By the early 1870s, the young General Conference Mennonite Church was earnestly desiring to begin its own mission program. Since its creation in 1860, it had financially supported the Dutch Mennonites’ efforts in Indonesia and had started the Wadsworth (Ohio) Institute to train workers. Now the denomination was ready to go out on its own.
Except that doors of opportunity kept slamming shut.
First, hopes for a joint mission with the Dutch in Indonesia were dashed when the two groups couldn’t agree on the specifics of a cooperative relationship. Then the chance to work among Native Americans in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) vanished when the chosen mission worker, Samuel S. Haury, fell ill for three months. By the time he recovered, Quaker missionaries had moved in.
The General Conference Mennonite Church then turned its eyes to the north. Might Alaska be opened to them?
The United States had purchased the territory from Russia in 1867. Eleven years later, the General Conference Mennonite Church appointed Haury to investigate the outreach possibilities there. He was a Wadsworth graduate and had studied theology in Germany before being ordained for mission work in 1875. Haury recruited a companion, J.B. Baer (both lived at Summerfield, Ill.), to accompany him to Alaska, and they departed in March 1879 on what would be a seven-month adventure.
Haury and Baer’s first Alaskan stop was Fort Wrangell on the southern tip of the territory’s panhandle. There they found an overworked Presbyterian missionary among the indigenous population who convinced Baer to remain for a month and teach in the mission school.
Haury proceeded alone to Sitka, where he learned that another Presbyterian had been stationed. But he had left the previous fall, and it was unclear whether another would take his place. While Haury waited to find out the Presbyterians’ plans and for Baer to arrive from Fort Wrangell, he taught school and held worship services for Native people.
Haury determined Sitka was a great location for mission work. But by the time Baer arrived, he had learned that the Presbyterians were sending another missionary to Sitka. Not wanting to intrude, the two Mennonites continued their explorations elsewhere.
They rejected a location north of Sitka that was only accessible by canoe and instead headed west by ship across the Gulf of Alaska to the Aleutian Islands. There they stayed with a white settler by the name of Stauff, remaining there for two months because ships stopped so infrequently. But Haury and Baer did no outreach among the Native population because they didn’t know the language and because the Russian Orthodox were already present.
Tired of waiting for a ship to take them elsewhere, Haury and Baer embarked on a daring venture. They, Stauff and two Natives took Stauff’s 28-foot sailboat 200 miles northeast to Cook Inlet to investigate the possibilities there. They found a substantial number of Native people in the area. But most of them came from the interior to catch their year’s supply of fish before heading home for the winter. The permanent population wasn’t large enough to warrant mission work. Haury, Baer and company set off for the Aleutians again after several days.
The return trip was the most perilous of the Mennonites’ Alaskan adventure. Stauff stopped for coal and overloaded the boat, which sprung a leak. Then they ran into a severe storm, which required the crew to spend hours bailing water out of the craft. They survived the storm and returned safely.
But they were again stuck on the islands, this time for more than six weeks until a ship arrived. Haury and Baer bought passage and landed in San Francisco on Sept. 15. Traveling by train, it took another month to get home.
Haury and Baer’s grand adventure covered 9,000 miles in seven months but resulted in no mission field for the General Conference Mennonite Church. After their return, they heard from several parties in Sitka encouraging them to begin work there and intimating that the Presbyterians might be leaving. Haury queried the Presbyterians, who told him, no, they weren’t leaving and in fact were planning to increase their presence in Sitka.
While yet another door had closed, another one opened. The Quakers in Indian Territory had decided to focus their work on the Cheyenne, leaving the Arapaho as a mission field. The General Conference Mennonite Church jumped at the opportunity. Haury and his bride of six months, Susanna Hirschler Haury, moved to Indian Territory in May 1880 as the first missionaries sent by an American Mennonite church.
Alaska, which became a state in 1959, would receive periodic attention from Mennonites over the following years. Two Americans made a four-month evangelistic trip to Alaska in 1896. A Mennonite Church-affiliated mission was located in the village of Russian Mission from 1952 to 1961.
Today Alaska is home to three Mennonite congregations. Prince of Peace Mennonite Church in Anchorage is a member of Mennonite Church USA. Northern Lights Mennonite Church in Wasilla and Sterling Harbor Mennonite Church in Sterling are culturally conservative congregations.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind. He is working on a history of Woodlawn Amish Mennonite Church.