Project Canterbury

Snapshots from the North Pacific
Letters written by the Right Rev. Bishop Ridley (Late of Caledonia).

Edited by Alice J. Janvrin.

London: Church Missionary Society, 1904.

Chapter III. Storms Fulfilling His Word

"All storms His voice obey,
Cloud shadows pass away,
But Jesus comes to stay,
And peace bestow."

FROM 1881 to 1887 the community of Metlakatla was passing through a time of testing. The secession of Mr. Duncan from the Church Missionary Society's work caused an upheaval among the Indians, many of whom naturally sided with him. He and they withdrew finally northward to Alaska, in the territory of the United States. It is unnecessary to go into the details of the schism here. They were painful, and may well be forgotten, except as a matter of thanksgiving to Him Who "out of seeming evil, still educes good." One great good was that whereas until now the Indians had not had any part of the Scriptures in their own language, but had depended on the translational gifts and powers of their teachers, they now had in their hands the Gospels and parts of the Prayer-book in Zimshian and one or two other dialects. The Bishop wrote of this as follows, in January, 1886:--

"The spirit of prayer that sprang up amid our misfortunes has been steadily maintained. The persevering attention to the consecutive reading and exposition of the Gospels has edified the hearers in a marked manner. "We had some links," said one intelligent man, when the reading of St. Matthew was complete; "now we have the chain." Another remarked at the same time, "We saw through a narrow slit; now the door is wide open; we see the whole picture!" These are results to be expected from a larger knowledge of Holy Scripture. The translations into the vernacular will make it impossible to any false teachers to impose their errors on a people who can themselves read the words of the Great Teacher.

"Lack of knowledge has been their curse, and the translational and educational labours of the missionaries are lifting it off them. The four Gospels and most of the Prayer-book, including its extracts from the Epistles, and some hymns, are translated into Zimshian. The Gospels of St. Matthew and St. John, some hymns and prayers are put into Kwagutl, St. John's Gospel, and portions of the Prayer-book and some hymns into Nishka. Portions of the Prayer-book are being printed in Haida. These works indicate solid progress."

Some letters written to the Rev. Canon W. W. Gibbon, of Ripon, in December, 1887, and January, 1888, at the close of the seven years of trial, show the spirit of the little community of Christian Indians, when they had learned the lesson of that time of sifting, and also tell of more of those voyagings which are the necessary means through winch direct missionary work is carried out in British Columbia. From the nature of their office, the Bishops have even a larger share of these than the; other workers.

"Dec. 3lst, 18S7.

"We have now to try to forget our past miseries, and lose no time in restoring what is necessary for the advancement of Christ's cause. We stand in sore need of help. Those who have extended to us their sympathy will, I hope, make some sacrifice on our behalf.

"It is natural to put these our sorrows to the front, but it is not because we have no progress to record. God has been using His pruning-knife, and consequently the plant of His own planting has borne precious fruit. Our Christians have attained greater ripeness of character; their knowledge of the Scriptures has increased. This has placed sin more distinctly before them as transgression against God's law. Instead of mere shame at being found out, there is now the sorrow of true repentance. Since I first administered the Holy Communion I have not had to exclude any one. They have excluded themselves whenever there has been a quarrel. Conscience has been awakened. Conduct has been so excellent, compared with that of other Indians, that the Government Commissioners sent last November to report on the condition of these disturbed districts state that our Church Indians are in happy contrast with all others, and are a credit to their instructors. The magistrate and Indian agent lately appointed selected four Indians to be constables in different places, and, without exception, all are Churchmen.

"Quite recently, some hundreds of converts in communion with another denomination have revived one of the worst of heathen customs, so that there is a dread among their teachers that they will relapse into Heathenism. I am thankful that our Christians, as soon as they heard of it, held a council on the subject, and drew up a most kind letter of remonstrance to send to their backsliding fellow-Christians. In this way they are witnessing for Christ, just as they have been true to their earthly sovereign during seven years of alluring temptation to assert their independence of all State control.

"With many perils around them, their constancy and faithfulness is very remarkable, and, I am convinced, is a proof that God is in their midst, keeping them in this their hour of temptation, and will keep them."

"Jan. 3rd, 1888.

"Our Christmas and New Year's festivities are happily over. That part provided by the Indians has been more profuse and entertaining than ever, and the reason they assign is that they hope that I shall have such a pleasant recollection of it when next Christmas I shall be in England, that I shall wish myself back. It is pleasant to be loved and trusted.

