Introduction The Pre-Presbyterian Years
Unesquak was tending the fire on the beach, looking into the sunset. Outlined against the pastel sky was an unusual shape -- quite small, but as Unesquak watched, it grew somewhat larger. It was like a large skin boat, only with the oars pointing upward, with skins attached to the oars and blowing slightly in the otherwise quiet sky.
The shaman watched quietly. The image came no closer. In fact, it slowly turned and made its way back into the horizon. Unesquak had spotted the boat financed by a chief of another family living a long way off, virtually in a different world.
Unesquak's Siberian Yup’ik ancestors had traveled across these waters many, many generations before. He and his people were well aware that there were current friends and relatives living just beyond to the west -- sometimes, their land could even be seen from the place where Unesquak sat. But, this boat in the sunset was unlike the boats of either his friends or his ancestors.
Unesquak had discovered a Russian vessel. The chief Peter the Great had sent two of his people -- Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov -- to see if there was land beyond the horizon, to the east, from their unique perspective. Unesquak could have told them there was. It was the land of the Yup’ik, the Inupiat, the Aleut, and others. But Bering and Chirikov did not wait to find out. It was 1728. They sighted the land, made note of it, and left.
Unesquak stood at the beach, now realizing that he had seen a "western" boat, made not be his people who lived to the west, but by the Others. It was the first such sighting in many generations.
Much would happen in the next 250 years or so. “Christianity” would arrive from the west; and Unesquak’s descendants would, after many generations, take the faith back across the water in a different form. This is the story of those intervening 250 years.
The above is my effort to address the contemporary concern voiced by many Native Americans and others – Columbus did not discover America; it was already here, inhabited by people who had lived here for generations.
Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov sighted and named Saint Lawrence Island in 1728. It was the first time any part of what now is Alaska had been seen and reported by western eyes. Did Bering and Chirikov discover Alaska -- or did Alaska discover them? It is a matter of perspective – hence, the sighting through the eyes of “Unesquak.”
The place where Unesquak lived was not without spiritual expression, far from it. The shaman, his ancestors, and his descendants were a spiritual people, trusting in the Deity to provide for them, expressing gratitude for the gifts given, and attempting to live lives which would continue to please the Giver of these Gifts.
The spiritual expression which we call Christianity had not yet made itself manifest in this land nor to these people, but many of the ways of knowing the Deity here were similar to those of people who called themselves Christian elsewhere.
The voyagers from the west were Christians. When they saw the land, they sought to honor the Roman churchman, Saint Lawrence, by giving his name to this island.
Presbyterian influence was 150 years yet to come. But at this point, it is important to remember at least two things: 1.) the Native groups in Alaska did have a spiritual life before the coming of Christianity, and 2.) the Presbyterians were not the first Christians to work among the Native population. Presbyterian missionaries, most particularly Ms. Amanda McFarland, were the first Christians from the United States to work among Alaska’s Native people.
Early Spiritual Expression
Joseph E. Senungetuk writes of his people's early spirituality in Give or Take A Century: An Eskimo Chronicle, Artist Senungetuk was born in Wales, a village on the northwest coast of Alaska, not too far from St. Lawrence Island.
...shamanism encompassed the belief that spirits inhabited animals and inanimate objects alike; that a chief deity was an Old Woman who lived in the seas; and that two spirits resided in a man's body -- one that is transferred to a newborn child after the man's death (whereupon the child was given his name), and the other spirit, destined for the Land of the Souls. ... The Eskimo religion was part of the life of the people, part of the arts, medical practices, a system of psychotherapy, which is only now being "discovered" by modern science.
The First Christians
Thirteen years after his first voyage to Alaska, Chirikov returned in July of 1741, in the Saint Paul and landed much to the south of Saint Lawrence Island, this time in what is now Southeastern Alaska. Sending two boat crews ashore, both disappeared and it was thought that they had been captured by Natives. During this same year, Vitus Bering in the Saint Peter sighted the Alaska coast at Mount Saint Elias and sent a party ashore on Kayak Island. Georg Stellar, naturalist, found a camp but did not actually meet any of the Native people themselves.
