionaries became much appreciated when the Indians discerned that they were there, not to exploit them, but rather to help improve their lives in whatever way possible. This is illustrated in an episode related by Orno:
“The Navajo were in trouble. They needed council and good advice. Some of the younger men suggested they go to the a-ne-sho-de (“missionary”), for, said they, ‘he can help us.’
“On a set day, they came from far and near, chiefs, counselors, medicine men, and all were present. The head chief, A-tsid-i-nez, delivered a long lecture, and asked many questions. . . . ‘Who sent you here?’ ‘What was your object in coming?’ ‘Did you come to help the Indians?’
“After replying that by God’s good pleasure, our General Conference at Washington had send me to help the Indians to learn of the true God, he said:
‘“That is good. I know about missionaries. They own prayer! They have power to do good, because they own prayer. You are here for a good work. We are glad you have come. We welcome you among us. You are helping us, and we will help you. And we will send our children to your school.’”
A Few Light Moments
Although the Folletts were engaged in the most serious endeavor of all, saving souls, there were some light moments at Lake Grove. Agnes reports how difficult it was to get used to the Indian’s habit of considering her huts their huts (the Folletts lived in two tiny huts during their first two years), often entering without knocking. Once inside they didn’t hesitate to walk into the private room or study uninvited. But such was the open, communal nature of the Navajo culture.
Another time Orno was riding on horseback to the top of Mount Powell when his companion, called A-tsid-da-bi-yey, suddenly pulled the reins on his horse sharply to the right and galloped off into the brush, calling for Orno to follow. Orno was considerably less adept with his horse, and just as he had steered the animal off the trail a group of Navajo women came around a bend in the path, descending the mountain. Orno greeted them warmly and they reciprocated. In a couple of minutes, the missionary finally caught up to his friend and demanded to know the reason for his bizarre behavior. A-tsid-da-bi-yey stated that the trail was do-yah-shon’da (“no good”), to which Orno noted that he thought he had glimpsed A-tsid-da-bi-yey’s mother-in-law in the group. A-tsid-da-bi-yey confirmed that it was she. “Then it is really true you Navajos believe you will become blind if you see your mother-in-law,” asked Orno. “O yes, indeed!” A-tsid-da-bi-yey replied. “If a Navajo ever sees his mother-in-law, he will surely go blind.” After relating this story in an article, Orno editorialized, “Clever philosophers, they! Those ancient Navajo priests who so wisely provided for the domestic peace of future generations!”3
The Adventist Connection
Orno became somewhat versed in the religion of the Navajo, which, for all his respect and admiration for the people, he characterized as “heathen” and “pagan.” Two decades into the twentieth century the majority of the 30,000 Navajo observed an ancient ancestral religion that featured the worship of numerous deities represented in natural geography, most prominently, six major mountains in the region. Each day prayers were directed to these mountains by thousands of dedicated practitioners, while on special days elaborate liturgies and ceremonies were held to the gods of the earth. The A-tsidi-i (dubbed “medicine man” by European settlers) operated as a kind of priest and physician, interceding with the spirit world on behalf of the community.
Contrary to popular opinion at the time, however, the Navajo were not at all hopelessly pagan. As Orno immersed himself deeper into the philosophy and worldview of the people, he discovered common ties with Adventist Christianity. He relates the following conversation that occurred in the fall of 1918:
“Only a few evenings ago, my friend A-tsidi-i came to the mission for a visit. During the course of our conversation, I referred to the prophecies regarding our Saviour’s soon return to earth. . . .
“My copper-hued friend manifested an exceptional interest in the ‘good story,’ as they call it. He said, ‘I know what you say is true, for my father, who has long been a priest of our tribe, taught me that long ago.’
‘“Did your people know about it before I came?’
‘“Yes, indeed. Our priests have taught it to our people for a very long time.’
‘“How many years have they taught of the coming of Yis-da-e-ne-thle?’
‘“Oh, we do not measure the time by na ‘hai [years],’ he replied. ‘It’s too long ago. We call it sah ‘be-seh [ages].’