"On Monday, the 26th ult., we distributed the garments kindly provided by the Belvidere and Park Chapel working parties, besides the residue of what Colonel Martin, that holy man, purchased for us. I can truly say I have no other like-minded. Tie always understood our position, was my best counsellor, and never ceased to write frequent wise and affectionate letters. He is enjoying the rich reward of his countless private and public services for the Lord he so greatly loved.

"Mrs. Ridley sent a share of those gifts to the other stations that she knew had no helpers. In this way many hundreds of Indians have had their poverty relieved, who would otherwise have shivered through the winter. We always feel thankful to be able to afford them little comforts.

"My Indian students you have heard of. I have ten now, and they are making good progress. Not long ago I was walking with one of the seniors, Peter Ilaldane, and was imparting to him some astronomical knowledge, when the subject of the tides was adverted to. He asked why it was high tide at the same time on opposite sides of the globe, if the moon, which could be only on one side, is the chief cause of tides. I gave him the usual answer, but the doubtful way in which he listened infected me with his doubts. I mention this to show you how thoughtful the lad was. Several of them are clever, and now have reached the stature of men. Not long hence I expect to see them the leading minds among their countrymen. Their general behaviour is most satisfactory. I encourage all kinds of athletic amusements, and they are capital sailors. In this capacity I sometimes find them useful. They, however, had a scare a little while ago. To save the expense of constantly using my little steamer, I bought a cutter-rigged yacht, twenty-four feet long by seven feet beam, to use when the wind should be favourable. One early morning at dawn, I started with five of my lads as crow, and had a light, but fair wind, to a small settlement about twenty miles distant, where I occasionally go to minister to the few white people. On our return we rowed a couple of miles, because it was calm, after which an adverse gale sprang on us. For miles our course lay between an extensive reef to seaward and a rocky coast, from which in. three places dangerous reefs stand out. While the daylight lasted our hearts were light, and we enjoyed the pace at which, under close-reefed canvas, we raced over the waves. But to beat to windward amongst those rocks in the darkness that became black, and to be drenched with the cold spray blown from the wave-crest, was a very different thing. Except close to the reef or in-shore, the water is from sixty to a hundred fathoms deep--to us unfathomable. I had no sounding line on board. But with a fishing-line and a large jack-knife at its end we sounded, and the moment we got soundings we put about on the other tack. I tried to buoy up the spirits of the lads, hut at last we all became as silent as fish, excepting when I gave orders to handle the sheets for going about on obtaining soundings. We often heard the breakers, but could see nothing in the darkness. It was past midnight when we felt our way into a sheltered cove to anchor for the night. There we thanked God, and huddled under the decked-in part forward, where on very hard boards we stretched ourselves in our drenched clothes, and indifferent to the roaring gale outside, we slept till daylight. As soon as the storm abated we again put to sea, and surprised our people by entering the harbour under full canvas and flying colours. Our arrival relieved many anxieties.

"Since then, when I was on my southern voyage, she was in a more perilous condition. She was at her moorings when an unusually fierce westerly gale snapped her chain, and away she danced across the inlet towards some rocks. Before she could strike, my lads, with great promptitude, put off in the long boat, and, boarding her, skilfully steered her round and under the lee of the rocks, that first threatened, but finally protected her. I bought her from two Norwegian sailors, who thought gold-mining would Jill their pockets. Losing what they had, they were glad to sell the craft that had conveyed them over 1,800 miles of sea. I gave them letters to the managers of salmon canneries, whore they earned £12 a mouth instead of the £4 in Europe. They found fishing more profitable than gold-mining. One became a total abstainer, and made me caretaker of his savings.

"All sorts and conditions of men drift towards me. A few days ago I sent out some of the lads to bring in pine and other branches to decorate the church and house. Instead of bringing the evergreens they came back with an American, a Norwegian, and their Chinese servant, whom they found in distress on an island, having been wrecked. The Chinaman has remained here; the others were helped on their way.

"A wealthy English sportsman dropped in one day. He had come here to add some specimens of bighorns to his trophies, and succeeded. Before going south to get buffalo, he imprudently sallied forth after prayer on Sunday to shoot. A heavy sea got up and swamped his canoe. He lost his firearms, and but for help would have lost his life: he was taken out of the water unconscious. The Indians thought God had taught him it was wrong to break the Sabbath when he had plenty to eat."

