“As [Sheldon Jackson] spent his own time and strength, he inspired many others to spend theirs, that the Church might be extended and the Gospel preached in far places. That was how he understood the Lord’s command…. Every age has its own frontiers, its own edge of the unknown and of the unconquered, and it needs those who will go before to prepare the way. In our day as in his, the Church must be a moving Church, an exploring Church, a pioneering Church, a missionary Church.” —Hermann N. Morse, former Executive Vice President of the Presbyterian Board of National Missions and Moderator of the 1952 General Assembly
Sheldon Jackson was born in New York State in 1834, and grew up with the conviction that he was born to be a preacher and a missionary. He graduated from Princeton Seminary in 1858, and was ordained and married within one week. Jackson offered himself to the Board of Foreign Missions for service abroad, but was rejected because of poor health. He subsequently entered upon a missionary career in this country that made serious demands upon his physical health during his fifty years of service. Jackson’s missionary work began in western Wisconsin and southern Minnesota; he then moved to Nebraska, Iowa, the Rockies, and much of the Western Frontier, where he founded more than 100 Presbyterian churches and schools. During his lifetime, it is estimated that he traveled nearly a million miles by foot, stages, reindeer sledges, ox-carts, and canoe. Jackson’s work was challenging and often dangerous, and he read his own obituary in the newspaper three times.
Jackson began his missionary work in Alaska in 1877. With the native population dispersed over a vast territory, the settlements in western Alaska “constituted the most isolated and relatively inaccessible mission stations in the world” at that time. Jackson saw the importance of using political means to improve life for Alaskans, and he lobbied politicians to pass the Organic Act of 1884, which provided federal aid for education. In 1878, the Presbyterian Church founded Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, the first institution of higher learning in Alaska. Jackson was instrumental in founding many other schools in the region, and he later became the First General Agent of Education in Alaska in 1885. As part of an effort to bolster the livelihood of the native Alaskan population, he imported nearly 1300 reindeer from Siberia, which became a valuable source of food, clothing, and other necessities. Jackson made his last voyage to Alaska in 1902, after which his impaired health confined him to office work for the remainder of his life, until his death in 1909.