“I asked him to tell me of their faith in the coming of a Saviour, and his story follows, translated into English from Navajo as nearly word for word as I am able to give it.
‘“For many sah ‘be-seh our priest medicine men have taught us of the coming of Yis-da-e-ne-thle. Long ago, before the white man came to our country, our people used to have many religious gatherings. They had great prayer meetings, and the prayers of our medicine men were strong in those days. All had much faith in prayer. Our priests told us that after a while Yis-da-e-ne-thle would come. There would come a terrible time of war, when all people would have a big fight. There would be famine, suffering, and death everywhere. Then, when conditions would become the very worst possible, Yis-da-e-nethle would come. A great fire, or perhaps water, we do not know which, will destroy this earth, and all the bad Indians will be destroyed with it. But the good Indians will be saved alive.
‘“Then Yis-da-e-ne-thle will make a new world,—a new land with beautiful hills and fertile valleys and rivers of pure, sweet water. There will be trees and groves and grass and flowers and good food in abundance. All kinds of good animals will rove over the beautiful hills and valleys. Death will never come to the good people of that country, for they shall live always.’”
A-tsidi-i concluded his story: “Do I want Yis-da-e-ne-thle to come quickly? Yes, my friend, I verily do. I want to live in that beautiful country where sorrow shall never come.”4
The gospel indeed resonated with the Navajo, Orno reporting that “the Indians came to us by the score from many miles around, both for medical assistance and to hear the Good Story.”5 The Adventist missionaries’ first convert was a young woman called Lilikai, baptized in the spring of 1917. Lilikai had grown up practicing the traditional Navajo religion, but had accepted Christianity from a previous missionary. When she learned of the Adventist message she recognized God leading her into greater truth and embraced it, enrolling her daughter Ruth in the mission school and witnessing of her new faith.
Yet in the early days it seemed like with every triumph there was a setback. In 1918 the influenza epidemic swept through the region, leaving two fallen Adventist missionaries in its wake. The first was Oscar Nystal, a teacher at the school whose health was already vulnerable because his body was not accustomed to the high altitude. The second was Evyline Lowery, another teacher, who was laid to rest in the small plot of land carved out on the mission property for a cemetery. The Four Corners would challenge the mettle of more missionaries in the coming years. Besides this, the animosity of some non-Adventist missionaries and the A-tsidi-i, who equally felt threatened by the operation at Lake Grove, compounded the troubles.6
The First Converts
It was in 1920 that a major breakthrough occurred, however. A couple was won to Adventism, the first Navajo to be converted from the tribe’s traditional religion—“both came to us from the depths of paganism,” as Orno put it. Here is their story:
Tom and Mrs. Largo (unfortunately her name is lost to us) were a young Navajo couple who possessed considerable wealth, Orno remembering that their “flocks of sheep and herds of cattle and horses roamed over the surrounding mountains and valleys for miles about the mission grounds.” Tom was training for the Navajo priesthood, having reached the fourth degree in the mystery system and accumulated a myriad of fetish gods, which he kept in a shrine in his hogan.
But tragedy struck the Largos. Tom’s father grew sick and died. Shortly after, his beloved mother also became ill. Distraught, Tom sought the medicine men to intercede with the gods to heal her. The priests demanded a high price for their specialized services, and Tom paid them in cattle until he had none left. When Tom’s mother did not recover he was left with nothing—no mother and no cattle. Meanwhile, the wily charlatans, posing as religious leaders, were rich off of Tom’s futile desperation. During this period Tom and his wife were haunted by nightmares from which they could find no relief.
It was when the Largos were at their lowest that they heard the Good Story. Already fed up and distrustful of the traditional religion to which he had aspired to practice, Tom and his wife began studying the Bible with Orno Follett, and were soon soaking up the pure truths of God’s Word spoken to them in the Navajo language by this White man. One day, before they began their session, Tom happily reported that his nightmares had ceased. Then his wife related a dream she had the previous night in which the vast Navajo countryside was engulfed in thick darkness while a light surrounded the Lake Grove Indian Mission compound. A shining staircase ascended from the mission buildings, piercing the darkness and climbing to heaven.