"Jan. 5th, 1888.

"You will be interested in reading of my last visit to Massett. The distance is a little over 100 miles. As the weather seemed settled, I preferred sailing to steaming, and also because it is much less expensive. The wind was light and shifty, so that at sundown we had arrived off a small harbour in an island only eighteen miles distant. There we put in, intending to sail again at daybreak next morning. But the weather changed, and it blew so heavily that we dragged our anchor, and there we were, windbound three days. As game abounded, food was plentiful. One of my crew told me why the harbour was called Lthazit (pronounced nearly like Cladzeet, the last syllable long drawn out). You will notice it is almost a hissing sound.

"Once upon a time the bloodthirsty Haidas of Queen Charlotte's Islands tried to surprise and murder or enslave a party of Zimshians, who were encamped here, gathering food of various kinds. It was night, still and starlight. Several families were sleeping in the huge but roughly-built hunting-lodge. Beyond the promontory that protected them the heavy ocean swell rolled past and broke occasionally on some outlying sunken rocks with a sullen roar. A solitary Zimshian was fishing at the harbour mouth, when he heard a hissing sound as if one man was signalling another. Snatching up a sharp mussel shell, he cut away his long fishing line, and with a few deft and silent strokes of his paddle took his canoe in shadow, close under the rocks, and so reached his sleeping relatives unobserved. He put his hand on the mouths of several sleepers, and told his fears into their waking ears. They in their turn waked the rest, and all glided into the dark forest, taking what movables they could with them. But one little old blind man was overlooked and forgotten. He was roused and alarmed In the war-whoops of the Haidas as they made a rush on the lodge, and knowing an empty cedar-box, in which grease was kept, stood in the corner, with great presence of mind he turned it over his head, crouched down, and awaited the worst. Furious that they were disappointed, the Haidas went round the lodge, smashing everything, and knocked in the bottom of the grease-box without discovering the old man. At last they moved off, and took to their canoes. After listening carefully, and thinking his enemies clean gone, he ventured out, and crept away to where he thought his friends were hidden. But he hoard most awful cries, which soon ceased, and only a single voice reached his ears. He told his friends, who then reconnoitred and found a youth clinging, half-drowned, to some seaweed on the rocks.

They dragged him up, and finding who lie was, intended to kill him, but the Zimshians who saved him found he belonged to the same crest brotherhood, and at great risk stood between him and their angry fellow-Zimshians. In course of time they handed him over to his father, a Haida chief, whom they met on neutral ground. Some slaves were offered as a ransom, but rejected. Thereupon a peace was made, which lasted until the pale faces came and for ever rolled away the red tide of war. Such, in brief, was the story, and the hissing was the signal made by the Haidas from their canoes to one another. The youth was the only one saved of a crew of a canoe that, unobserved by the rest, struck a sunken rock and was smashed to pieces.

"At length we readied Massett, the home of these former terrors of the North Pacific. Only about 450 of them reside there now. We had a missionary among them in 1874, and at intervals up to this date. The village stands back a little way from the beach, agate strewn, in front of which flows an arm of the sea two miles wide, extending southwards thirty miles, forming an inland sea of exquisite beauty, fringed with the largest forest trees. Standing before the houses is a serried line of magnificent trees, carved artistically with grotesque figures representing the fortunes of the family each belongs to. The Indian scholar can read from these the valorous deeds of the heroes of their nation. Behind the houses on a slight elevation, where last year I gathered delicious wild strawberries, now stands the prettiest church in the diocese. Not far off is the plainest of school-houses, and further back, embosomed in forest trees that dwarf it, stands the mission-house.

"Up went flags when I was seen approaching, and as I stepped on shore all the Haidas then in the village pressed round with the missionary to shake hands. At once three canoes were despatched to call in the people from their seal and otter hunting. For two days they paddled in the teeth of a strong westerly breeze, and even then could not meet with all. They came back, some 200 of them, on the wings of the wind. On Saturday I consecrated the pretty church. At the west entrance I was met by the principal men. The churchwardens and sidesmen carried long gilded and carved staves of their own workmanship. In the procession was a choir of thirty voices that sang an anthem in perfect time and harmony. I counted 264 Indians and six white men in the church at the consecration. Then came some churchings, seventy-two baptisms, and sixty-three persons were confirmed. There seemed to be a swarm of babies, who piped and crowed and cried, unheeded by all but myself. Lastly, I married eighteen couples. I was tired out that Saturday night, and the weariness almost banished sleep.