The following year, Alexei Chirikov, making a second voyage in the Saint Paul, sighted Attu Island, but did not land. Mikhail Nevodchikov, in 1745, led a party of fur hunters in the vessel Yevdokia to Agattu Island, where they fought with the Natives, wounding one. Thus began the Russian fur trading years, 1745-1867, years which are often remembered as devastating to the Native people and Native economy of the Aleutians, Pribilofs , Kodiak Island and southeastern Alaska.
However, there were some positive aspects worth remembering, as well.
In 1786, for instance, Gregory Shelikov reported that a school had been opened for Native children in Russian America and that about 40 of the children would be sent to the Imperial court and/or schools at Okhotsk and Irkutsk.
In 1787, Grigor Kozlof-Ugrenin, commander of the province of Okhotsk, gave orders to traders and fur hunters that Aleuts were to be treated kindly and were not to be carried away from their homes without their consent.
In 1793, Empress Catherine II issued a ukase granting the petition of Shelikov and Golikov that clergymen be appointed for missionary work in Alaska. Between 10 and 18 clergymen and lay workers arrived in 1794 and the first Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska was built in 1796 at Three Saints Bay, Kodiak Island. The first Russian Orthodox Church was built at Sitka in 1817.
In 1805, Nikolai Rezanov, a director of the Russian-American Company, ordered the colonial clergy to learn the Native language. He began to collect Native words for a dictionary.
A diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church was formed in 1840 to include all of Alaska and the precincts of Okhotsk and Kamchatka. At that time there were four churches and eight chapels in Alaska.
By this time, the number of schools for Native children in the Russian colony had grown to four for 100 boys and four for an undisclosed number of girls. By 1842, Creoles were qualified for entering the Russian Orthodox Church as priests. By 1843, it was reported that 102 Tlingits, including two shamans, had becomes Christians at Sitka.
In 1844, Czar Nicholas I issued an Imperial ukase relating to the Russian-American Company, which stated:
"Children born of a European or Siberian father and a Native American mother ... shall be regarded as creoles" and "creoles who have elected to follow an independent means of livelihood, and who desire to establish themselves in the colonies shall be regarded as colonial citizens."
This was interpreted as giving them the status of subjects of the Czar.
By 1860, one report stated there were 12,028 Christians in Alaska, including 784 Russians, 1,676 creoles and 9,568 Natives. In 1863, the total number of Natives in Southeastern Alaska was estimated at 25,000 to 40,000 but those actually counted in various settlements totaled 7,502, including 828 slaves.
It is against this backdrop that we can view the purchase of Alaska by the United States in 1867. Many Native people will argue that the Russians had nothing to sell to the Americans. The land belonged, not to the Russians who had never explored anything beyond the coastlines, but rather to the Native people who had lived throughout the country for generations. This argument has great validity, but was not the prevailing opinion of the day. The sale was recognized; the Russians left; and the Americans moved in.
For the first decade of ownership by the Americans, economic exploitation of Alaska continued; battles were fought in which people were killed; and the social needs of the original people were sorely neglected.
In 1869, Vincent Coyer, Secretary of the Board of Indian Commissioners, visited Alaska. He submitted a written report on his observations and secured an appropriation of $50,000 for school purposes. In the absence of anyone to administer the funds, they were not expended. All this was about to change.
Alaska Discovers the Rev. Dr. Sheldon Jackson
A short, but determined, young man by the name of Sheldon Jackson graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1857. He applied to the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions for assignment to Siam or Columbia, only to be turned down because he was “lacking in physique.” He stood just slightly over five feet tall.
Undaunted, Jackson turned his missionary zeal toward the American frontier -- travelling almost a million miles in the course of his missionary work in Minnesota, the Rocky Mountain states and Alaska. Biographer Elizabeth A. Tower notes that “he went on foot and horseback, by railroad and stagecoach, by sailboat and canoe, and even by ox cart and reindeer sled. He survived severe snowstorms, shipwrecks, and Indian uprisings. Three times newspapers reported his death prematurely and once they printed his obituary.”
