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Essay

Mission Fest

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It’s a bit of an embarrassment really, or so I discovered. I’d never heard of the monument until it showed up on a local on-line history page, where I read the short summary.

“On Prospect Hill is a monument erected in memory of three pioneer missionaries. These men, Rev. Jackson, Cleveland and Eliot, were on their way to the west to teach Christianity. All of the members of the Sioux City settlement were asked to attend a prayer meeting on this hill. The monument was built later to commemorate this event.”

It’s a mid-sized monument constructed in what was once a glorious place but now sits in a neighborhood that long ago lost its optimism. The year was 1869, the Civil War was over, and the great western movement was well underway. I hunted the monument down because it seemed fascinating, memorializing prayer and missions, oddly enough, topics that don’t light many fires these days. Well, prayer maybe? –but missions? If you want to be woke, don’t hum “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” any time soon. The whole concept of Native American missions is on ground as naked as the Great American Desert.

Remarkably, the monument is a city thing and therefore rather unseemly in its wanton religious dedication:

“And how’d that work out for ya’?” the crank in me wondered.

The monument is formidable but obscure, prominent but hidden, memorable, but somehow forgettable. It feels, honestly, like much ado about very little. Most of Sioux City, Iowa has no idea it’s up there at a place that once made it seem kingly, aboard a big fist of a bluff over the Missouri River and I-29. I may have been the sole visitor all day, despite the perfect sunshine. 

When I came down off the bluff, I felt like crying, afflicted by the species of melancholia that rises from lost innocence. I remember Mission Fests–cold pop in a cow tank, hamburgers and brats, kid games out on the lawn, some honored husband and wife, our own missionaries, with wild slides of exotic people. I couldn’t help but remember a time when I too could believe that “to win the west for Christ” seemed well within reach. “Far and Near the Fields are Teeming/With the waves of ripened grain”–those lyrics and more will always be with me.

So I wondered about these preachers and their stories. I’m retired. I’ve got time. My desk is full of rabbit holes.

In 1869, Sioux City, Iowa, wanted to sell itself the doorstep to a wild and dangerous frontier, the far edge of civilization. When those devout Presbyterians preachers went to their knees up there, they looked out at mostly treeless prairie so wide and far the horizon seemed a mirage.

History says there was no crowd that evening, that, in truth, it was only the three of them, three young guns, young preachers, each of them in 1869 Sioux City for a church meeting. One history claims that on their way to the summit the three of them were stunned to see the body of a man hanging from a lamp post. Given time and place, what the west looked like from Prospect Hill might well have seemed a vast wilderness of sin, in every which way. How formidable their mission must have looked to them, how hard they must have prayed.

Twenty-three years later, in 1892, one of those Prospect Hill prayer warriors, in Alaska by then, successfully purchased domesticated reindeer from Siberians, and then did something no one thought possible when bringing dozens, eventually hundreds, across perilous waters in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska on a ship named Bear, and into the land of Inuit and Aleut, First Nations who were dying, literally, at the hands of the white colonizers’ bounty of sin, from goods and ills those white men so joyously sold the aboriginals way up north.

The more I read, the more I liked this Rev. Sheldon Jackson, the stumpy spitfire who left Sioux City, IA and, just as he promised, went west, eventually all the way to Alaska. To say he saved the Inuit and the Aleut may be a bit grandiose, but when he brought them those domesticated reindeer, he kept them from the dire fate that other white men seemed more than willing to let happen.

The Rev. Sheldon Jackson’s story is all about his roughing out churches throughout the gigantic west, sometimes as many as one a day, gathering what few believers he could from tough, lawless communities. One of the first, I read, was in a little settlement that has become Cheyenne, WY. I couldn’t help myself, so I went to the website of First Presbyterian Church, Cheyenne, and read its history, and there he is, the Rev. Sheldon Jackson, one of the three men on their knees on Prospect Hill long before there was a monument. Made my heart swell, I’m telling you, like fishing a cream soda out of cold water.

Seriously, just feast your eyes on these old photographs from Princeton, where Jackson’s papers reside. If you’re at all like me, you can’t help but love ’em.

So the story goes like this: I visited this oddball monument high up on Prospect Hill, and left hurt somehow, in the soul, hurt maybe by nothing more than my own crankiness. But I did a little reading, looked at some great old pictures, and got over it, thanks to domesticated reindeer and a determined missionary named Jackson, the guy in the hat and vest, above, one of the men whose name is etched on that oddball monument.

That’s the story here, the revelation–my own little Mission Fest.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

13 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Yup, like that.

  • mstair says:

    “So the story goes like this: I visited this oddball monument high up on Prospect Hill, and left hurt somehow, in the soul, hurt maybe by nothing more than my own crankiness. ”

    My question … following my history of how “monuments” get made … is, who commissioned and paid for this thing?

    Found this: “In 1908 a group of Presbyterians met in prayer at the top of the hill and decided to erect a monument in memory of the 1869 meeting of ministers. In 1923 the Presbyterian Synod of Iowa erected a granite monument.”

    1869 > 1923 … that’s a long time to keep a prayer-meeting memory alive… must be quite a view…

  • Joel Kok says:

    Many thanks for your research and insight here, Jim. It helps me as I prepare to preach on Pentecost.

  • Katy Sundararajan says:

    Our crankiness can mislead us sometimes, and leave us jaded. So glad for the research you delved into that told a much bigger story than a monument possibly could. Like this one, learning the old stories can be such a gift.

    • James Schaap says:

      I greatly enjoy your work and your appreciation, Katy. Let me just assure you that, at least so far, I’ve not found that being retired stands in the way of learning greatly wonderful new things.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    This captures so many of the tensions about missionary work. The arrogance of thinking that the Native Americans needed to be converted. The genuine service and care that was sometimes offered them. The sometime intentional and sometimes inadvertent harm done via disease, etc. I appreciate the thoughtful personal reflections on these difficult questions.

    • James Schaap says:

      My word, they are difficult questions. Thanks.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Lynn and James. I am reading Fifty Years in Foreign Fields, which is the history of the RCA Women’s Board of Foreign Missions. All the Western Imperialist Triumphalist assumptions, yes, but they taught girls to read, to unbind their feet, to be able to make their own small incomes, to, as they report, “think for themselves,” (My God!), and to protect their health in childbirth, without regard for their conversions, and all often against the resistance of the General Synod’s Board. With heroic unflagging self-giving love on the part of the missionaries. It’s a complex and wonderful and occasionally shameful story.

  • Thanks for this story, one of potentially hundreds like it that are never told and not remembered, because most of the perpetrators of Gospel kindness for the abused ethnic minorities were ordinary powerless people who were themselves a small minority in the midst of the powerful racist overlords whose public sins color the shameful history of 19th century America. I hope someone can keep digging out these stories that in a small way vindicate those who were true followers of the Servant King and who paddled against the currents at great personal sacrifice.

    • James Schaap says:

      I’d love to do the kind of book you’re talking about, and I know of at least a half-dozen missionaries, some forgotten, some not, who fit the pattern. I’m guessing most publishers would say they can’t sell that book. At least one of the currents such an endeavor would have to paddle against is the truth of what you describe as “the shameful history of 19th century America.” The other is that any mission whatsoever created cultural holocaust. There’s not much quiet water between those swirling eddies. But I agree with you totally.

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