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"When I was with the Eskimo in 1907, they had not yet been Christianized, when we returned in July, 1908, we found every man, woman, and child converted."

July 1, 1908


My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 3

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Biblical Fundamentalism

But though we were all in a hurry to get to Herschel Island, we had to remain at Shingle Point several days on account of strong head winds. Then one day when I awoke in the morning I could see by the way in which the wind bulged in the east side of my tent that the hoped - for fair wind had come at last. I lost no time in awakening my companions, but before we had breakfast prepared, a number of the other Eskimo came to see us and asked whether we intended starting for Herschel Island that day. My answer was that of course we did, at which they seemed very well pleased and returned to their respective camps, struck their tents and got everything ready for the start. When breakfast was over I said to my Eskimo that we would start now, but they replied that they could not be the first to start, but would be glad to start if some other boat led off. They explained to me then that they were no longer heathen, as they had been two years ago when I was among them ; that they now knew God's commandments and were aware of the penalties which awaited the Sabbath-breaker. I asked them what difference it would make who started first. The reply was that God punished those who took the lead in evil-doing, and if some one else was willing to take the lead and risk the punishment, they were perfectly willing to take advantage of the fair wind and sail along behind. Dr. Anderson and I at once suggested that we could sail the first boat, and our Eskimo could come in the second ; but they said that a subterfuge of that sort would avail nothing, that they were members of my party, and the punishment would fall on the party as a whole. They suggested , however, that I go around to the tents of the other Eskimo and see if I could not induce some of them to start out so that we could follow. I accepted this suggestion , but in tent after tent I got everywhere the same answer : “We are no longer heathen; we know the punishment that awaits the Sabbath-breaker. We were hoping that you would sail first, but as for us, none of us are willing to take the responsibility.” And so we sat there all day through a fair wind, all of us eagerly willing to go, but all of us unwilling to lead off in any “evil-doing.” Finally, towards sundown, a whale boat was seen coming from the east . It turned out to be the boat of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, under command of Sergeant Selig . We signaled to them. I told Sergeant Selig our predicament, and found, as I expected , that he was willing to help us out by stopping to eat a meal with us, and thus becoming one of our party, and then leading off in such a way that it became evident he took all responsibility upon himself and his boat. As soon as this fact was made known, there was great rejoicing in camp. Every tent was quickly struck, and all the boats loaded, and when Sergeant Selig set sail we all followed him. But it was now near evening, and the wind fell with the sun. We had sat through a fair wind that could easily have taken us to Herschel Island, and now instead we had to row a large part of the way and finally, toward morning, to tack against head winds. Monday morning we passed King Point, where Amundsen wintered 1905–1906, and photographed the ruins of his house which the sea has since completely swept away, and the grass grown grave of 'Wiik, the magnetician whose painstaking work brought so much credit to Amundsen's expedition. We reached Herschel Island at noon on Wednesday, to find, however, that the whaling ships had not yet arrived . 

This was our first conflict with Christianity, and we had come off second best, as many others have done who have set themselves against the teachings of religion. The Eskimo had of course, when I was with them two years before, a religion, but it had not been Christianity. One frequently hears the remark that no people in the world have yet been found who are so low that they do not have a religion. This is absolutely true, but the inference one is likely to draw is misleading. It is not only true that no people are so low that they do not have a religion, but it is equally true that the lower you go in the scale of human culture the more religion you find, and that races on the intellectual level of the Eskimo have so much religion that a man scarcely turns his hand over without the act having a religious significance. Every event in life, every possible circumstance, has its appropriate religious formula . When I was with the Eskimo in 1907, they had not yet been Christianized, although Mr. Whittaker and other missionaries of the Church of England had been working among them for the better part of fifteen years. It was then said by Eskimo and whites alike that there were perhaps half a dozen Alaskan Eskimo living in the Mackenzie district who had been converted, besides one Mackenzie Eskimo who was married to an Alaskan Christian woman. That was the condition when I left the Mackenzie in September, 1907. When we returned in July, 1908, we found every man, woman, and child converted. 

This seems a rather sudden thing, especially as the missionaries had had so little influence for the many years preceding. But it appears that the spread of Christianity among the Eskimo was as the spread of a habit or a fashion, much indeed as it was in certain of the northern European countries, the history of which is well known to us. In a general way it seems true that Christianity first got its foothold in Kotzebue Sound, Alaska, due largely, I have been told, to the work of the Moravian Mission. From there the fashion seems to have spread both northward along the coast to Point Hope and northeastward up the Kuvuk and Noatak rivers, thence across the Arctic Mountains and down the Colville to the coast. Christianity, then, came to the Eskimo of Point Barrow from two sides; they heard of it from the Point Hope Eskimo to the west and from the Colville Eskimo to the east, and they, although mis sionaries had been laboring among them for many years, seem to have been suddenly converted. Apparently they felt this way about it: if it is good enough for the Point Hope people and the Colville people, it ought to be good enough for us. And when in the winter of 1907–1908, the Mackenzie River Eskimo heard that all of the people to the westward had accepted the faith, they seem to have felt that it was about time for them to do so too, and they were converted in a body.