The Church in Alaska

In the 1940s and 1950s

 by R. Rolland Armstrong

 The following essay was written by the Rev. Armstrong in July of 1976 and sent to then associate synod executive Gordon Corbett. It was included in the papers donated to the Presbytery archives. In his cover letter to Corbett, Armstrong noted that he had written the piece at the request of Gladys Whitmore who was compiling a history of Sheldon Jackson College for its centennial in 1978. The article contains much information about church work in Alaska in general and the structure of our Presbyterian work, in particular. It seems fitting to begin this section with Rev. Armstrong’s observations.

The only self-supporting church in Alaska of the Presbyterian denomination in 1940 was the Northern Lights Presbyterian Church of Juneau. This statement reflects that while Alaska had boomed under the gold rush that Juneau was the only major city retaining a stable economy. 

This statement also indicates that Alaska Presbyterian missions was wholly supported, with minor exceptions, from the budget of General Assembly and administered through the Department of Work in Alaska and Sunday School Missions. The work of institutions came under the women’s work.

The administrative structure was one of appointment much like the Methodist system. A pastor was appointed for four years with stipulated months for vacation and a long leave at the end of the term. A missionary was granted funds to return the family to the states at a point closest to Seattle. The domicile of the parents of the missionary or his wife determined this.

In 1940 all travel into Alaska was by steamship. Once in the Territory there was the possibility of road travel from Valdez and rail from Seward. Within the Alaska land mass small feeder lines of bush pilots made connections with the backcountry.

Commercial aviation was in its infancy. The major pioneer was Pan American into southeastern Alaska and then into Fairbanks.

By early 1940 major military bases began to appear. Construction crews were bringing new people into Alaska. This was to be the migration that would spell the new Alaska.

Up until this time there had been little travel of the people from Interior Alaska to Southeastern except on the steamers. Few southeasterners ever got north because they traveled to Seattle. Alaska was comprised of pockets of people isolated from one another. 

The government was a trustee plan set up by the Federals. Dreams of statehood lay dormant except in the hearts of a few people. It would take until 1955 and 1956 to see a constitutional convention called to formulate a document and an appeal for admission into statehood. Gold and fishing interests largely dominated the Territorial government.

Educationally the Interior Department had control of all isolated schools under the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Territory would not have been able to fund the construction, maintenance and salaries of personnel in remote areas. School systems in larger communities were strong and did excellent jobs of providing education. High schools were limited to larger areas or boarding schools of government and parochial groups. 

The University of Alaska at College was the only college in this vast landmass. It was a struggling institution with not enough funds at times to pay salaries. It was a forgotten land grant college. It would take the years after the war to bring it into importance and significance. 

In 1940 the history of the church was rather simple. Ministers and priests of courage and determination had manned the Territory. They were isolated. They carried great impact among the people and became leaders. In the earlier days a “comity” agreement was arranged. It is thought to have originated during the era of Sheldon Jackson. The Roman Catholics and Episcopalians were to have freedom to minister without boundaries. The Methodists, Presbyterians, Church of the Covenant and Congregationalists pledged not to duplicate services to areas. With a map before them they decided that they had to divide and conquer for the Kingdom. 

With the migration of late 1930 and early 1940 to the construction sites, new people brought “new” churches. Soon the Lutherans expanded and the Southern Baptists built churches. The Church of God of Anderson, Indiana, established in Juneau and Anchorage prior to 1940, was swamped by the Pentecostals, Assemblies of God and others. The arrival of the Seventh Day Adventists and the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints is indicative of further proliferation on the Alaskan church scene. 

At first this growth was into the more populated areas but soon missionaries of these groups showed up in the villages. Confusion was very evident. The old pattern of “comity” was broken and remains broken today.

In the 1950s, it was conceived that an ecumenical instrument should be developed to give strength to the original comity group. The Alaska Association of Churches was formed. The first three presidents of the organization were Bishop William Gordon, the Rev. Fred McGinnis and the Rev. R. Rolland Armstrong. It was a meeting place on an annual basis for a review and study of Alaskan church progress.

Denominations began to think during this time of the administration of their projects. Presbyteries began to become stronger and decision making took place with recommendations that were heard in New York. Pastors began to be called by congregational action. Sessions and congregations took an active roll in their destiny. Fairbanks and then Anchorage became self-supporting and this trend grew as the economy expanded.

In the mid-fifties Haines House was closed. This historic mission enterprise for children felt the new pressures of change. It was thought that at one time the institution might minister to children with emotional disturbances but the cost of bringing a specialized staff together made its cost impossible. The location was also isolated from medical and social services.

Sheldon Jackson High School and Junior College were needing a wider base of recruitment. Students came in larger numbers from the Eskimo areas. Interior Indians sought out the school as an educational option. The Junior College was not widely known. In 1956 thirteen were registered in the college. It was so integrated in facilities and staff with the high school that it was difficult to bring students to the Sitka program.

Public schools began to flourish. New and elaborate structures indicated that more young people were staying in Alaska for high school. The luxury of these schools also began to make a marked contrast to Sheldon Jackson. In the 1950s, the school was still recovering from the war years. The war drained staff from classrooms and dormitories. Recovery was underway with new staff, increased maintenance of buildings and appropriations for some new facilities. The struggle to recruit went on and development of the college proceeded. It was apparent that the high school and college could not exist for long in the same facility. 

The Presbyterian General Assembly was saying to the old-line colleges that “educational excellence” was the hallmark of their colleges and universities. Sheldon Jackson was not part of this group but under National Missions. The school neither was advertised along with Presbyterian colleges nor granted recognition budget-wise to get the college underway. This would come in the years ahead. 

A recruiter found that the University of Alaska was having the same problems as Sheldon Jackson Junior College. They were considered the “agricultural school” up north. One would hear from counselors “Why go to southeastern Alaska to Sheldon Jackson. If our students are going to move out of here they might as well go ‘Outside.’”

The 1940s and 1950s were a time of building new churches and opening some new work. Reassessment went on in the village work of southeastern Alaska. The villages were in a decline and many were overpopulated by churches of various persuasions. The old leadership had died off and the new generation had not yet become old enough to lead. A period of consolidation and reassessment began in the early 1960s. The church retrenched as a growing budget crisis faced the denomination.

Sheldon Jackson was able to appeal and receive funds, build, recruit for the college and build a foundation for the future. Alaska needs Sheldon Jackson College. 

R. Rolland Armstrong

July 30, 1976

Roswell, New Mexico

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