How the West Was Really Won: A Gallery of Local Heroes
Brother Van (William Wesley Van Orsdel)1848-1919
After stepping off the steamboat at Fort Benton, Montana, on a June Sunday in 1872, this penniless, sandy-haired, Methodist "evangelist-at-large" was ready to preach. When his impromptu Sabbath service at the Four Deuces saloon came to an end, listeners didn't want to let him go. They asked his name, but since it was a mouthful, they dubbed him "Brother Van." Practically everyone in Montana would know that name before long.
William Wesley Van Orsdel's parents died before he turned 13. An aunt raised "Willie" and his siblings on a small Pennsylvania Dutch farm near Gettysburg. At 15 Van Orsdel was soundly converted at the little Methodist prayer meeting the family attended.
Sometime in the next few years, he was roused by "a mighty vision." He later recalled, "I could see the miners, stage drivers, freighters, cowboys, and here and there among them a copper-colored native, beckoning and calling. To me these were Macedonian cries, and with the all-impelling word 'go' locked up like fire in my bones, I felt like Paul—'woe be unto me if I go not.'"
At 22 he retired the plow, packed up his Bible and carpetbag, bid Pennsylvania farewell, and headed for Montana.
In his 47 years of ministry there, he helped convert Indians, miners, farmers, drunkards, brothel keepers, and saloon owners. He was once shot at by Indians and another time mistaken for a horse thief and nearly hanged. He gained a reputation for caring about his listeners, so that even when he preached uncompromisingly to hardened "sinners," he often managed to win them over.
From 1892 to 1918, as superintendent of the Methodists' North Montana Mission, he built 100 churches, 50 parsonages, six hospitals, ...