The Lords Church in Alaska (II)

Cecil Willis
Marion, Indiana

The Russians first discovered Alaska. As early as 1700 they knew that a "Great Land" existed to the east of them. They had found the bodies of strange animals with spears in them washed upon their shores. In 1725 Russia commissioned Captain Vitus Bering to explore this new land. Bering sailed through the strait that now bears his name, but because of the fog did not see the mainland. However, in 1741 he made a second voyage and sighted St. Elias Island (now Kayak Island). Along with the Russians came the Russian Orthodox Catholic religion. Vestiges of their early missionary efforts are yet to be seen in the Russian Orthodox religion still being practiced by some of the Indian tribes.

On my way back home, due to a long series of bizarre incidents, I was stranded in airports for about 40 hours. During this time I talked at length with an Episcopalian missionary. He told me that the religion among many of the Eskimo and Indian peoples was inherited. For example, I asked him some questions about Point Hope, an Eskimo village of about 386 people on the West Coast of Alaska. The Eskimo sister who is a member of the Anchorage church was reared in Point Hope. Two of her adult brothers attended the services in Anchorage. I therefore was interested in knowing more about Point Hope. This Episcopalian missionary was quite familiar with Point Hope, and knew the Eskimo preacher there. I asked him what percentage of the people in Point Hope were Episcopalian. He replied, "One Hundred per-cent." This shows that the religion among the native people is largely traditional, but tribal and family traditions have great influence over these people. The Episcopalian missionary verified that the Episcopalian hold over the Eskimo and Indian people was largely traditional, and not founded upon conviction resulting from personal study of the Word of God.

Gospel Beginnings

An encyclopedia which I have says: "The largest religious groups in the state include the Baptist, Christian Science, Church of Christ, Episcopal, Quaker, Methodist, Moravian, Mormon, Nazarene, Presbyterian, and Seventh Day Adventist. Most towns and cities also have Roman Catholic churches." In other words, they have the whole gamut of both protestant and catholic religions, as well as a few that are Christians. One statistical survey showed that one person out of 400 in Alaska was a member of the Church of Christ.

Prior to the opening of the great Alaska Highway in 1942, there were very few Christians in Alaska. The Alaska Highway is a 15200-mile stretch of road between Dawson Creek in Canada and Fairbanks, and was built in only eight months in 1942. Though I have never driven over this great Alcan Highway, I am told that it is something one wants to experience only once. There are still more than 1200 miles of this road, which are gravel. The Alaska Highway was built as a military supply route during, World War 11, at a cost of $140,000,000.00. Though finished in 1942, it was not opened to civilian traffic until 1947.

The first Christians met and worshipped after the New Testament order in Craig in Southeast Alaska just prior to 1935. This group later moved several hundred miles away to Ketchikan. In 1937 the church had its beginning in Seward, with the arrival of two families to homestead. During World War II, congregations were established in Anchorage (1944), Fairbanks (1944), and Juneau (1945). The church in Sitka began in 1949.

During the 1950s four congregations were begun or re-established. The church in Anchor Point dates back to 1951. During 1955 and 1959, the church in Kenai began meeting, and the Seward church was reactivated. During 1957 a second congregation was established in Anchorage in the Mt. View section. The older Anchorage church is located at 10th and "B." The church on Kodiak Island began in 1959. Churches were established in Delta Junction and Palmer in 1962, though I think the Palmer church no longer meets. Early in 1965 brethren in Fairbanks helped to start a congregation near the Eielson Air Force Base. At various times a few Christians have met at Adak, an Aleutian island with a Naval installation; at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, FAA stations, remote military sites and in several small villages.

As of about 1965, there were slightly over a dozen churches meeting in Alaska. Seven of these churches, in the larger cities, had full-time preachers working with them. These congregations had a combined membership of 600-700, while the population then was 272,000. These membership figures are not apt to have changed much, since the population now is only 303,000. In the next article, I want to deal with the beginning of the faithful 32nd and Rose congregation in Anchorage.

November 9, 1972