A Letter to President McKinley

Bishop Nicholas (Ziorov)

Bishop Nicholas (Ziorov)

In my latest American Orthodox History podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, I spoke with Eric Peterson about Alaskan Orthodoxy in the period following the 1867 sale of Alaska by Russia to the United States. This was a tragic period, and for decades, a Presbyterian missionary named Rev. Sheldon Jackson ruled Alaska with an iron fist. He opposed anything native — languages, clothing, customs, and Orthodox Christianity. In his view, “Americanization” (which implied a conversion to Protestantism) was the only way for the “savage” Alaskan natives to become “civilized.”

 In 1899, Bishop Nicholas (Ziorov), the outgoing head of the Russian Mission in America (who had just been replaced by St Tikhon), wrote a letter to U.S. President William McKinley, expressing his concerns over abuses in Alaska. He singled out Jackson, “Alaska’s irremovable guardian.” That letter was reprinted in newspapers across America, including the Alaska Mining Record (January 18, 1899). Here is a  transcript:

Alaska stands in need of radical reform in all directions. A limit must be set to the abuses of various companies, more especially of the Alaska Commercial Company, which for over thirty years, has had the uncontrolled management of affairs and has reduced the country’s hunting and fishing resources to absolute exhaustion, and the population to beggary and semi-starvation. A limit must be set to the abuses of officials who, as shown by the experience of many years, are sent there without any discrimination and exclusively on the recommendation of Alaska’s irremovable guardian, Sheldon Jackson. And, lastly, Alaska must be delivered from that man. By his sectarian propaganda he has introduced dissension, enmity and iniquity where those evils did not before exist. It was the Orthodox Greek Church which brought the light of truth to that country; why, then, try to drive her out of it by every means lawful or unlawful?

In the name of humanity and justice, and freedom – of those very blessings for the sake of which you declared war against Spain – I make these requests. Will you be acting consistently if, while waging war for the liberty of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines for their human rights, you ignore all those things at home, in part of your own country which has been waiting thirty years for the blessings promised to it? And are not we Russians fully entitled to demand of you for Alaska that for which you have taken up arms against Spain?

The only thing that may possibly be brought up against us is that we practice the true faith, and have not yet divested ourselves of our sympathies for Russia, the land of our own faith. But is that really sufficient ground for blame and persecution? There is no danger whatever in that to American rule in Alaska, as some persons would probably have you believe, if only for the reason that our church never meddles with politics and our clergy never busied itself at home or abroad with intrigues.

Rev. Sheldon Jackson

Rev. Sheldon Jackson

Jackson’s response was swift. Within days, he fired back,

The greatest enemies to public schools in Alaska are the priests of the Greek Church. They have even imprisoned boys to keep them out of the schools. They do not want their children to learn English for fear that they may leave the Greek congregation. However, the cause of the Greek priests in Alaska is dying. They are not citizens, but are sustained by the Russian government, and have been required to renew their oaths of allegiance every time there has been a change in Russian authority. For the support of the Greek Church in the territory the Russian government pays annually the sum of $60,000. Their work is not progressing, and my opinion is that twenty-five years hence will see the end of the Greek Church in Alaska.

[Excerpt taken from the New York Evangelist, January 19, 1899.]

Needless to say, despite the strenuous efforts of the U.S. government and most of the country’s major Protestant groups, Jackson’s prediction was proven false.

3 Replies to “A Letter to President McKinley”

  1. Our priest went up to Alaska a year or so ago, and came back with a story about this. Seems the military (Alaska was a military district at the time) divided the territory up and gave a piece to each major Protestant group.

    The Lutherans hit on the idea of importing Lapps and reindeer to their region: the Lapps would intermarry and make good Lutherans out of the Eskimos, and the reindeer would provide a livelihood.

    Well, the Lapps did intermarry, but their Orthodox wives converted them. The reindeer went chasing after a herd of caribou, and were never seen again. What’s left of this experiment is a lot of Orthodox parishes filled with Eskimos with Nordic surnames.

  2. Btw, our Priest saw in Sitka a statue to Jackson, with the inscription “First Christian Missionary to Alaska.” Nearly a century too late for that.

    St. Herman of Alaska, pray for us!

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