Reverend A. L. Lindsley,
D. D., is credited for opening Presbyterian mission work in Alaska.
Secretary Seward visited Alaska in 1869, after the purchase. When he returned Dr. Lindsley
had an interview with Mr. Seward in which he sought and obtained such
information as a man of Mr. Seward's knowledge and judgment could give
concerning the general condition of the natives of Alaska. Already the mind of
the minister saw in Alaska a field for evangelistic effort.
In 1875, General O. O. Howard came to Portland
from Alaska, eager for Mission work. In a personal interview with General Howard
on March 4th of 1895, he said, "I suppose I talked with Dr. Lindsley twenty
times in 1875 about opening Missions in Alaska. I lived across the street from
him and Alaska was a frequent subject for conversation." As a result of General
Howard's interest, Rev. E. P. Hammond and wife, who were on this coast as
evangelists, made a visit to Fort Wrangel and Sitka in 1875. Mr. Hammond was
undoubtedly the first American minister to visit Alaska in the interest of
Mission work. He himself says they had two objects in view.
1 — To preach the Gospel for a short time.
2. — To get acquainted with the natives and urge their need of Missionaries.
In May of 1877, Mr. J. C. Mallory, a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Portland was sent up to Alaska by Dr. Lindsley. The object of the trip was to visit Fort Wrangel and
Sitka with a view to Missionary effort. Mr. Mallory found at Fort Wrangel a Christian Indian, who had been trained by the Wesleyans. He employed him to carry on a school. The rent of school
room and salary of the teacher were assumed in Dr. Lindsley's name.
In a letter to the Home Board, bearing date of July 27, 1877,
Dr. Lindsley made formal application for the appointment of an Indian teacher, Philip Simpsian (or Mackay, as he was commonly called), at a salary of
$25 per month.
In 1877, the Presbyterian church at
Portland sent Mrs. Amanda McFarland to work among the Indians. She was joined
August 8, 1878 by Dr. Samuel Hall Young, and a church of twenty-three
members was established in August, 1879. The Presbyterians consider this the
first Protestant church in Alaska.
Wrangell Tlingits were taught to use single family
dwellings by Mrs. McFarland, pioneer of Presbyterianism in Alaska.
Arriving there, she found herself the only white woman with "a few
converted but morally uninstructed Indians and a great many heathen about her,"
and set herself to draw up regulations for the community life, to the great
annoyance of Chief Shakes. "I tried to convince him," she wrote, "that I had
come up there to do him and his people good; and then read him the laws. He
replied that he would like to know what I had to do with the laws, that I had
been sent there to teach that school and nothing more."
The Presbyterians established missions in southeastern Alaska.
Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson visited Alaska under the auspices of the
Presbyterian Board of Missions. He landed first at Wrangell in 1877. For the
next 30 years he was among the missionaries who traveled among Alaska Native
people throughout Alaska, preaching and teaching the Gospel, establishing
churches, schools, and hospitals. He also first introduced reindeer into
Alaska and became the general agent of the Bureau of Education.
The Rev. Samuel Hall Young, dean of Presbyterian missionaries in Alaska,
published articles and books descriptive of its life. He became the "Father of Alaska Missions," and,
more than any other Presbyterian missionary, influenced the decision to teach
the Native people the English language.
By 1880 several other Protestant denominations were
preparing for the Alaska field. They joined with the Presbyterians in a comity
agreement whereby the Territory was divided among them into spheres of
In 1881 the Presbyterian missionary S. Hall Young founded
Willard Mission, later changed to Haines Mission.
On September 14, 1881 the Presbytery of Alaska was constituted, with its
boundaries coterminous with the Territory of Alaska.
In 1880, the Rev.
S. Hall Young and the Rev. G. W. Lyon petitioned the General Assembly in
session at Madison, Wisconsin, to create the Presbytery of Alaska. No
action was taken then and in 1881 the Territory of Alaska was attached
to the Synod of Columbia. The General Assembly of 1883, in session at
Saratoga Springs, N.Y., May 15th, in response to the petitions of all
the ministers in Alaska and an overture from the Presbytery of Oregon
created the Presbytery of Alaska, with the boundaries of the Presbytery
to be coterminus with the territory of Alaska and the Presbytery of
Alaska to be attached to the Synod of Columbia.
Although for long periods missionaries from the
Presbyterian church have worked among the Eskimos, Christianity is not the
main force in their lives. Traditional beliefs and social practices govern the
inhabitants to a great extent, and fetishes have an honored place in many homes.
The Presbyterian mission at Barrow was established in 1890 by Professor Leander
M. Stevenson, from Ohio. Stevenson's priorities apparently were teaching,
medical care, and missionary work, in that order. His efforts were severely
hindered by the repeated inability of the supply ship to reach Barrow, which
meant that he was dependent for some years on a refuge station for (White)
whalers for facilities. In 1894-95 building materials finally reached him and he
was able to erect a mission house. However, in 1895 the government ship was
unable to reach Barrow, causing him to shut down operations for lack of
supplies. In addition to these logistic problems, much of Stevenson's time after
1892 was taken up as keeper of the refuge station and in dealing with
shipwrecked whalers generally.
Stevenson held religious services "as best he could under the circumstances,"
but circumstances were not particularly favorable. His most successful activity
in the religious field apparently lay in attracting people to song services. It
was left to his successor, Dr. Horatio Richmond Marsh, to preside over the first
baptisms -- nine years after the mission was established. On Easter Sunday,
1899, Marsh formed a church of 13 members. Two years later it had a membership
By 1897, after seven years of effort, the Presbyterian missionaries working in
Arctic Alaska their record of religious conversions was modest: perhaps 75
converts at Wales, and none at either Point Hope or Barrow.
The likely reason was the difference in substantive orientation and perception between Christians and
traditional Inupiat was, or could have been, a serious obstacle to conversion. It
was, indeed, a problem for the Presbyterians. Missionaries from this religion
disparaged animist beliefs as superstitious, hence at least implicitly stupid,
and ridiculed people who held them. Given this interpretation, it was impossible
for Inupiat to become Christian without abandoning or even modifying their
traditional world view.