Project Canterbury

The Life and Work of E.J. Peck
Among the Eskimos
by the Rev. Arthur Lewis, M.A.

New York: A. C. Armstrong, 1904.

Chapter XV. Bearing Burdens

"We lose what on ourselves we spend, We have as treasure without end Whatever, Lord, to Thee we lend, Who givest all."

WE need not follow Mr. Peck in his work during the months he was permitted to spend in England. The chief thing that concerns this record of his missionary efforts is that he had brought home in manuscript the four gospels in the Eskimo language. These were printed by the Bible Society, and when he returned to Blacklead Island in the summer of 1897 he was able to place these invaluable aids to his work in the hands of the people and teach them to read them for themselves.

The Alert sailed once more early in July. The voyage was a particularly bad one. Even an old sailor like Mr. Peck was troubled with sea-sickness for days together, and the reader of his journals is inclined to think that there was a considerable amount of danger for the brave little ship that faced the Arctic seas. At last, however, on Sunday, August 22, Blacklead Island was sighted, and the next day Mr. Peck was able to land. A very warm greeting and welcome awaited him from Mr. C. G. Sampson, whose coming, as recorded in the last chapter, had enabled the senior missionary to go home the year before.

The report Mr. Sampson was able to give of the work of the past year was most encouraging, and he himself had made such progress in the language that he had been able to conduct meetings and teach the people regularly.

When Mr. Peck and Mr. Parker first went to Blacklead Island, a two-roomed hut, as was mentioned in a previous chapter, had been assigned them as a dwelling-place. Now a more commodious dwelling had been brought out, and the first work was to find a site for it and fit it together. To find a site among the rough rocks was no easy task, and the erection of the building in the absence of all skilled labour occupied the two missionaries many days, aided as they were by Eskimos only.

They were at this time working daily, in various ways, seventeen hours out of twenty-four--a fairly high pressure.

But when their nice new building was ready it was devoted to another purpose. It had been Mr. Peck's intention to move into the new abode and then adapt the old house for Church purposes. But there were so many Eskimos at this time on the island that "we have decided to use the building which was intended for our dwelling-house for a church, and later on, when we can get the house in which we are now living enlarged and properly fitted up, we shall be able (D.V.) to go to our more comfortable and capacious quarters. Certainly I cannot say that I look forward (speaking of one's own bodily comfort) with any feelings of pleasure to spending another season in a bedroom (for two) not ten feet square. There is neither room for privacy nor common decency in such a place. But these facts must not weigh against the spiritual good and comfort of the Eskimos. And Mr. Sampson and I will, through God's grace, be able to live at least for one winter in our limited quarters."

When we read an extract of this kind in any man's diary, perhaps we understand why the house occupies so prominent a position in the prohibition of the Tenth Commandment.

The opening services in this building thus freely given up were most encouraging. Mr. Noble's agent and the crew of the Alert were invited. In the morning more than a hundred Eskimos were present. In the evening about the same number gathered together and all the white men as well. "It was indeed a happy time, made so by the presence and blessing of God, and by the fact that several of the Eskimos held in their hands and read with me a portion of our Saviour's precious words from the gospels which had been printed by the Bible Society."

And so in settling down to their winter work there seemed to be a bright prospect before the missionaries.

But once more the devil showed them that he did not intend them to have things all their own way, and by his opposition he gave them the satisfaction of knowing that he considered their work a serious invasion of his own dominions.

Difficulties arose, chiefly from an unusually stormy season setting in and the consequent scarcity of provisions. Time after time we read of a "trying week," and that the people on the island were "almost starving" because they were unable to catch any seals; or again it is "no whales seen, and the outlook is anything but pleasant."