Jackson established over one hundred churches and missions, including the first Presbyterian churches in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Arizona, and Alaska. Although he never settled in Alaska, he adopted the territory as his main focus of attention from 1877 until his death in 1909. He moved to Washington D.C. and was the first, and perhaps the most effective, lobbyist Alaska ever had. His name will appear frequently throughout Alaska’s early history.
Jackson Begins Work in Alaska
Conditions among the Native population in Alaska were abominable, according to those who visited the country and returned to the United States. No one was listening. Finally, it was a letter from an Army private stationed at Wrangell, J.S. Brown, which finally succeeded in arousing the needed interest, according to Dr. Walter Soboleff. The letter was sent to the Rev. A.L. Lindsley of Portland, Oregon, and was eventually placed in the hands of Sheldon Jackson. Jackson was attending the summer 1877 meeting of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church of America in Chicago.
Jackson determined to go to Alaska and to find a missionary to go with him. On his way north, he found the missionary he was seeking in Portland, Oregon -- Mrs. Amanda McFarland.
Jackson and Missionary-Teacher McFarland arrived at Fort Wrangell, Alaska, on August 10, 1877. Philip “Clah” McKay, a Tsimshian Indian, had started a school at Wrangell earlier in the year. Assured of financial support by Jackson, Mrs. McFarland agreed to stay at Fort Wrangell to help Clah. And it is good that she did in that Clah died shortly thereafter of tuberculosis.
Mrs. McFarland continued to build the Wrangell mission, including a boarding school for girls that continued until 1884, when the building burned and the home was moved to Sitka and consolidated with the Presbyterian mission there.
Jackson returned south to recruit additional help.
In April of 1878, Presbyterian missionaries Miss Fannie Kellogg and the Rev. John G. Brady (later to become governor of the Territory of Alaska) opened a day school for Indian children at Sitka. The school closed in December.
In 1879, a Roman Catholic church and mission were established at Wrangell.
In 1880, Miss Olinda Austin, Presbyterian missionary, reopened the day school for Indians at Sitka that had closed in December 1878. In July, through the cooperation of the Navy, the school was moved into the old Russian hospital building and became partly a boarding school.
Also in 1880, a trading post was established among the Chilkat Indians at what later became Haines. Sheldon Jackson arranged for the opening of a summer school there, taught by Mrs. Sarah Dickinson.
The following litany of activity is continued here for two reasons. First, it is to show the impact the Presbyterian Church has had on education as well as the spread of Christianity in Alaska, and, second, it is to place the northern work of the Presbyterian missionaries (Yukon Presbytery) in the context of the work occurring in southeast Alaska (Alaska Presbytery). Men and women moved between presbyteries and their names are familiar throughout the state. Jackson, the Presbyterians, and their friends continued their mission to bring education and the Gospel to people throughout the territory.
** Commander Henry Glass, U.S. Navy, adopted a rule at Sitka compelling the attendance of Native children at the day school operated by the Presbyterian Church. He also ordered the Native village at Sitka cleaned up with drainage ditches around the houses and the houses whitewashed;
** a Presbyterian mission was established and named Haines, the Rev. and Mrs. Eugene S. Willard were in charge;
** a schoolhouse and teacher's residence were erected at the Tlingit village of Hoonah under the direction of Dr. Sheldon Jackson, and a school was opened by Mr. and Mrs. Walter B. Styles;
** the old Russian hospital at Sitka, in use as a Presbyterian mission school, burned to the ground, thus eliminating the boarding school for Native children. Day school was continued in makeshift quarters until the first building of the Sitka Industrial Training School was erected in 1883 under the supervision of Sheldon Jackson.
** The Organic Act was passed May 17, thanks to the lobbying efforts of Sheldon Jackson. It provided $25,000 "for the education of the children of school age in the Territory of Alaska without reference to race." The Congressional Act of July 4, 1884, appropriated $15,000 "for the support and education of Indian children of both sexes at industrial schools in Alaska." This was in addition to the $25,000 appropriated for general education on May 17 and resulted in the establishment of the above mentioned Sitka Industrial Training School, which later became the Sheldon Jackson School.
