Before the automobile or airplane, Sheldon Jackson managed to log nearly one million miles from 1858 to 1908, primarily west of the Mississippi, as he served his Presbyterian denomination and the United States. Along the way, the five-foot, four-inch missionary managed to get a few things done:

He organized the first Presbyterian churches in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Arizona, and Alaska (leaving 77,105 new communicants in his wake), and he started 53 schools in Alaska. He founded Westminster College in Salt Lake City in 1895, started two newspapers (the Rocky Mountain Presbyterian and Sitka's North Star), and organized an Alaska Society of Natural History and Ethnology in Sitka. Sheldon Jackson College (Presbyterian), also in Sitka, bears his name.

"I have never seen him idle for a moment," wrote fellow traveler Alice Palmer Henderson. "He never hurries but just persists." Even through setbacks—poor health, one arrest and two legal trials—he persisted. Sheldon Jackson ranks as perhaps the most remarkable and controversial American missionary in the last half of the nineteenth century.

Searching out the land

Jackson's whirlwind life began quietly on May 18, 1834, in Minaville, upstate New York. His parents were staunch Presbyterians. He graduated from Union College in 1855, and in 1857, while studying at Princeton Theological Seminary, he wrote, "It was to be [for] the mission service that I was dedicated in infant baptism."

After graduation, he married Mary Voorhees and immediately applied to the Presbyterian Foreign Mission Board to go overseas. The board turned him down, claiming he was not physically strong enough, and instead asked him to teach Choctaw boys in the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). After 12 months of ...

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