Every doctrine that Orno presented to the couple was met with approval and acceptance. But the day that the White missionary presented God’s Holy Law with its first two commandments forbidding other gods, the crucial test came for the Largos. Basically, the only wealth that the couple still had consisted of dozens of fetishes, which were highly prized in a society that equated them with the favor of the gods. Orno was mentally on edge as he saw the Largos’s struggle. Orno shares what happened next:
“Tom prayed earnestly. Then he turned to his wife, and said, ‘Let’s give them up, and serve only God.’ She had already decided before he spoke, and readily consented. Then Tom turned to me and said, ‘All right, brother, we give them up today, and from now on we have but one God.’”
Beside himself, Orno proclaimed, “I am sure that was the happiest moment I have experienced since coming to this field.”
Not content to hide his light under a bushel, Tom expressed to Orno that he wanted to share the gospel with his people. An interesting dynamic then developed: Orno taught the illiterate Tom to read parts of the Bible in the Navajo language that Orno had translated from English. In no time the on-fire Tom Largo was telling anyone who would listen about Jesus and became a salaried employee at Lake Grove, serving as a Bible worker as well as a linguistic (Orno was the only missionary fluent in Navajo) and cultural translator.7
A Midnight Dream Come True
Later that year in a quiet grove in the hills near Lake Grove Indian Mission, a small baptistery was constructed from funds sent in by faithful members of the Texico and Southwestern Union conferences. It was in this very place under the overhanging pinon tree branches and next to a sparkling lake that the Navajo priests had held their sacred ceremonies to the gods of the earth. Now several Navajo were being baptized by Orno Follett, one of them Tom’s sister, Mrs. Charlie Largo, and another her daughter, Flossie Largo Saunders. The prayers beside another tree near the water had been answered.
A Promise Kept
Bouncing along in the mission’s old automobile, Orno Follett and his daughter Naomi traversed deep through the hills of the Four Corners Region to a place where perhaps no White man had been before. Virtually no one lived in this area, but someone had indicated to Orno that a hogan or two did dot a hill and a valley. Follett had promised the Lord more than three decades before, when he started his ministry at Lake Grove, that if he were given health and strength he would tell every single Navajo about the gospel—so here he was.
In the middle of nowhere halfway up a rise, father and daughter spotted a lone mud-covered hogan. After parking as close as they could, they got out and hiked the rugged terrain to the dwelling’s blanket-covered door. Consistent with Navajo courtesy, the Folletts were invited into the hogan, and inside were greeted by half a dozen people, apparently all related. No sooner had they entered then a large woman stood up and demanded, “Who are you?”
Follett explained in Navajo that he and his daughter were missionaries from the Lake Grove Indian Mission. At this the woman’s entire face lit up. “I’m so glad you came,” she proclaimed. “Why?” Orno asked. “Don’t missionaries ever visit you out here?”
“No, we’ve never seen a missionary before. But children come back from government schools and tell us about a great man called Jesus,” the woman explained. “He lives in heaven. We’ve wanted to hear about Him for a long time, but no one has come. Now you are here!”
- Orno Follett, “The Cottonwood Tree Prayer Meeting,” Adventist Review, March 15, 1917, p. 17.
- Orno Follett, “Among the Navajos,” The Youth’s Instructor, October 29, 1918, p. 4.
- Orno Follett, “Mission Experiences Among the Navajos,” The Youth’s Instructor, January 14, 1919, p. 5.
- Orno Follett, “The Navajos,” Southwestern Union Record, June 16, 1920, p. 3.
- Orno Follett, “The Lake Grove Indian Mission,” Central Union Outlook, April 1, 1930, p. 1.
- The story of the Largos can be read here: “Pagan Indians Turning to Jesus,” The Missionary Leader, March 1922, p. 2.
is the assistant archivist at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.