The nine churches and spectacular Rainbow Glacier Camp of Alaska Presbytery are strung as pearls for 500 miles along the archipelago of southeast Alaska. We are tied together by the sea, by mission, and by Christ.
Native peoples settled these coastlands with their great cedar canoes, Presbyterian missionaries and evangelists traveled by canoe and steamship and mission boat, and the Alaska salmon fishery touched every community. This rich cultural history has blessed us with Native languages and traditions of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples, missionary adventure stories that take a long evening to recount, and the continuing rhythms of season and tides.
Shortly after Alaska became a U.S. territory, 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. On September 14, 1881 the Presbytery of Alaska was constituted, with its boundaries coterminous with the Territory of Alaska. A generation later, responding to the Klondike goldrush and recognizing the vast expanse of 'The Great Land', the 1899 General Assembly established the Presbytery of Yukon for the work in the north, and the Presbytery of Alaska continued the Christian mission in maritime Southeast Alaska.
In those early years, Presbyterians set up mission stations in more than 20 native communities and organized 17 churches in Southeast Alaska. Missionaries from ‘the lower 48’ and Native evangelists spread the gospel in towns and fishing camps and logging communities. A small fleet of mission boats were built and deployed, their names evoking our mission heritage: the TORONADO, won in a poker game by Rev. Bromely of Haines; the RUBY; the LINSEY; the MARIETTA, skippered by Rev. Edward Marsden of Metlakatla, the first Alaska Native ordained with college and seminary training; the GOOD TIDINGS, captained by Samuel Johnson of Angoon; the M/V PRINCETON--lost in Lynn Canal; the M/V PRINCETON HALL, the SJS I, and the SJS II--all built by students at Sheldon Jackson School; the VERMAY, lost off Hydaburg with its builder, Rev. Verne Swanson, who helped build the Princeton Hall; and the M/V ANNA JACKMAN. Different communities took pride in provisioning a mission boat for a season.
Today the Alaskan logging industry is virtually extinguished and the changing politics and economics of fishing have undercut the livelihood of many villages, but our people remain, as does the church. The example and experience of earlier generations inspire our efforts to be effective missionaries in our day. Financial sustainability is one challenge, with the passing of the national mission system. Finding new ways to train and support local leaders and pastors is another. Caring for our beloved historic churches nestled in the rainforest is another. Continuing through all these changes, though, is the mission of Christ and the promise of God’s providence.