** Jackson established a school at the Tlingit village of Tongass with Louis and Tillie Paul, both Natives, as teachers;
** on September 15, the first meeting of the Alaska Presbytery was organized. The Alaska Presbytery focused its efforts in southeast Alaska, what is called “the Panhandle”. The Yukon Presbytery, covering the Arctic coast, the interior, and southcentral portions of Alaska, would not be formed until 1899.
** $20,000 more was appropriated by Congress for education in Alaska;
** in April, Sheldon Jackson was appointed General Agent for Education in Alaska. He had charge of expending the $40,000 appropriated by Congress in 1884 for Alaska education;
** representatives of a number of churches interested in educational missionary work in Alaska met with Dr. Jackson, to divide the territory so as to further the educational effort. Some of the church schools were to participate in the use of funds appropriated by Congress for educational purposes. This was the Comity Agreement;
** a public school was opened in Juneau, with 62 Native children, three white children and ten children of mixed blood;
** a school was opened at Jackson (Howkan), under contract with the Presbyterians, with 57 Native students;
** a school was opened at Wrangell with 27 Native children, several whites and children of mixed blood;
** a school was opened at Unalaska with Sol Ripinsky as teacher and an enrollment of 45 children, all Aleuts or Creoles;
** a school was opened at Sitka, in addition to the Presbyterian school, with 77 Native children;
** as part of the Comity Agreement, the Moravian Church established a mission and school at the village of Mumtrekhlogamute on the Kusko-kwim River and re-named the place Bethel.
** a school was established at Saint Michael by the Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church and maintained during the winter of 1886-87. In the summer of 1887, it was moved to Anvik on the Yukon River;
** the Evangelical Mission Union of Sweden established a school and mission at Unalakleet;
** a public school was opened at Klawock;
** a public day school was opened at Kodiak in a cooper shop in the absence of any other suitable building;
** a contract was entered into between the Bureau of Education and the Moravian Church to open a school for Natives at Fort Alexander on the Nushagak River, Bristol Bay. The place was named Carmel;
** a school for Native children opened at Afognak under great difficulties because no interpreter was available.
** the Secretary of the Interior created a Territorial Board of Education to supervise all schools in Alaska. The board consisted of the governor, the general agent for education in Alaska, and the United States District Judge for Alaska;
** a second public school opened in Juneau, for Natives. Most of the pupils in regular attendance were from the Presbyterian mission;
** Father William Duncan and a large group of Tsimshian Indians moved form British Columbia to Annette Island in Alaska and established the town of Metlakatla;
** a man and wife teacher team was landed at Unga during the summer to open a school. There were 174 children in the village;
** in October the people of Unga “erected and paid for a neat and substantial school building measuring 20 by 24 feet. This is the first community in Alaska to erect its own public school building.”
** Governor A.P. Swineford reported 13 public schools in operation in Alaska, primarily in Native villages. These were in addition to the many church-supported schools;
** a school was opened at the new community of Metlakatla early in the year with Fr. William Duncan as teacher and an enrollment of 170;
** the Swedish Evangelical Mission Union established a mission and school at Yakutat.
** a school for Natives opened at Douglas with an enrollment of 92. A school for whites followed it in February 1890.
** Jesse Lee Memorial Home was opened at Unalaska by the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church. It was both a boarding and a day school;
** Miss Francis Willard graduated in June at a young ladies seminary at Elizabeth, NJ, and returned to Alaska as an assistant teacher. She is believed to be the first Native to return from school in the states as a teacher;
** At Cape Prince of Wales the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Church esta-blished a mission station and a school which is operated under government contract;
** At Point Hope the Protestant Episcopal Church established a school which is operated under government contract;
** Presbyterian Board of Home Missions established a mission and school at Barrow.
** St. James Mission was established at Fort Adams, at the mouth of the Tanana River, by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church;
** the first Siberian reindeer, purchased with private funds raised by Sheldon Jackson, were landed from the Bear on Unalaska Island Sept. 21. They all starved to death because of lack of reindeer moss.