The effect of this continued bad state of things was two-fold. First, numbers of the Eskimos "moved by the powers of darkness, commenced their heathen practices again." The conjurors met together and started their incantations on behalf of fine weather. This was on a Saturday, and they kept up their ceremonies during the following Sunday, making the island "more like a pandemonium than a place where Christ's Gospel had been preached." But even this was a crisis not without its encouraging side. For the missionaries, determined that Satan should not have it all his own way, summoned the people to morning and evening services, and their hearts were rejoiced to find that many who had held aloof from their heathen neighbours, and had not bowed the knee to Baal, responded to the call. Then again a second result was that the men had to be away so much of their time, Sundays included, seeking for their bare means of subsistence, hunting seals, that they had but few opportunities of meeting together for instruction. If they did return at night they were too weary and tired for anything but to take such food as was available and turn in for a night's rest. We find frequent laments in Mr. Peck's diaries that Sunday was not better observed by those who had attached themselves to Christian teaching, but in the face of dire necessity he found it quite impossible to forbid the men going. It certainly was a case of endeavouring to pull the ox or the ass out of the pit on the Sabbath day, and the action of the hunters would come under the sanction of our Lord: "To do good on the Sabbath day is lawful."

But there is at least one note of thankfulness in this connection. On one occasion "the weather was nice and bright, and some of the men refrained from hunting so as to join us at our meetings. Thank God for this token of His help and blessing."

Great perils had at times to be faced in hunting, as we have seen in previous chapters, and generally it might be said that the greater the scarcity, the greater the danger. For naturally the men in their need would go further afield and brave all kinds of difficult positions for the sake of supplying the wants of themselves and their families.

One account is given of a party of Eskimos who arrived at Blacklead Island in a most famished condition. Their sufferings had been very great. They had travelled inland, before winter had set in, for nearly a month and succeeded in reaching a lake called Augmakruk. Here they found a considerable number of reindeer. After a time they retraced their steps to a place some little distance from the coast where they had left their boat. On the return journey they saw no reindeer, and only succeeded in keeping themselves alive by the greatest economy in using the limited supply of deer's meat they had on hand. On reaching the coast they found the ice had formed there, but it was not strong enough to bear the weight of the boat, so that they were unable to convey it at once to the open sea. It took them ten days to overcome the innumerable difficulties and launch their boat. During this time they were compelled to eat their dogs. At last, in a sorry plight, they managed to reach Blacklead Island.

At another time Mr. Peck records, "I saw two men on a piece of ice which they used as a kind of boat, and on which they made their way to a large body of ice near the island. It is by no means unusual for them--in the event of a seal being shot in the open water--to break off with their harpoons a large flat piece of ice from the main floe, and on this they make their way to the seal, often using the butt ends of their guns for paddles. As might be expected terrible accidents sometimes occur through these dangerous exploits. Several men have been carried out to sea by the force of the wind and have thus been lost."

The day following this last entry in the diary there occurs another: "A few Eskimos arrived to-day from the north. They brought sad news. No less than four of the band who left here to go to the reindeer country have been starved or frozen to death."

Hunger was not the only suffering that followed the failure of seals. Cold also was a result. "A fine day, but only one seal caught. Some of the people keep in bed all day, as they have no oil to warm their snow dwellings."

One's sympathy is called forth by these records, and one feels a great sorrow for those who eke out such a precarious existence as that of these ice-dwellers. At the same time, however, it is possible that the inhabitants have brought on themselves to some extent the trials which they have to suffer. For in a time of plenty Mr. Peck mentions in his diary that "the people seem to have got what we might almost call the seal fever. Morning, noon and night they seem to delight in slaying these creatures, and although in some cases the meat is actually rotting in their tents they go on destroying anything they can lay their hands on. I spoke to some of them pretty plainly, and pointed out their ingratitude to the Giver of every good gift."

Perhaps after this we are not very much surprised to read in a later note, "Here we find that the seals are pretty nearly exterminated."

So probably the spirit of kill, kill, kill is ingrained in man wherever he lives, south or north, west or east. Laws for the protection of the lower creation over which he is tyrant are needed universally.

It is not to be supposed that the missionaries sat all this time in their hut with their stores around them unconcerned at the sufferings of the Eskimos. We have, in the course of these pages, learned to know Mr. Peck and his colleagues better than that. If a brother or a sister were naked and destitute of daily food, they did not say, "Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled," without giving them those things that were needful for the body. They both preached and acted the Gospel.