"Next day I preached three times, administered the Holy Communion, assisted by the missionary, to ninety communicants, and as some candidates had arrived too late for the Saturday confirmation, I held another on Sunday. The offertory amounted to $150 = £30, of which at least £20 came from the Indians. On Monday, when the three crews that had called the rest came to be paid, they received their wages, and handed it back again at once as their offering to God.

"It will prolong my letter, but I must introduce a small incident. Just at the end of the line of candidates came a young man in his workaday clothes, in marked contrast with the well-dressed multitude. He knelt before me, was confirmed, and turned back to his seat. He was barefooted, and left a track of blood along the chancel aisle.

"I had observed that a churchwarden had taken the missionary's place in marshalling the candidates, but until later was not aware that the young man had entered the church in haste, bathed in perspiration, and had appealed to the missionary in distress lest he should be passed by. He had been prepared for baptism, and the missionary, having appointed the churchwarden to his post in the chancel, took the young fellow to the font at the west end, baptized him, and was in time to present him for confirmation. The baby choruses throughout the church had barred from my ears the sound of the service proceeding as I was confirming.

"When the canoe arrived to call his comrades on the western coast he was separated from them, and did not return to the rendezvous until nightfall. He guessed the reason of its emptiness, and at daybreak set off for Massett, twenty miles distant, wore off his boots on the trackless and rocky coast, and, as I have written, reached the church in a torn and worn condition.

"I doubt not but that the heavenly gift bestowed upon him was in blessed proportion to his earnestness in seeking it.

"Foremost among the principal men was a former high-priest of Heathenism, a clever man who believed in himself. Formerly, so he told me, he held converse with demons, who would come at his call; but now angels come unbidden, and so fill his mind with bright thoughts, that he cannot help smiling, and people often ask him why he laughs when alone. He is a good druggist, draughtsman, carver, and counsellor. Better than all, and the crown of all, he is an energetic and consistent Christian.

"Only twelve years before, the first missionary to the Haidas stepped on the shore whore I was so kindly welcomed. He found Heathenism in full possession, and in the height of its degrading power over souls and bodies. For the first year the missionary, his brave wife, and their infant found shelter in the corner of one of the great Indian houses, objects of curiosity at first, then on the part of the medicine-men hostility, but now of affection and respect.

"On reaching home, the first man I mot was a Christian Indian from a village fifty miles distant, where there are only twenty-three Christians among 204 Heathen. These, under the late delusion, rose, burnt down the church, and since then made the lives of the Christians a burden to them. This man has an unconverted grown-up son, who begged his father to give him some money to pay the fees of graduating in some heathen mysteries. In a weak moment the father acceded. So deep was his sorrow that he came all the way hero for counsel. He confessed his sin; and so deep was his emotion and distress that he suddenly dropped on his knees, and continued some time in silent and apparently agonizing prayer. I was also moved by his spiritual agony. As he rose from his knees I took his cold and trembling hand and assured him that God had put away his sin. 'I have prayed so long for pardon,' he said, 'that my whole body is sick.'

"Since then he has come again with another sin on his conscience. He had been in the circle of his band sitting round the fire when the intoxicating cup was passed on. To avoid singularity and to conceal his scruples, he put the cup to his lips without drinking. 'I was a coward,' he said to me, 'and twice I have encouraged sin by my weakness, and helped the devil; but I feel happier now that I have told you.'

"Such was his simple story--the outcome of a sincere heart, self-tortured, as well as sorely tempted.

"To me it is a great delight to perceive any signs of conscience at all among the Heathen; and when it does appear, great tenderness and skill are needful to train it by gradually forming a right judgment as its groundwork. How many things we ought to lay before God! "

Journeyings such as those described in the last letter are not without their perils, and on February 25th, 1888, the Bishop had to send the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel the sad news of the death by drowning of one of their missionaries working in his diocese--the Rev. A. H. Sheldon, who was ordained by the Bishop of New Westminster in 1881.