** second load of Siberian reindeer brought by the Bear was landed at Port Clarence where the Teller Reindeer station was established. These deer survived.
** Congress made its first appro-priation of $6,000 for the importation and care of reindeer in Alaska;
** the Women’s American Baptist Home Missionary Society established an orphanage and school near Kodiak on Woody Island.
** a school was established at the new village of Saxman with an enrollment of thirty-one.
Yukon Presbytery Work Begins
It wasn’t until the 1890s that the Presbyterian missionaries began to look beyond southeast Alaska to the far north -- back up towards St. Lawrence Island where Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov first spotted the country in 1728 and where it is very possible that the people of the country first spotted Bering and Chirikov.
Christian work on St. Lawrence Island “officially” began in 1887 when the Episcopal Church of America first built a mission church at a site called Chibuchack or Sivuqaq, Sevuokok, which later was renamed Gambell. The Episcopals were unable to convince anyone to take up this isolated missionary post. The Presbyterian Board of National Missions, through the efforts of Sheldon Jackson, acquired the mission building in 1890 and set about recruiting a missionary for the post.
The Rev. Vene Gambell and his wife Nellie proceeded to St. Lawrence Island under the auspices of the aforementioned education effort of the federal government and Sheldon Jackson. While his appointment was that of teacher, Gambell had to proffer a testimonial of faith as well before qualifying for selection by the Rev. Jackson.
Frederick Thornton was the first missionary to Cape Prince of Wales, north of Nome on the Seward Peninsula. He was buried there in 1893.
Leander Stevenson landed at Point Barrow in 1890. Four years later he obtained the lumber to build a school. Dr. and Mrs. Horatio
Marsh replaced Stevenson in 1897. It was during Dr. Marsh’s stay at Barrow that the caribou herds diminished and when 300 seamen became stranded in the village, food supplies ran low. Sheldon Jackson sent 400 reindeer from Teller. Dr. Marsh, once everyone was fed, took over the supervision of the remaining herd and trained local Eskimos to take care of them.
The discovery of gold "in the Klondike" was first announced in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on July 17, 1897. Not to lose any time, that same summer the Home Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. invited the Rev. S. Hall Young, a missionary in southeastern Alaska from 1878 to 1888 to head for Dawson to seek out the seekers of gold. His missionary work eventually took him to Nome, Fairbanks, Cordova, and points in between.
At that time, it was believed that the Klondike was in American territory, so the Rev. Young arrived in Dawson, the center of the region, in the autumn of 1897 to establish a Presbyterian Church. He also assisted in the establishment of a hospital in that community.
After learning that Dawson was in Canadian territory, Young turned over the work at Dawson to Canadian missionaries and left for Alaska. During the summer of 1898, he took a trip down the Yukon through Alaska visiting camps and towns as far as Rampart. Young spent the winter of 1898 and 1899 helping the Board raise funds to liquidate its heavy debt and to enlist interest in the work in Alaska. As a result of his labors, something more than $6,000 was raised for a special fund for Yukon work. Several men were commissioned to go at once to that distant field.
The General Assembly of 1899 was petitioned to authorize the erection of the Presbytery of Yukon to include the already established missions at Point Barrow, St. Lawrence Island and all northern Alaska. The Assembly granted the petition in session at Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 26, 1899. The new presbytery was to be a part of the Synod of Washington.
Five Presbyterian ministers were named as members of the new presbytery. They were:
the Rev. S Hall Young, DD.;
the Rev. James W. Kirk;
the Rev. M Egbert Koonce, Ph.D.,
the Rev. Horatio R. Marsh, M.D.; and
the Rev. Samuel R. Spriggs.
Only three of them could actually attend the first meeting of Yukon Presbytery July 26, 1899 at Eagle. They were the Revs. Young, Kirk, and Koonce. The others had not been notified of the meeting because of distance and absence of reliable communications.
