September 16: Sheldon Jackson

Church Planter Extraordinaire
by Rev. David T. Myers

The seals and the whales in Alaska were disappearing fast for the native people up in Alaska. So the Rev. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary, traveled to Siberia to purchase reindeer to be introduced in Alaska for food, clothing, and transportation. He would eventually bring over 1300 of them, and train the natives how to care for them.

Sheldon Jackson was born in 1834 in Minaville, New York. He graduated from Union College (1855) and Princeton Theological Seminary, graduating in 1858. The following year he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister.

After marriage of Mary Voohees in 1858, they applied to the Presbyterian Foreign Mission board for passage in Siam or Columbia, but we turned down—get this!—for “lacking in physique.” Jackson was only five feet tall.

So Rev. Jackson and his wife began their ministry, teaching in a Choctaw Indian boarding school in what was later Oklahoma, beginning on September 16, 1858. He spent only one year there, contracting malaria, which greatly weakened his health. But he was not done serving his Lord.

Until 1877, he ministered in ten states and territories of the West. How was this possible? He simply followed the westward extension of the railroad, coming to a make shift town, visiting every house witnessing of Christ, seeing converts, organizing them into small missions and churches, and move on to the next railroad town. He organized over 100 missions and churches, including several educational institutions, in this way.

But it was in Alaska that his greatest work for Christ took place, especially among the native Alaskans. The Lord opened up this territory in a unique way. A close friend of President Benjamin Harrison, Jackson was appointed the First General Agent of Education in Alaska, and told to educate the native tribes of the territory. He followed the practice of using contracts to accomplish it, only his contracts were with religious denominations. In all, he divided up the vast area and  invited in the Baptists, Anglicans of Canada, Methodists, Moravians, Congregationalists, Quakers, Lutherans, Covenant, Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox, to join the Presbyterians already starting schools in the territory. It worked admirably until 1893 when Congress began to get uneasy about subsidizing religious bodies  for their work of education!

He also laid the groundwork for the territory to be recognized at a state later on in history. His critics were amazed at what he had accomplished, and among those accomplishments, of traveling over one million miles for the Lord. He passed away in 1909, but not before being elected as Moderator of the General Assembly in 1897. With all his official governmental service, he was still the evangelist, having preached over 3000 sermons on missions.

Words to live by: There is a monument on a bluff in Sioux City, Iowa, which was erected by the Presbytery of Iowa in 1913. It commemorates the prayer meeting which the Rev. Sheldon Jackson held with two other home missionaries. They looked out to the unchurched west, and went out to win those western areas for Christ. It is this writer’s conviction that the church today needs to look around, see their spiritually lost cities, towns, and neighborhoods, and go out with a renewed zeal to take the gospel message to them. Only such a conviction as that, will result in another spiritual awakening so desperately needed for our land. Will you be one of the ones who will pray for this?  And go too?

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