There was plenty of use for the seeming abundance of stores that we saw in a former chapter had been laid in at the Mission station. "We made a large kettle of porridge and gave the very needy ones a good meal," is a note that seems just to introduce a coming time of distress. It becomes more serious when "a deep and soft coat of snow makes travelling about almost impossible. We did what we could by making large kettles of soup, and feeding in this manner about twenty families a day. I think the people, in some cases at least, appreciated our kindness. In any case we must do what we can for Christ. Too often we expect to be, as it were, propped up by the good wishes and gratitude of our fellow creatures. But it is wiser to look to Jesus and to do what we do for Him. He certainly never disappoints us."

Times of real anxiety were not unknown to the missionaries lest their own stock of provisions should fail. This was not at all impossible, humanly speaking. For it must always be borne in mind that their food supplies depended upon the arrival of one small sailing vessel, which had to accomplish a perilous voyage. If by any chance she failed in her mission, the season would be too far advanced with ice for any other to make the attempt. So the diary says: "We have a heavy drain on our limited stock of provisions, and altogether our surroundings are far from pleasant. However, we seek to stay our minds upon God, and to take our cares to Him."

In 1899 the danger just spoken of seemed really to threaten. In May, "the people on the island were very much in need of food. We can do little for them as we have given away nearly all our stock. The weather has been most changeable of late, and the distress is great. May the Lord in answer to prayer soon stay the winds and storms. I am, at this season, reminded often of the green fields at home. Here we see nothing but rocks and snow, and we seem to live in an everlasting winter."

August at length came, and when it was well advanced, "we are now beginning to look out for the Alert. May God keep the little vessel and bring her safely here with our supplies."

From Sunday, August 20 to August 27, almost every day "we climbed the rocks and gazed at the horizon anxiously expecting the Alert with our supplies, and news from loved ones. The poor people on the island are in a sad state. Most of them are living on the shell fish which they dig out of the sand. We can do nothing for them; our stock of provisions is exhausted." But still day after day went by so that they were almost fearing the worst. At last, however, on September 7 the joyful news was passed round that a vessel had been sighted in the distance. "We can just make out her masts. God be praised. The Lord is gracious and kind to us!" is the entry in the diary. Two days later, on September 9, the Alert was safely anchored off the island, and discharging her precious cargo.

We have seen enough to understand that altogether the second sojourn of Mr. Peck at Cumberland Sound was a time of great trial and one that called for a great amount of faith, as far as the things of this world were concerned. But we know that trials in things temporal are intended to teach us to look more away from them to the eternal. So we ask what was the progress in things spiritual during this period.

t That the people were united to the missionaries by ties of affection there could be no doubt. We have seen the farewell that they took of Mr. Peck when he was leaving for England and the love that was shown him then. We know something of the warm welcome that was invariably shown him when he visited the people in their homes and was entertained by them when on tour for days together.

We know that these cords of personal attachment must have been drawn tighter when he ungrudgingly gave out his stores of provisions for their relief in time of need. But we also know that in these closer bonds of affection and association he was always finding more and more opportunities of pressing the claims of Christ upon them. i That there was response we can see. A straw will show which way the wind blows, and so when we read of men abstaining from hunting, although the weather was favourable, in order that they might attend meetings for Christian instruction, we can infer a great deal.

Besides this, a man named Kukkak, who had been instructed first some two years previously, began in the spring of 1898 to show signs of spiritual life, he was overcome by a sense of his sin in the past, and had a desire to know more of the Saviour. Mr. Peck met him at this time during a journey to Kikkerton.

Again, at the end of April many of the men left Blacklead Island to go to the edge of the ice floe, about 18 miles distant. They were to be away some time, as the object of the expedition was to catch whales. A few words in the diary seem to bring the scene before us. "The whaling boats which were to be taken to the open sea were placed on large sledges, which were hauled along by all the dogs on the island, numbering, I should think, over one hundred. The men remain at the floe edge some two months, and should any whales be seen, they start in pursuit from the edge of the main body of ice."