Kirk stayed at Eagle. Marsh and Spriggs went to Barrow. Koonce went to Rampart. And Young headed for Nome. On his way, he met Sheldon Jackson at St. Michael making his annual tour of the schools.
Work continued. By 1920, almost all of the adults in Barrow were Christians. A new hospital was being built and Dr. and Mrs. Griest took charge of the new facility. Griest was not only a medical doctor, but also an ordained Presbyterian minister.
Names to remember from the 1920s and 1930s in the Arctic include the Rev. Dr. Henry W. Griest and his wife; Ann Bannon, RN, Emma Stauffer, RN, the Rev. Fred W. Klerekoper, Andrew Akootchook; Percy Ipalook, and Dr. and Mrs. Newhall, in charge of the Barrow mission from 1925-1929.
Presbyterian work in southcentral Alaska officially began in 1916 when the Rev. James L. McBride was transferred from the church at Cordova to organize a congregation in the new community of Anchorage. First Pres-byterian Church of Anchorage organized January 14, 1917 with 48 members.
When the federal government decided to colonize the Matanuska Susitna Valley with settlers from the upper midwest, the Rev. Bert Bingle was transferred from his post at the Cordova church, arriving at Palmer on May 6, 1935 -- five days before the colonists themselves. The church was officially organized in December 1935.
When construction on the Alaska Highway began in 1942, Bert Bingle began the Highway Ministry serving the men in the highway construction camps. In 1949, Bingle began the Railbelt Parish serving the areas along the Alaska Railroad and communities contingent to the railroad, including the coal mines in the Suntrana, Usibelli, and Lignite areas -- 300 miles.
The University Community Presbyterian Church was organized May 11, 1949 at the home of the Rev. and Mrs. Bingle at College, outside Fairbanks.
Presbytery Minutes Reflect Struggles
A collection of Presbytery Minutes from 1899 through 1950 was compiled by Mabel P. Bingle, wife of Bert, in honor of the 50th birthday of the Presbytery of Yukon. This project was later extended through 1974 in honor of the Yukon Presbytery’s 75th celebration. Within these pages, we have the record of the calling and installing, reassigning and dying of dozens of men -- and a few women -- called to the Ministry of God in Alaska. Chapels and ministries are established when communities flourish, and are traded and /or discontinued when the people and the work move on. Names appear and reappear through these pages, each individual a history of Alaska in and of him or herself.
I have attempted to extend this record even further through the review of presbytery minutes from 1974 through 1998. My record presented here is not as thorough as that of my predecessors, but is augmented by personal interviews, news articles, reports and personal letters.
What follows is an overview of highlights gleaned from these sources between 1920 and 1998.
A meeting of Presbytery was not held in 1920 because a quorum of ministers could not be gathered, but by the time Presbytery met the following year in Cordova, the Home Missions Committee could report that all churches in the presbytery had been supplied, except Barrow.
The mission work at Barrow was under the care of Mr. and Mrs. Brown. Mr. Brown was an elder of the Green Lake Church in Seattle, and was in charge of the erection of the new Barrow hospital. They were assisted by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Eide, residents of Point Barrow. No response had yet come to a call for a Christian physician to work in the new hospital although a nurse had volunteered.
Dr. and Mrs. H.W. Griest, who had only arrived at the village of Wales during the summer of 1920, were transferred to Barrow in 1921.
St. Lawrence Island had been without a missionary for some time. It was recommended this neglected field, comprising the last unevangelized area of the United States, be opened the following year although the financial cost would be great.
The ministers noted that the population was declining among the miners in the “urban” areas. It was a time to again stress work among the Native population.
In other 1921 action, the Yukon Presbytery went on record as being opposed to the election and ordination of women elders. This position obviously softened with time -- Elder Agnes Sherwood of Anchorage attended the 1939 meeting as a delegate.
Dr. S. Hall Young’s resignation as chairperson of the Committee on National Missions was accepted with regret at the Presbytery meeting at Nenana in 1925. He had moved to Seattle to reside with his daughter’s family, his wife having died in 1915.