"You will share my grief when you read that our dear brother Sheldon is drowned. Immediately after morning service on Monday he embarked in a new canoe, and set off with four Indians for Fort Simpson. Before he lost sight of his earthly home he was on the threshold of the heavenly. He was going on a forty-mile voyage, partly for medical and partly for ministerial work. About three weeks before he had gone to Fort Simpson for similar reasons. There were many sick there. You will like to know the full particulars. With Mr. Sheldon were four Indians--one the wife of the trader here, Mr. Cunningham. She was the ardent and most efficient helper of her pastor. Another, his Indian boy, about seventeen years old, who for some time was one of my youngest students. He was a good lad, named George Prevost. Besides these, were the captain of the canoe, and a young man, named Libagait Neuk, the sole survivor. The cause of the accident was a sudden gust of wind. The leverage of the mast split the canoe almost from end to end. She was a dug-out, about forty feet long and five feet beam. The water came in through the split much faster than they could bale it out, and to avoid sitting in the water both Mrs. Cunningham and Mr. Sheldon rose (this was the mistake) and sat on the thwart. No one had the presence of mind to let go the sheet. Consequently the pressure of the wind, now that the centre of gravity was so much higher, capsized the canoe, and all were in a moment immersed and struggling for dear life. The canoe was now bottom up, but the split enabled all to hold on excepting Mrs. C., who put her arms round the captain. This was the position for half an hour, when the captain lost his hold and sank; Mrs. C. soon followed him. For another hour the other three held fast, and the canoe all this time was drifting towards the shore, a mile distant at least.

"These particulars I elicited from the survivor.

"He tells me that 'Mr. Sheldon did not cry out. He only prayed for us boys. He asked the God of heaven to save us boys.' 'How do you know?' I asked--for he cannot speak English.

"'George translated for me. He said, "Listen, he is praying God to have mercy on us." '

"So was this untaught youth brought near to God in that hour of agony. He had seized a paddle that floated near, and then pressed it wedge-wise into the split that alternately opened and shut with the action of the waves. It also eased the vice-like pressure on the lingers of the others. A doubtful benefit.

"Then the survivor scrambled astride the canoe, and so was secure. Then also Mr. Sheldon's hand was withdrawn; but he did not sink at once, because he had jammed the edge of his coat in the split, and this hold him fast. He had put his hands together in his over-devout attitude of prayer. 'His eyes were shut,' said the survivor, 'he spoke not. I saw the blood on his hand, and the flesh was torn from his fingers.' This was caused by the alternate opening and closing of the split by which h held. This loss of blood, and the icy coldness of the water, probably made him almost insensible to pain.

"Then came a huge wave and washed him off. Upborne by his fur-lined coat, he floated away, half his head remaining for a long time above the water. To the last his hands were touching his face. It was George, who had also found a paddle, who gave it to his master. The survivor pulled his paddle from the, split when he saw Mr. Sheldon washed oif, and pitched it towards him. It struck his face. The youth cried out, 'Chief, chief, take the paddle--the paddle!' But he gave no sign of hearing or seeing. The noble lad who threw the paddle towards his master gave up the only means he had of saving his own life.

"Here I am in Mr. Sheldon's house, letter-writing, but sadly hindered by the company of women and old men, who think they are comforting me. Last night George's mother came in, and burst into loud wailing. It is most distressing to witness her grief. As soon as the crying was nearly spent I pointed out to her a photograph of Mr. Sheldon's mother. In a moment she became calm, and gazed upon it with pity in every feature. Her motherly heart poured sympathy on the more aged mother. It was evidently a relief to her. As if she saw her fellow-sufferer, she began to softly speak in most loving tones: 'O dear lady, your son led my son along the way to God. Both now see Jesus, see God. It is bitter to us--to you, lady, and to me--but sweet to them. Do not die, lady; only their flesh lies in the river. It is well, all is well. God's will is good. Oh (here she moaned), my heart is broken. But it is all, all well with them. The grief stays here. None gets into heaven. They are with Jesus. We suffer because they are gone, but not they. They left pain behind to us. They feel no cold, they cannot be wrecked (capsized), they see God. All is well, nothing ill, nothing wanting with Jesus. Dear lady, you look older than I am. God knows which will first see our sons, mine with bright light over him, yours near Jesus. I may first see them. Do not die, lady. You will see your son, because the mother of so holy a priest must be good.' The pathetic words and sympathetic tone of this illiterate but true Christian moved me almost to tears. They comforted me. The simplicity and faith were so evidently genuine that I was thereby helped to bear my own burden."

Project Canterbury