But what concerns us here is that this seemed to be a point for marking progress in spiritual things. The night before the men started the meeting was very full, and the note in the diary tells us that they were most attentive, and seemed much impressed as Mr. Peck spoke to them of the power of the Lord to keep us anywhere and everywhere, and exhorted them to place their trust in Him.

Towards the end of 1898 a blow fell upon the Mission, but at the same time it was one of encouragement. For it spoke of a soul saved and trusting in Christ. Mary Ikherah was a woman who, when Mr. Peck landed in Cumberland Sound, was sunk in a most degraded life. Gradually, however, but surely she became interested in the Gospel teaching, and the Holy Spirit led her at last to the true Light. She was then always ready to help the missionaries in any way she could. But God saw fit that she should glorify Him by her death rather than by her life. Consumption set in, and she was on her death-bed. "Never shall I forget the day," writes Mr. Peck, "when Mr. Sampson and I drew near to her dying couch. Weak as she was, she tried to raise herself, and looking up in our faces, and thinking of the message of God's love which we had brought, said, 'I love you, I love you!' Yes, it is love that wins. Jesus, the greatest conqueror the world has ever known, has won all along the line by the power of His love. Has His wonderful love conquered your hearts yet? If not, why not?"

And what a picture of desolation is that which the funeral presented when the body was committed, not to the grave, but to the rocks; for there was nothing but these and big stones to be found, no soil anywhere. A rough coffin, made from old boxes and boards, had been put together by the loving hands of the missionaries, and the corpse was placed on an empty sledge. This was hauled over the snow by many of the men who had come together to the spot selected for the last resting-place. "During the morning a snowstorm had been threatening, and shortly after we started it burst out in full fury, and in the midst of the blinding drift we hurried on. The people joined me in saying the Lord's Prayer, and we then returned battling again with the furious wind and driving snow. Such a picture of gloom and desolation it is quite beyond my powers to describe. But one thought that seemed uppermost in my mind was this, Christ the King who rules over death is as real and loving and gracious here as anywhere else. It is not for the servant to question the Master's will regarding the particular post which is allotted to him. Enough for him to know that Christ is near and all must be well!"

All the people felt keenly the loss of this one who was practically the first-fruit of Cumberland Sound. It was fitting that as the first-fruit she should be given to the Lord. Mr. Peck sums up all by saying, "She being dead, yet speaketh."

By March 16, 1899, we read the encouraging note of audiences being very attentive. "I am much cheered by the improvement in some of the people who attend our meetings. God, by His Holy Spirit, is touching some hearts." A month later there is more hope. "The Word seems to lay hold of some of their hearts. Now surely the time is not far away when some will come out boldly for Christ."

But still the season of sowing the seed had to be prolonged; the time of harvest was not yet come. Mr. Peck's second sojourn at Cumberland Sound was to terminate by his starting for England on October 9. 1899, and it was not till his third sojourn was in progress that many sheaves were gathered in. His last note on this subject was written some weeks before embarking. "Many of the people," he writes, "left the station to-day. They nearly all came to see us before they left. Some seemed evidently sorry that I should be going home this year. They remarked that the words they had heard were good and true, and that they were very glad to have heard them. Certainly our work among women and children gives much encouragement."

The time of refreshing was certain to come, and the missionaries could wait in faith. When it did come, taking a retrospect of the period now under review, Mr. Peck could sum up thus: "When I went home in 1896 I took with me the four gospels in Eskimo. These were printed by the Bible Society. When I returned to Blacklead Island in the following year several of the people learned to read these precious pages. Following our usual plan of work, services were held night after night in our little church, and each gospel was expounded from beginning to end. Now the people began to realize the wonderful character of Jesus the Son of God. A picture of moral power, love and mercy stood out before them. Nothing in their old traditions or religious ideas could equal the words of truth and life which flowed from the Saviour's heart. On every hand they told me that the words they heard were good and true." But thus far the picture had only shown them the evil in their lives and excited a desire for something better. They needed some greater power than their own to enable them to cast in their lot with the crucified One.

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