At the 1925 Anchorage meeting it was reported that the Board of National Missions has appointed Dr. Newhall to the hospital at Barrow. Dr. Newhall, a Methodist layman, had labored many years at Unalaska.
In 1927, presbytery voted to investigate starting work at Kenai, Matanuska Valley, Curry, Chitina, Copper Center, Tonsina, Cordova, and LaTouche.
In the “urban areas”, we read of the Rev. John E. Youel who served the church at Fairbanks for 12 years, resigning effective March 31, 1940, and of the Rev. Bert J. Bingle, the man who built churches, both spiritually and physically, throughout the territory.
The 1940s and 1950s
Upon his resignation from the pastorate in Fairbanks in 1940, the Rev. Mr. Youel was appointed moderator of all vacant churches in the presbytery. Among other things, Presbytery authorized him to organize a church or churches on St. Lawrence Island. The opportunity was brought about by the missionary labors of Miss Ann Bannon who had been on the Island for several years.
On October 2, 1940, a letter was received from Rev. Youel, now General Missionary for Alaska, stating he had organized two churches on St. Lawrence Island. Gambell Presbyterian Church was organized August 30, 1940 with 140 charter members, five elders, three deacons, and three trustees. Miss Bannon transferred her membership to this church, becoming a charter member and ruling elder.
Savoonga Presbyterian Church was organized September 4, 1940, with 98 charter members, three elders, three deacons, and three trustees. Between the two churches, Rev. Youel baptized 391 persons; 211 at Gambell and 180 at Savoonga.
In 1941, Youel was at Wales and the Rev. Klerekoper was at Barrow.
Commissioners elected to General Assembly in 1941 were Rev. B.J. Bingle, principal delegate; Rev. Youel, alternate; Miss Emma Stauffer, elder principal; and A.J. Swanson, alternate elder.
Presbytery endorsed two legislative bills, the first concerning the alcohol problem and the second providing inheritance rights for illegitimate children.
The Rev. Bingle left the pastorate at the United Protestant Church in Palmer October 1, 1941 to become a Sunday School Missionary of the Presbyterian National Board, stationed in the vicinity of Fairbanks.
In 1943, the Rev. Griest requested and was granted dismissal to the Logansport Presbytery, Synod of Indiana. The Rev. B.J. Bingle was recognized by Presbytery as moderator of the Gambell and Savoonga churches for the past year (1942), and the session of First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage requested the installation of Rev. Rolland R. Armstrong as its pastor January 22, 1943.
In 1944, the Rev. J. Earl Jackman, St. Clairsville Presbytery, Ohio, was enrolled as a corresponding member of Presbytery for the first time. This would begin an era of church work in Alaska remembered as fondly as that of Sheldon Jackson 60 years earlier.
The Rev. and Mrs. Elmer E. Parker were received October 5, 1944 and assigned to St. Lawrence Island.
In 1945, Miss Anna Martin resigned at Savoonga and Miss Alice Green was appointed to take her place. The Rev. Percy Ipalook transferred to Wales from Gambell; the Rev. and Mrs. Elmer Parker began work in Gambell; the Rev. Fred Klerekoper resigned from the Barrow station; and Miss Emma Stauffer left Wales to take work in the Alaska Presbytery.
Candidate for the ministry Fred Koschmann was studying at Dubuque Seminary.
In January 1947, Mrs. U.S. Hanshew and Mrs. M.A. Rooney requested approval to organize the Yukon Presbyterial Society. Presbytery voted unanimously to approve the organization.
Roy Ahmaogak was ordained during the June 30, 1947 meeting held at Point Barrow. Fred Koschmann was ordained September 10, 1947 and began serving Faith Presbyterian, Anchorage.
The 1950s opened with the calling of Rev. Koschmann to First Presbyterian, Fairbanks. He was installed January 11, 1950.
