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Meet Brother Van

Featured Meet Brother Van

 Methodist  “Great Heart” to Big Sky Country

Originally from Gettysburg Pennsylvania, William Wesley Van Ordsel came to Fort Benton, Montana in 1872. And as it is often said, “the rest is history.” Arriving on June 30, he preached that afternoon in the

Brother Van Historical Video from Mountain Sky Conference | UMC on Vimeo.

only building open to him, a local saloon.  There he received the nickname that stuck – “Brother Van.”  The name stayed with him for the rest of his life. For 47 years, Brother Van set the tone for Methodism in Montana. He held services almost every day and traveled by horseback 15,000 mile a year. One historian observed , “For a small Methodist constituency  in Montana to maintain a college, a hospital, a children’s home and a school during frontier days was all but impossible and yet Brother Van through faith, persistence, and sacrifice somehow managed to convince people it could be done.”


He was loved by the Native Americans of Montana who gave him the name “Great Heart.” They took him on his first buffalo hunt in 1873, an event enshrined by cowboy artist Charles Russell affectionately recalling in a letter the first time he met Brother Van.  Russell wrote in rough prose: I have met you many times since that, Brother Van, sometimes in lonely places, but you were never lonesum or alone, for a man with seared handsand  feet stood beside you and near him is no hate, so all you met loved you.”

As a Presiding Elder, Brother Van always credited the growth on his district to the pastors and the people. He reported to the annual conference : “You brethren of the ministry and the laity, with your wives, are the victors. You have been the instruments under God to bring about results.”

As a boy, Brother Van was in the crowd to hear Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and he frequently repeated Lincoln’s phrase “under God.”  He was elected a delegate to General Conference six times.

Brother Van loved to sing a hymn by W. A. Spencer called “Harvest Time,” a favorite of Montana Methodists to this day:

The seed I have scattered in springtime with weeping
And watered with tears and joy from on high
Another may shout when the harvesters’ reaping
Shall gather my grain in the sweet by and by.

Over and over, yea deeper and deeper,
My heart is pierced through with life’s sorrowing cry,
But the tears of the sower and the song of the reaper
Shall mingle together in joy by and by.

Adapted from For All the Saints: A Calendar of Commemorations by Heather Jocelyn Cranson, Ed. Order of Saint Luke Publications, 2013.