The Rev. R.R. Armstrong left the ministry at First Presbyterian, Anchorage, and on December 8, 1950 was appointed to the office of Field Representative for the Board of National Missions for Alaska, with offices in Juneau. Frank J. Walkup of Minneapolis was called to the Anchorage First pulpit.
In 1950, Rev. Andrew Akootchook was serving Barter Island; the Rev. Roy Ahmaogak, Wainwright; Elmer Parker, Gambell; and Alice Green, Savoonga. The Rev. Percy Ipalook was serving Wales; the Rev. Sam Lee, was in Barrow.
The 1950s could not come to a close without mentioning that, in 1958, the Presbytery unanimously adopted a resolution in support of Statehood for Alaska.
The 1960s and 1970s
The Rev. Hal Banks and family arrived in 1960 to begin work with the Nunaka Valley church effort in Anchorage -- later to become Immanuel Presbyterian. The early 1960s progressed with the usual work of church buildings and finance, committee work, the dismissing and calling of pastors.
Mrs. Mabel Bingle was appointed historian for the Presbytery in 1962 and asked to continue her work on a scrapbook for the Presbytery. Such archivist/packrats as Norma Hoyt and Ellen Rohwer, as well as this writer, the Rev. Dianne O’Connell, followed her.
Miss Mary Jane Hargrave was taken under care of presbytery in 1963 as a candidate for the office of Commissioned Church Worker. Today, 1998, Miss Hargrave (now Mrs. Frank Landstrom) is stated clerk for the Presbytery of Yukon.
The Kaktovik United Presbyterian Church of Barter Island was organized on February 27, 1966 with 45 charter members -- all 45 joining by transfer of letter from Utkeagvik United Presbyterian Church of Barrow.
Presbytery endorsed the call of the Rev. Richard Madden to the pastorate of the United Protestant Church, Palmer, also in 1967.
A report of damage in the 1967 Fairbanks Flood was made -- early estimates were $80,000 at University Church; $110,000 at First Church, and several thousand at Hospitality House.
In 1968, Presbytery concurred with the call of the Rev. Samuel Simmonds as pastor of the Utkeagvik Presbyterian Church, Barrow. Simmonds later left Barrow in 1972 to serve the Wainwright church.
In 1973, Rex Okakok was recognized as commissioned lay preacher by the presbytery for a local commission to the First United Presbyterian Church, Fairbanks.
It was during the presbytery’s 75th Anniversary Celebration pro ra nata meeting at Eagle, July 16, 1974, that the Presbytery approved the request of Anaktuvuk Pass, Kaktovik, Wainwright, and Barrow to organize into a larger parish to be named the Ahmaogak Memorial Parish.
The 1960s and 1970s were also a time of major social change, both nationally and within Alaska itself. Attitudes were changing towards alcohol, dancing, marriage and divorce in the Yukon Presbytery. Presbyterians were involved in civil rights, the Native Land Claims movement, the formation and funding of the North Slope Borough. For many, the ordination of women was one thing, the ordination of gay and lesbian Christians was something entirely different.
The gay and lesbian issue (now framed as “fidelity and chastity”), plus non-traditional reflections on the nature of God in the Re-imagining Conference of 1993, provides the grist for theological discussion throughout the 1990s.
The 1980s and 1990s
The most recent quarter century of Presbyterian work in the Yukon is preserved through individual church histories and observations on various church issues. These pages include interviews with some of the people who were the backbone of the Presbytery during these years -- Gordon Corbett, Neil Munro, and Dave Dobler, to mention three. But also leaders like Alice Green, Mable Rasmussen, Della Waghiyi, Jessie DeVries, Nick Brewer, Bill Wartes, and Dick Madden. Some were administrators, some were ministers, some were “conservative”, some were “liberal”, others were lay leaders, all were people of God.
As we enter the next 100 years of our history, we will continue to struggle with the social and theological issues of our time. We are a church, we are a people, “reformed and always re-forming”. Each one of us is committed to spreading the Gospel of the Love of Jesus Christ in all that we say and in all that we do – but sometimes we get confused as to just how best to proceed.
May the Lord continue to bless us in our efforts.